“Honestly, I never thought I would never tell anyone that I had an eating disorder,” the country singer, 22, tells PEOPLE. “It was my deepest, darkest secret. My dad didn’t know.”
Part of the reason she decided to open up about her struggle was to be a voice for anyone else who might be quietly suffering.
“There are so many people who have eating disorders or who body shame themselves every day or have some sort of insecurity, and I feel like I have a direct reach to some of those people,” she says. “When I finally healed, I wanted to help other people heal, because it’s a trap. It’s a horrible place to be in. You feel alone and you feel like no one understands. I decided to speak out because I wanted people to feel like there’s someone else out there that’s had to deal with it.”
Alaina had a disordered relationship with food as early as 11 years old, when she began purging if she thought she ate too much during a meal. After appearing on American Idol at age 15, her eating disorder grew more severe; being in the public eye led to more scrutiny of her appearance.
“There were blogs that called me Miss Piggy,” she says. “It’s a really hard thing to see as a teenager, especially when you already have problems. Reading what people had to say about me online definitely made it worse. People can be vicious. It got so bad that [I was throwing up after] every meal. For a solid two to three years, I was very, very sick. It got to the point where my hair fell out.”
Even when Alaina started losing her hair, it didn’t alarm her enough to get help. That didn’t happen until she learned bulimia could end her singing career.
“Honestly, I don’t know that I would’ve gotten better if it hadn’t affected my vocal cords,” she admits. “I had really bad polyps on my vocal cords, and I’ve had them since I was a kid, but the bulimia made it 10 times worse. They were bleeding constantly and it was straining on my voice. And just the lack of nutrition — my vocal cords couldn’t keep up because I was so unhealthy.”
Her doctor told her if she did not get help, she would never be able to sing again.
“That was the first time it clicked for me,” she says. “It wasn’t my hair falling out, it wasn’t my bones sticking out too much — it was my voice. When they told me that my voice was going to go away, that really got to me. Had I not gotten better, I may not have this album now, I may not have this music. I can’t even imagine. I don’t know what I would do.”
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Alaina sought treatment at 18, and spent the next two years rebuilding her self-confidence.
“I took some time off from working out, because I had to learn to love myself before I could do things to improve myself,” she says. “I gained quite a bit of weight in the time, trying to get to where I felt like I could handle it again.”
Over the last two years, she has been easing herself into a healthy fitness and diet routine.
“I had to replace all of my bad habits with healthy ones, which took a while,” she says. “I started cutting out sweets and carbs and exercising, and finding things to do in the gym that I enjoyed. I baby-stepped my way into it. I started out walking on the treadmill, and now I sprint on the treadmill.”
Alaina currently follows the Atkins diet — though she doesn’t deprive herself and will “cheat” when she has a craving — and meets with a trainer three to four times a week.
“I feel way better,” she says. “Everyone has to find what makes them feel better, and that just happens to be what works for me.”
For anyone struggling with their own body image issues or an eating disorder, Alaina’s best advice is to learn to treat yourself with kindness.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’ve got to take care of yourself,” she says. “We will say things to ourselves that we would never in a million years say to another human being, and that’s not fair because we’re human beings too. You’re the only you you have, so you have to be good to yourself. When you’re not good to yourself, you’re not good to others. And if you need help, get it — it’s worth it.”