To hear Lorelai Symmes describe her childhood is to peer into the life of a typical American family. The daughter of two U.S. Naval Academy graduates, Lauren and Mark, she grew up in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Severna Park, Maryland, with her younger brother and sister. The Symmes’ days were filled with the busy yet fulfilling juggling act familiar to many families: shuttling kids to their various commitments, balanced with Lauren and Mark’s work schedules. They looked forward to coming back together in the evenings for family dinners, bedtime stories when the kids were younger, or relaxing together in front of a television show in recent years.
And if that TV time occasionally devolved into sibling spats over the remote, or mom and dad were too tired for bedtime stories, then that was alright. According to Lauren, it was all part of the messy, beautiful thing called “family.” Lauren will be the first to tell you it wasn’t a perfect life, but it was a full life. Above all, Lorelai and her siblings knew they were loved.
Young Lorelai thrived in this happy setting. As the first-born of two Navy officers, it is not surprising that she became known for her determination at a young age. Thankfully, Lorelai’s strong will has always been tempered by her sunny and charming personality, which easily endears her to anyone she meets. Given these traits, combined with her intelligence and a dash of perfectionism, it is no wonder that Lorelai always achieved the high expectations she set for herself.
Determined to Be Perfect
While still in elementary school, Lorelai began applying these high standards to her physical appearance, especially her weight. “I became aware of my weight in second grade,” says Lorelai. “By fourth grade, I was already dieting. I was constantly worrying about my weight, but no one really knew about it. I’ve always had an obsessive personality and was body checking all the time.” By middle school, Lorelai began skipping breakfast and “forgetting” her lunch at home. These controlling behaviors were exacerbated when a relationship that Lorelai developed with a boy she met on social media went drastically wrong: He sexually assaulted her at school. Compounding the traumatic event, the boy called Lorelai the “f-word”—fat.
This unlocked Lorelai’s eating disorder that had long been living under the surface. It became a devious, sneaky internal voice that took over and told Lorelai that she wasn’t skinny enough, wasn’t trying hard enough, and wasn’t worth it. Success was defined by perfectly obeying the voice’s demands. The celebrated determination that helped Lorelai succeed at anything she set her mind to was now weaponized and turned inward toward appeasing the beast inside of her mind. All that mattered was restricting, purging, and reducing. Nothing else was important anymore: not the hobbies Lorelai previously enjoyed, not her family, not her happiness, and not even her life.
And yet during this time, despite her inner turmoil and destructive thoughts, Lorelai was still able to portray normalcy. Her parents knew she had a problem, but did not understand the extent to which it had taken over. "Her eating disorder caused her to become secretive,” explained Lauren. “We truly didn’t know how bad things were. We saw her weight dropping, but didn’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff due to our ignorance of this disease. There are intermediate steps that could’ve been taken, but we just didn’t know that back then.”
Her eating disorder progressed, and by the summer before her first year of high school, her body started showing signs of starvation. “My fingernails turned blue. I was always freezing— even if I had on a jacket and sweater in the middle of the summer. I started losing my hair. I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep,” remembers Lorelai. “When I asked my pediatrician to sign off on a health assessment form that would allow me to do indoor track, she said absolutely not.”
By October, Lorelai’s erratic heart rate and dangerously low weight caused her pediatricianto admit her to the hospital. Unfortunately, that hospital was unprepared to provide the care Lorelai needed, and instead of admitting her, sent her home despite her deteriorating health. Lorelai’s family reached out to The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. Lauren called in the morning, and by that evening, Lorelai had completed her evaluation.
“That was a really hard conversation to have when we decided to admit her,” says Lauren. “But we knew she was in really bad shape medically and had hit rock bottom. We thought, ‘OK, this is the task we’ve been given. We will devote 100 percent of ourselves toward whatever it takes to help Lorelai.’ Our military training really came to bear. We were ready to fight for her recovery. I gave her a bracelet with a special message on it to help her when she struggled. It says, ‘I can, and I will!’ She still wears it. It became her mantra.”
