My history with eating disorders started when I was just 12. I was a middle school cheerleader. I had always been smaller than my classmates — shorter, skinnier, and petite. In seventh grade, though, I started to develop. I was gaining inches and pounds all over my new body. And I didn’t exactly have an easy time dealing with these changes while wearing a short skirt in front of the entire school at pep rallies.

My disorder began with restricting my food intake. I’d try to skip breakfast and barely eat lunch. My stomach would roll and growl all day long. I remember being embarrassed if the classroom was quiet enough for others to hear the rumbling. Inevitably, I’d return home in the afternoon after cheerleading practice absolutely ravenous. I’d binge on whatever I could find. Cookies, candy, chips, and all other sorts of junk food.

These episodes of binging got more and more out of control. I continued eating less during the day and then more than making up for it in the evenings. Several years passed, and my eating habits fluctuated. I had never even considered throwing up until I saw a Lifetime movie about a girl who had bulimia. The process seemed so easy. I could eat whatever I wanted and however much I wanted, and then just get rid of it with a simple flush of the toilet.

The first time I purged was when I was in 10th grade after eating half of a tub of chocolate ice cream. That’s not surprising, as most cases of bulimia start in women in their late teens to early 20s. It wasn’t even hard to do. After I had gotten rid of the offending calories, I felt lighter. I don’t just mean that in the physical sense of the word, either.

You see, bulimia became a sort of coping mechanism for me. It ended up not being so much about food as it did about control. I was dealing with a lot of stress later on in high school. I had started touring colleges, I was taking the SATs, and I had a boyfriend who cheated on me. There were lots of things in my life that I just wasn’t able to manage. I’d binge and get a rush from eating so much food. Then I’d get an even bigger, better rush after getting rid of it all.

Nobody seemed to notice my bulimia. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything. At one point during my senior year of high school, I got down to just 102 pounds on my nearly 5’7 frame. By the time I reached college, I was binging and purging daily. There were so many changes that came along with moving away from home, taking college courses, and dealing with life mostly on my own for the first time.

Sometimes I’d complete the binge-purge cycle multiple times a day. I remember going on a trip to New York City with some friends and desperately looking for a bathroom after eating too much pizza. I remember being in my dorm room after eating a box of cookies and waiting for the girls down the hall to stop primping in the bathroom so I could purge. It got to the point where I wouldn’t really binge, either. I’d purge after eating normal-sized meals and even snacks.

I would go through good periods and bad periods. Sometimes weeks or even several months would go by when I’d barely purge at all. And then there’d be other times — usually when I had added stress, like during finals — when bulimia would rear its ugly head. I remember purging after breakfast before my college graduation. I remember having a very bad period of purging while looking for my first professional job.

Again, it was often about control. Coping. I couldn’t control everything in my life, but I could control this one aspect.

While the long-term effects of bulimia aren’t completely known, complications may include anything from dehydration and irregular periods to depression and tooth decay. You may develop heart issues, like an irregular heartbeat or even heart failure. I remember blacking out upon standing quite often during my bad periods of bulimia. Looking back, it seems incredibly dangerous. At the time, I was unable to stop myself despite being afraid about what it was doing to my body.

I eventually confided in my now-husband about my eating issues. He encouraged me to speak with a doctor, which I only did briefly. My own path to recovery was long because I tried doing much of it on my own. It ended up being two steps forward, one step back.

It was a slow process for me, but the last time I purged was when I was 25. Yes. That’s 10 years of my life literally down the drain. The episodes were infrequent by then, and I had learned some skills to help me deal better with stress. For example, I now run regularly. I find that it boosts my mood and helps me work through things that are bothering me. I also do yoga, and have developed a love of cooking healthy foods.

The thing is, the complications of bulimia go beyond the physical. I can’t get back the decade or so I spent in the throes of bulimia. During that time, my thoughts were consumed with binging and purging. So many important moments of my life, like my prom, my first day of college, and my wedding day, are tainted with memories of purging.

If you’re dealing with an eating disorder, I encourage you to seek help. You don’t have to wait. You can do it today. Don’t let yourself live with an eating disorder for another week, month, or year. Eating disorders like bulimia are often not just about losing weight. They also revolve around issues of control or negative thoughts, like having a poor self-image. Learning healthy coping mechanisms can help.

The first step is admitting to yourself that you have a problem and that you want to break the cycle. From there, a trusted friend or doctor can help you get on your way to recovery. It’s not easy. You may feel embarrassed. You may be convinced you can do it on your own. Stay strong and seek help. Don’t make my mistake and fill your memory book with reminders of your eating disorder instead of the truly important moments in your life.

Here are some resources for getting help with an eating disorder: