How Jake saved Kacey from life-threatening eating disorders
In fact, the eating disorder that brought Kacey Cramer to the brink of death nearly 10 years ago was founded in a self-loathing that had little to do with the stick-thin models on magazine covers to which eating disorders are often linked.
But after hitting rock bottom and ultimately finding solace from an unexpected source — a horse named Jake — Cramer lived to tell and raise awareness about the disease that plagued her for 16 years.
Kacey was only 14 when she began restricting her food intake.
“It really had nothing to do with body image for me — I was actually made fun of for being underweight as a kid, and I hated it,” Cramer said. “Restricting my food was a way of punishing myself and reinforcing a self-hatred that stemmed originally from my parents' divorce.”
Cramer said she blamed herself as a young child for her parents' divorce and that restricting food was a way of reconciling those feelings of guilt.
“Not eating was what made sense to me, to control the pain I was feeling and avoid those emotions,” she said. “It was never that I thought I was fat.”
When Cramer turned 21, her struggle with anorexia nervosa (more commonly “anorexia,” characterized by severely restricting the consumption of food) escalated to an even more dangerous form of disordered eating. She began to purge the little food she allowed into her body.
“It took an incredible physical toll,” she said. “After about eight years of living that way, I was 29 years old and essentially going through menopause. I was barely even alive.”
In December 2002, Cramer's family and now-husband, Michael, staged an intervention. But Cramer's body had already so deteriorated that doctors said she might not even be healthy enough to make the flight to an Arizona treatment center.
“There had been times I had almost died from this disease, but this was the point when it finally hit me,” Cramer said. “The doctors told me I was days away from a heart attack and so malnourished I would have to have a feeding tube. I just couldn't handle the guilt of what my death would do to my family, so I finally agreed to get help.”
After she stabilized at Remuda Ranch Treatment Center in Arizona, Cramer found the four-legged healer she attributes with saving her life, Jake, through the center's equine therapy program.
“Jake loved me unconditionally, in a way that I couldn't feel loved by the people in my life,” she said. “And he allowed me to love him back. I didn't feel fat or ugly around him — we were just there for each other, and I could trust him.”
Jake would be the first of three horses that led Cramer to become an equine therapist at Horse Sense of the Carolinas in Marshall. She joined Eliada Homes of Asheville as the director of therapeutic animal stewardship in 2005 but has stepped down to become a veterinary technician.
“At this point I just know that I have to be with horses to live a full life and to keep myself from relapsing,” Cramer said. “I've found what brings me joy, and I want others to find that, too.”
“This is one of the most complex disorders we've ever seen,” said Elizabeth Pavka, a holistic nutritionist and eating disorder specialist in Asheville. “And the frightening part is that we're seeing it in younger and younger people every day.”
According to a survey by the National Eating Disorders Association, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
“The foundation laid for an eating disorder starts at an early age — that's why we need parents and teachers to recognize what unhealthy body image and eating disorders look like,” said Sadie Carlson, clinical director of Tapestry Treatment Center in Brevard.
“We find ways to help people after they've developed this disease,” Carlson said. “But ultimately we hope that we can prevent it before they reach the level of sickness that brings them here. Eating disorders cost a lot of lives.”
Along with the events open to the public, THE Center will also train teachers on a movement-based activities that are used to promote a positive self-image among middle school girls.
Although Cramer will continue to fight a lifelong health battle against the lasting repercussions of more than a decade of disordered eating, she believes firmly that finding joy — equine or otherwise — can save the lives of others suffering from eating disorders.
“For me, it was a horse, but that could be art, dance, yoga, knitting, sewing,” Cramer said. “There's no talking someone out of hating themselves and abusing their bodies — it's about whatever gets you out of your head and builds that confidence within yourself. Life is so worth living, and finding that something worth living for is what it's all about.”