Mary Schneider knew her daughter needed help.
Twenty-year-old Ashley Schneider wasn't eating. She was obsessing over exercise and losing too much weight too fast. Her health was noticeably declining.
"I knew she had a problem," Mary said, her voice soft.
Ashley knew she had a problem too, but she wasn't talking about it with anyone. Unable to watch her daughter decline any further, Mary scheduled an appointment with her doctor last summer and falsely told Ashley it was only a routine checkup.
That intervention would become a turning point for Ashley, who is now on the road to recovery from an eating disorder that controlled years of her life.
"I was in the office with my mom, and she was bawling her eyes out," Ashley said. "That was the turning point for me. I remember the doctor saying, 'You can't keep going like this. You eventually will not be here.'"
Ashley began recovery in August, right before she returned to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for her sophomore year. She'll be running the Eau Claire Half Marathon in May to raise funds and awareness for others struggling with an eating disorder.
Ashley's issues surrounding weight and image started on the playground. The Eau Claire native was overweight her whole childhood, she said, and her weight was something other children levied against her.
Ashley said she has a specific memory of playing cherry bomb - a playground game - with a group of other kids when she was in second or third grade.
"This girl looked at me and said, 'You're just really fat and ugly, and no guy will ever like you,'" Ashley said. "That always stuck with me."
As she grew older, Ashley heard adults all around her talking about diets. She tried her first fad diets in fourth and fifth grade.
When she was a sophomore in high school, Ashley said, she tried her hand at healthy weight loss. She ate well and joined her high school's swimming team. For a while that effort paid off - she said she lost 30 pounds over the course of two years.
College was a different story.
"He takes over"
When Ashley talks about her eating disorder, she often refers to it as a separate entity from herself. It's like being in an abusive relationship with another person, she said.
"Ed, he takes over," Ashley said. "He says these things constantly like you're not enough. That (weight) isn't enough. He had such control over me that I would weigh myself at least 20 times a day."
That abusive force came in full swing when she started college and her healthy weight loss was plateauing. Without her family, who live in Eau Claire, immediately surrounding her, Ashley said she began skipping meals and spending hours at the gym.
She started abusing laxatives to lose more pounds. She withheld water to the point of blacking out for 30 seconds or more whenever she stood up.
One day, when Ashley ran 10 miles in preparation for a half-marathon, she ate two sandwiches for lunch instead of one. In a panic, she returned to the gym and ran seven miles more.
Her tactics were working - Ashley's weight plummeted dangerously over the course of a year. By the time her mother scheduled the doctor's appointment last summer, Ashley said her digestive system was dependent on her laxative abuse.
Her family noticed a difference in Ashley that wasn't only physical.
"These past two years, she's not been the same," her brother, Michael, 24, said. "She was always crabby. She just wasn't herself, but she's getting a lot better."
Road to Recovery
Ashley said she hates what her eating disorder did to her but hates more what it did to her family.
Her disorder means her family constantly worries about her - whether she's eating well, or if she's doing OK at college. However, Ashley and her family say the recovery process makes them a closer unit.
"I cried and I cried," Mary said of the intervention she set up for Ashley at the doctor's office. "And then we just started talking. Later on, she thanked me for taking her there because she needed help.
"It's been hard on me as a parent, seeing your baby (struggle)," Mary said. "But I keep telling her I'm proud of her, that she's my sunshine and she's beautiful."
In some ways Ashley still does struggle, she said.
Ashley fought through a series of relapses the first couple of months of her current year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The sophomore studying elementary and special education said she still hears ED's voice in her head sometimes, telling her to keep shedding pounds she doesn't need to lose.
"Reaching recovery and being in that process," she said, "I'm realizing (ED's voice) isn't the road to happiness."
As a milestone in her recovery process, Ashley and her family point to Easter as the "best holiday in a long time" because she could eat carefree.
"She realizes that she doesn't have to be alone," Michael said of his sister's journey. "There are always people here to help."
Love for Running
On Ashley's bedroom door, a series of post-it notes remind her to take control of her life.
"Food is fuel, your body needs fuel," one post-it says. Two more say "Tell ED he's not in control today" and "Tell ED this is your life, not his."
Also in her room is an exercise schedule she created in conjunction with her doctors. An example day might include yoga at 8:30 a.m. and cycling at 10 a.m. Another day might include a 5-mile run. The idea, she said, is to know exactly what she needs to do that day and not overwork herself.
That strict schedule is worth it for someone who wants to maintain a healthy relationship with running and other exercise.
"I love to run," Ashley said. "It frees my mind. I don't even think when I'm running - it brings me so much happiness.
"I remember running the Eau Claire half last year," she continued. "It's such a fun race. I knew that I would be missing out on something I really enjoy if I didn't run it again."
Ashley will join more than 4,500 other runners on Sunday, May 6, at the Eau Claire Marathon races. That's a larger number than last year, co-director Emily Uelmen said.
She said it's common for runners to have a cause or a reason behind their race participation.
"We don't hear all the stories, but I would say that probably over half our runners have some kind of a story," Uelmen said. "I think there's always something behind why people run."
Ashley is running to raise funds for the National Eating Disorders Association - that fundraiser is available at bit.ly/2qGjzAF.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. To those people Ashley is also hoping to spread the message that they can make it through recovery, and they don't have to do it alone.
Ashley urged people to think about the power of their words.
"Be kind to everyone," she said. "To sit there and point out flaws is not OK. Point out beauty."
That starts with herself.
Each morning, the 20-year-old wakes up and recites the same mantra: "You are strong. You are kind. You are beautiful. You are enough."
by Lauren French