"She was not bullied in any way," says Lacey Smarr's mom

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer
Updated March 10, 2015 05:25 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Candace Miller

Candace Miller wants to set the record straight.

Her daughter Lacey Smarr, who died on Feb. 2 of complications related to an eating disorder, was not a victim of body-shaming by her peers as some outlets have reported.

“She was not bullied in any way,” Miller tells PEOPLE. “Everybody loved Lacey.”

The Longview, Texas, teen collapsed of heart failure a day after her 15th birthday.

In less than six months, the 5’2″ high school freshman went from about 124 lbs. to 98 lbs. at her lowest weight.

News outlets reported Lacey had developed an eating disorder because someone made fun of her volleyball shorts in the spring of 2014. And while Smarr did look curvy in her new Spandex shorts – “Her best friend was playing around, like ‘Oooh, you’re getting a booty,’ ” says Miller – the truth is more complicated.

“For as long as I can remember, even when she was a little girl, she would talk about going on a diet,” says Miller, who works as an eatery manager.

A more recent incident may have triggered her daughter’s insecurities. “In July we were at the drugstore and a lady said to Lacey, ‘That can’t be your mom. You’re bigger than her.’ Although the lady meant Lacey was taller than me, I saw the look in Lacey’s eyes – Lacey thought she was saying she was fatter than me.”

Right after that, her daughter stopped eating. “It got to the point where I would have to take her cell phone away from her and say you can have it back after you eat.”

But Miller didn’t see signs of a deeper problem. For one thing, her daughter’s demeanor remained the same. “I never knew what I did to deserve such a well-mannered, well-behaved teenager.” She would do nice things for people, like help a neighbor’s son get ready for school in the early morning hours because his mom had to leave at 5:30 a.m. for work.

At the end of the summer she started training with her stepfather James Miller as he prepared for an athletic competition. They ran two miles, six days a week. Smarr lost about 8 to 10 lbs., her mom estimates.

She also started consuming a lot more food. “She ate like a horse,” says Miller. “She would eat from the time she woke up to the time she went to bed. She would even get up in the middle of the night. It was all healthy – mostly fruits and vegetables – but she was eating us out of house and home.”

Miller figured she was just fueling her new workout regimen. But in October Smarr passed out and fell to the floor in the middle of a conversation. She was taken to Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview, where doctors said dangerously low potassium levels had caused an irregular heartbeat. Miller didn’t understand how a girl who ate nonstop could be lacking in nutrients. That’s when it hit her: Could her daughter be making herself throw up?

She brought up the possibility to the medical staff at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, where Smarr was transferred to undergo psychiatric and medical evaluation. Despite being supervised for every meal, Smarr vomited for five days straight. But according to Miller, she seemed to be throwing up without “making” herself.

Eventually the doctors tried an ulcer medication. She was able to keep food down and was sent home a few days later, weighing under 100 lbs. Smarr seemed to regain her appetite and even put on a few pounds. The ulcer prescription seemed to be working, and Miller thought they were in the clear.

A few months later, Smarr turned 15. She ate at least seven times on her birthday.

The next day she said she did not feel well. Miller spoke to her by phone and asked if she needed to go to the doctor. “She said, ‘No mama, I’m sleepy.’ ” Eight minutes later she got a call from her husband saying Smarr had no pulse.

Looking back is difficult for Miller. “When she first passed I was like, ‘What did I do wrong? Where did I fail my daughter that she felt like she had to make herself throw up?’ Then I realized it was a mental illness.”

Miller has started the Lacey Smarr Foundation to help educate people about eating disorders. “I have learned a lot since this happened. Most states – Texas included – do not require medical professionals to be trained in recognizing eating disorders. I feel like if people were required to be trained in this, my daughter’s story might have a different ending. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the doctors. If I blame them I’ve got to blame myself, because I missed it, too.”