At 12 years old, Pepper Snider knew something wasn’t quite right. After a bout of Mononucleosis (mono), Snider began feeling a sense of enjoyment from hunger and started to purposely restrict herself. Years later, a comment from an eighth grade classmate would put everything into focus.

“Look at that roll.”

It was the beginning of a very dangerous journey for Snider, one that would take years to diagnose as anorexia nervosa. Now, at 25 years old, Snider is fully recovered and wants others to know they are not alone in their struggle. Her mission is to help build a community of support and let other people know it is okay to ask for help.

“I was in a life or death situation,” said Snider. “I knew there was a better life out there for me, I just didn’t know when or how I would get to that point.”

A review of nearly fifty years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Between 5-20% of individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa will die.

Looking back, Snider is thankful Seattle Children’s Hospital was there to help get her on the road to recovery.

Breaking the silence

Pepper with Family

In February 2006, at 17 years old, Snider was finally able to tell someone about the battle that was raging inside of her. While receiving care at Seattle Children’s for an unrelated condition, she wrote a letter to Dr. Cora Breuner, a physician at Seattle Children’s and member of the Eating Disorders Care Team. She explained in the letter how she was feeling. It was an exercise Breuner had assigned to Snider to help her express her emotions. The letter turned out to be an urgent cry for help.

“I felt overweight,” said Snider. “I thought I needed gastric bypass surgery and that I would be an eligible candidate.”

Snider was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. It was a shock to her family, but she no longer had to suffer in silence. She started treatment immediately with Breuner.

Unexpected tragedy causes unforeseen set back

Snider was doing well receiving treatment with Breuner until tragedy struck later that year in July 2006. Snider’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer. She spiraled out of control, coupling anorexia with binge drinking.

According to NEDA, It is common for eating disorders to occur with one or more other psychiatric disorders, which can complicate treatment and make recovery more difficult. Among those who suffer from eating disorders alcohol and other substance abuse disorders are 4 times more common than in the general populations. Her situation began to look dire. It was an outlook that Breuner had seen before.

Pepper with Father

“A former patient of mine died from an eating disorder,” said Breuner. “She transitioned into the adult world and tragically passed away from kidney failure. It’s one of the reasons I’m so meticulous in providing unwavering care for others with eating disorders. She’s a profound driver for me when helping others. I don’t want the memory of her to go away.”

Struggling toward recovery

Snider left for college, but continued to receive treatment both on campus and through visits with Breuner.

“It is a team effort to get these kids better,” said Breuner. “Like any chronic, severe illness, you have to get a team to help with the patient and their family – social support, psychotherapy, medical treatment and nutrition therapy.”

She continued to struggle with anorexia and binge drinking while away at college. It was a potentially life-threatening combination that landed Snider in several different treatment programs. Since Snider was 18 years old, she sought care at adult facilities. Little by little, she began to recover, with the help of the treatment programs.

Obtaining the unthinkable

In 2010, Snider accomplished what seemed unreachable; she was fully recovered.

Two years later, Pepper’s father passed away. It would have been simple to fall back into her old habits, but Snider stood strong for her father.

“Watching my dad suffer through cancer and watching him pass away was difficult,” said Snider. “I’m happy he was able to see me free from my eating disorder for three years. I had a choice to get better. He didn’t. It inspired me to look at life as very precious.”

Advocating for others

Pepper SniderToday, Snider has been in recovery for four years. She admits that some days are better than others, for her it’s hard to remember a time before her eating disorder, but that’s why she think it’s so important to advocate for awareness and support.

“From experience, I know it’s frustrating and difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Snider. “I would have never dreamed in a million years when I had my eating disorder that I would be here. So many things were stacked against me. I knew life could be better though and now that I’m on this side I feel amazing.”

Snider is currently studying psychology and dreams of becoming a therapist. She also participates in events to raise awareness for eating disorders.

Connecting with the community

On June 14, 2014, Snider will be attending the fourth annual Seattle NEDA Walk. She’ll be speaking, along with Breuner and Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008.

“I want to help to provide community and support,” said Snider. “Recovery is possible. It seems like an arduous and daunting thing, but you can recover. We’re all in this together, that’s what I love about the NEDA Walk. We’re helping to end a stigma, letting people know that it’s okay to admit to they’re struggling.”

Resources: