by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
March 21, 2015 12:00 PM

Awkward star Ashley Rickards opens up about a very personal struggle in her new book, A Real Guide to Getting It Together Once and For All.

The actress, 22, reveals she has suffered from eating disorders since the age of 7, when she first began overeating. Her situation got worse when a neighbor made a comment about her weight when she was 9.

“I was chubby, and a neighbor of mine said, ‘We don t need to go to Krispy Kreme, you’ve got a jelly roll right there!’ ” Rickards tells PEOPLE. “This sort of dysmorphic idea of myself is still in my head. I’m still that girl. I still feel like that in a swimsuit.”

Moving to Los Angeles at the age of 13 only perpetuated her disordered eating habits.

“It’s definitely rampant in this town,” she says. “It became a lifestyle choice rather than a disorder. You’d go out with your friends all day long, and nobody is like, ‘Why aren’t we eating?’ We’re not eating because we have to have our rib cages showing.”

Rickards hit a low point while filming an early season of Awkward.

“I purged a lot one day and I got dizzy,” she says. “I didn’t know what was happening. I was shaking and I was sweating. I was cold, and I couldn’t keep anything down. I was nauseous. I thought I was going to pass out, so I called 9-1-1.”

At the hospital, doctors recognized signs of an eating disorder and encouraged Rickards to seek help. But she didn’t.

“Even that wasn’t enough to scare me into stopping completely,” Rickards admits. “I really had to meet people who were open about their own struggles, and I had to open up to my cast members and talk about it with them. I had to talk about it with my therapist and work on it from a clinical angle, because it’s a psychological thing, too.”

The MTV star is still recovering from what she calls a “monster eating disorder” but manages it through routine, healthy eating and finding exercise she loves (she’s a big fan of kickboxing and Bikram yoga).

“Day to day, it’s really the foundational part of a morning routine,” she says. “I meditate, I do my affirmations, and I try to work out – and that helps me a lot.”

She hopes her book will help other women who are also battling these diseases.

“I wanted girls to know it’s a very real thing and it comes in so many shapes and sizes,” Rickards says. “I wanted to raise awareness about it because it’s sort of a taboo subject. I don’t want anyone to have to feel alone when they’re in that sort of dark, secretive world.”

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