Recovery’s Bumpy Road
The Symmes family’s determination would be tried over the next few months. The re-feeding process took a toll on Lorelai’s body. Her digestive system had to learn how to absorb nutrients again, which can be painful. Plus, the Symmes had at least one parent visit Lorelai every day—a tricky thing to coordinate with two other children at home and a 45-minute commute to Sheppard Pratt’s campus in Towson.
These visits included twice-weekly family therapy sessions with Michal Adler, LMSW, Individual and Family Therapist for The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt.
“Family therapy is a crucial part of recovery as it helps caregivers understand an illness that is often very misunderstood,” explains Adler. “Through a series of comprehensive information sessions, we provide education about the illness and guidance about how to support recovery when the patient is able to return home.”
Lorelai’s interdisciplinary team of specialists also included an individual therapist, doctor, nurse, psychologist, and dietician. Together, they worked to address the underlying cognitive causes of her illness and create a plan for recovery. Gradually, Lorelai started to embrace and even strive for recovery.
“Lorelai is a really ambitious person. Whatever she set her mind to, she went for it completely,” remembers Adler. “Unfortunately, at one point she used her determination to further engage in her eating disorder. But once Lorelai realized what the eating disorder was costing her, she was able to channel that same determination and set her mind to recovery.”
She Could, and She Did!
After more than seven weeks of inpatient care at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, the entire Symmes family got to visit Lorelai on Christmas Day and tell her that she was ready for the next step: Sheppard Pratt’s Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). An important part of the Center’s stepped-care approach, the PHP allowed Lorelai to gradually transition over the next five weeks from the highly structured hospital environment back to life at home while still maintaining extended therapeutic care.
Upon discharge, her family followed the therapists’ recommendations “to the letter of the law,” according to Lauren, as they knew that individuals who carefully followed the Center’s guidance had the best outcomes. Lauren also took to heart the importance of ongoing therapy.
“Therapy has played a huge role in Lorelai’s recovery,” says Lauren. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that Lorelai will continue with therapy all through high school and college. We would absolutely not be where we are without it.”
Returning to home life was tough. Lorelai was nervous about going back to school and explaining to peers where she had been for the past three months. So with help from her mom and therapist, she decided to take control of her story by creating a business card to hand out that explained her illness and where she had disappeared to so that no one was left to speculate. Out of respect for Lorelai’s privacy, the family had initially not shared her illness very broadly, which caused them to feel isolated. Opening up about that past few months was a relief and helped them realize that talking about mental illness is the best way to remove its stigma and find support.
At school, Lorelai started taking a creative writing class and found the experience of writing poetry about her experience extremely freeing. She wrote a slam poem called, “Dear Thinspo,” in which she chronicled her journey while reproaching the social media personalities who glamorize being thin. After she performed this poem live in class, “You could have heard a pin drop,”recounted Lauren.
Lorelai continued to foster this new interest and talent and went on to publish a book of original poetry titled, the path towards sunshine. Her work has also been featured in competitions and publications as well as gained her a devoted social media following and launched Lorelai and her family as mental health advocates.
Lorelai also credits her continued recovery to equine, or horse, therapy. Last summer, she began volunteering with Maryland Therapeutic Horses and currently leads riding lessons for kids and adults with disabilities.
“Being with horses completely changed me!” shares Lorelai. “I feel like my poetry and equine therapy have given my life a purpose. My therapist once told me that living with a disorder is not a way of living, only surviving. I have made it my goal to not only survive, but to live!”
And if history is any indicator, she can, and she will.
We provide comprehensive eating disorder treatment for adults, adolescents, and children. At our eating disorder treatment center, our team of experts understands that each disorder has its own unique set of causes, symptoms, and health risks, and every individual may experience the illness and the recovery process differently. That's why we offer evidence-based therapies and treatments across three different levels of care to best help you on your journey to eating disorder recovery.