"It was a constant, unattainable pursuit of perfection," says Dena Larsen-Gazeley

By Gabrielle Olya
Updated July 25, 2016 10:20 AM
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Dom Gazeley Photography

From the time she was 8 years old, Dena Larsen-Gazeley struggled with disordered eating.

“It began as a habit of overeating,” Larsen-Gazeley, now 44, tells PEOPLE. “At 8 years old, I realized I was bigger and taller than all the other girls my age, and I began to feel uncomfortable in my body. There was this emptiness inside me that I would attempt to fill with food.”

Larsen-Gazeley binged on bowls of cereal, entire packages of cookies and cartons of ice cream, and continued to have compulsive eating habits until she was 21.

“Food was my drug,” says the Arizona-based mother of four. “The habit of overeating eventually became an addiction. I was using food to try and control the emptiness that I had inside me, and it turned where the food had control of me. It was something that I couldn’t stop.”

By the time Larsen-Gazeley graduated from the University of Southern California, she was obese.

“I hated it,” she says. “I could control everything else – my academics were great, my friends were great. I had everything I ever wanted, but I could not control my body.”

After college, Larsen-Gazeley moved to Mexico as a Rotary scholar, and with no one keeping tabs on her eating, she began restricting herself to 700 calories a day to lose weight. She also began over-exercising.

“The weight continued to come off until I had lost 100 lbs.,” she says. “I swung from one end of the pendulum – compulsive eating and binging – to the other extreme – anorexia. The fear of food and of calories and of gaining weight was so extreme.”

When she moved back home, Larsen-Gazeley got back into her binge eating habits, but began to purge through vomiting and exercise to prevent weight gain. She even became a fitness instructor so that she could work out all day.

“It was never good enough, and it was never going to be good enough,” she says. “It was a constant, unattainable pursuit of perfection.”

Larsen-Gazeley and her then-husband had their first son in 2001. She continued to binge and purge throughout the pregnancy.

“When I got pregnant I told myself, I am not going to hurt myself, I am not going to restrict,” she says. “In my mind, if I didn’t diet, then I wasn’t going to hurt my baby. I allowed myself to compulsive eat and binge. I exercised as much as I could.”

“I didn’t realize until nine years later in treatment that purging and vomiting through my pregnancy was an abnormal behavior,” she says. “I was in that bulimic cycle through all four of my pregnancies. I am extremely blessed that I had four pregnancies and four healthy births, even though I was acting out in behaviors that could definitely have impacted both my health and the health of my babies.”

Dr. Dena Cabrera, clinical director at the Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders and author of Mom in the Mirror, says that women with eating disorders can indeed harm themselves and their children if they continue with their unhealthy behaviors during pregnancy.

“Every body is different, but it definitely could be putting the pregnancy at risk,” says Cabrera. “Those that are pregnant with eating disorders have a higher rate of miscarriages and there are more medical complications with the pregnancy.”

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Fortunately, Larsen-Gazeley did not have any complications with any of her pregnancies. As soon as she was able to get back into the gym after each baby, she was back to her compulsive behaviors.

“I was a stay-at-home mom and never put my children in daycare, but I would leave them for the maximum amount of hours at the gym daycare,” she says. “My kids were being cheated out of having a mom who was available to them mentally, emotionally and physically.”

In 2008, after having her fourth child, Larsen-Gazeley landed in the hospital with damage to her liver and kidneys. (It was unclear what caused her health issues, as she was mixing weight loss pills with high amounts of caffeine, was over-exercising, and not consuming enough calories, all which may have been a factor.)

After speaking to the hospital psychiatrist, she was diagnosed with a severe eating disorder and told to enter inpatient treatment immediately.

“I had been treated for anxiety and depression, but no one had ever questioned or mentioned eating disorders,” she says.

Larsen-Gazeley did not think she had an eating disorder, but her husband told her if she did not go to treatment, there would be no hope for their marriage.

“That was the ultimate ultimatum,” she says. “In my mind I wasn’t sick, but when he said that, I knew that I had to go to save my marriage.”

The substitute teacher entered the Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders for treatment in January 2011.

“It was in that first week that I realized that I not only had an eating disorder since I was 8 years old, but that there were so many other personality qualities that I had – my obsessive nature, my compulsion, my need for control, my rage – I started to understand that those traits are not normal, and that I didn’t have to live like that for the rest of my life,” she says.

Two weeks into her treatment, Larsen-Gazeley’s husband filed for divorce.

“He was the last one on my list,” admits Larsen-Gazeley. “My eating disorder came first, my children came second, and he came last. Ed, my eating disorder, was my number one love.

Despite the emotional setback, Larsen-Gazeley remained in treatment for 10 weeks.

“It’s hard when they’ve been entrenched in their eating disorder for so long because it becomes habitual,” explains Cabrera. “In treatment, we try to break that cycle by giving them other coping mechanisms, and try to separate them from their triggers. We also try to get to the underlying issues to give them relief and treat them particularly.”

Now five-and-a-half years out of treatment, Larsen-Gazeley remains committed to her recovery.

“I see my dietitian every two weeks. I need that support, and I recognize that,” she says. “The changes that are taking place, I could never have imagined five years ago.”