When the pandemic sent Miranda Snyder home from her Maine college in March, she felt herself heading down a familiar and dangerous path.
"I just completely lost a sense of what I could control — what I was actually contributing to anything if I wasn't having these regular interactions with my professors and my peers and my coursework," the 21-year-old from Brimfield recalls. "So I leaned into the familiarity of my eating disorder more intensely than I ever had before, since eighth grade."
Snyder remembers one day she was attending her contemporary literature class at University of Maine via Zoom. She had her camera off and her microphone muted, and her mind wandered.
"I was scrolling through recipes on, like, the 10th page of Google about baking recipes and even looking at the menu of restaurants, about food that I would dream to eat," Snyder says.
During the pandemic, advocates say more people have struggled with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. The National Eating Disorders Association says its Helpline saw a 94% increase in calls and messages from March through September compared to the same time last year.
Snyder's eating disorder started when she was 13. She says she obsessively compared her appearance to that of her peers. That first led to her doing a lot of workouts and facials. Then things got worse. She started measuring out small servings of food and doing compulsive stomach crunches on her bathroom floor after meals.
"I was just so painfully sick of constantly thinking about food, constantly planning out my meals in relation to the movement I would engage in that day."Miranda Snyder
She entered an outpatient anorexia recovery program. But she says after the treatment, she was only "quasi-recovered" and remained that way until this past spring. She told her friends and parents she needed professional help again.
"I was just so painfully sick of constantly thinking about food, constantly planning out my meals in relation to the movement I would engage in that day," she says.
She enrolled in a virtual partial hospitalization program run by Walden Behavioral Care, an eating disorders treatment organization that has been based out of Boston Children's Hospital at Waltham for the past 17 years.
The founder, president and CEO — clinical psychologist Stuart Koman — says Walden has seen a 50% increase in patient inquiries this year over last.
"Generally speaking, we would run about 70 evaluations a week," he says. "We are now well into the hundred and hundred-plus evaluations a week."
In the midst of the spike in demand, Walden opened a long-planned treatment center in Dedham on Wednesday: the Walden Behavioral Care Center for Recovery.
With 82 beds, Walden claims to be the largest freestanding eating disorders treatment facility in the country. The building has intensive hospital floors and a residential unit. A lot of the therapy patients do focuses on preparing and consuming food.
"Every person has three meals and three snacks a day," Koman explains. "And you have staff who work with patients to make sure they're able to get through the meal."
The treatment center will serve patients as young as 11. And Koman points out they come from all walks of life. For some people, not having money to eat sufficiently — an increasing problem in the pandemic — can spark an unhealthy relationship with food.
"It might be the first time that they've experienced food insecurity," he says. "And now all of a sudden they find themselves doing things that they've never done before, and sort of embracing restriction and embracing the way of an eating disorder because they think it's somehow best for the family."
Leaders of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) say social distancing has created the perfect breeding ground for compulsive behaviors around food.
"We know eating disorders thrive in isolation," says Claire Mysko, the organization's CEO.
"A lot of what we're hearing is that people are feeling very alone and trying to navigate this situation where they feel a tremendous amount of anxiety. We know that eating disorders are very closely linked to trauma, to anxiety, to depression," she says.
Even though people feel alone, Mysko says she wants them to know there is help.
"We knew even before the pandemic hit that cost and geography were huge barriers for people to access care," she says. "And many treatment providers have shifted their services to to be available virtually."
"We know eating disorders thrive in isolation."Claire Mysko, NEDA CEO
In the virtual treatment Miranda Snyder did in the spring, she ate meals with her fellow patients and met with her counselor, dietician and nurse practitioner on Zoom. She did intensive journaling on her own. She says she feels more recovered than ever before.
Snyder thinks back to earlier in the pandemic, when she would work out or move her body for hours every day — to try to burn more calories.
"But now I feel free. I move when I want to, in ways that are joyful for me," she says. "The most interesting thing about my life is no longer food and exercise. I realize and know my worth."
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Hotline at 1-800-931-2237, or you can text NEDA to 741-741.
This segment aired on October 21, 2020.