(NEW YORK) — At the height of her eating disorder, strangers on the streets of Nashville, Tenn., would stop Lauryn Lax to tell her to “go eat a cheeseburger” or ask “honey, are you eating?”
But it was the strangers at the YMCA where she worked out that saved her, she said.
“They really hit home when they spoke out to me that morning,” Lax, now 26, told ABC News. “It’s not my parents telling me what to do. It’s not doctors. It’s acquaintances, strangers, telling me it’s a problem.”
When Lax weighed herself that morning, she was only 79 pounds. She was frightened to see the low number and said a little prayer that she would get better, but she still arrived at the YMCA 10 minutes before it opened so she would get the Stairmaster she wanted.
“We saw a girl that was about to die,” Johnny Phipps told ABC’s Good Morning America. Phipps was one of the gym-goers who organized the intervention after calling Lax’s parents in Little Rock, Ark., the night before.
In the parking lot, a group of YMCA regulars who had been concerned about Lax for weeks approached her and told her they were taking her to the hospital.
“We all met at Y parking lot, parked cars in separate location,” Louise Grant told Good Morning America. “When we saw Lauren’s car pull in, we literally all converged on her, and she was like a deer in headlights.”
Lax resisted at first, but agreed to go with them. Today, she calls them her “YMCA angels.”
When they got to the emergency room, however, doctors almost didn’t keep her there, and Lax was ready to go home and get back to her old ways: 6-to 7-hour workouts and eating nothing but tiny helpings of steamed vegetables and frozen turkey burgers.
“Very eerily, everything looked OK on paper,” Lax said. “My little angels were just so adamant. They knew that I was not well and really fought to keep me there.”
Doctors checked her into a psych ward and soon got her into an eating disorder program to get her weight back up. But she needed a life change, and her parents sent her to a program in Miami for six more weeks. The morning she was supposed to check out, however, she started experiencing chest pains. The disorder had weakened her heart.
“That’s when I decided I was going to stay however long it takes to get this thing out of me,” Lax said.
It took her nearly a year, but she soon learned who she was outside of the eating disorder. This was a strange concept because Lax began her obsession with weight when she was just 10 years old, and had been in and out of the hospital more than a dozen times to no avail.
“At one point in my life, it was about physically wanting to look a certain way, wanting to lose weight,” she said. “Over time it became about self-control, a feeling of empowerment over myself. I could deny myself foods and workout more than anyone else.”
The compulsion to do this became more important than even her schoolwork at Belmont University at the time, she said. And eating anything other than steamed vegetables, frozen turkey patties and Crystal Light pitchers was a problem.
“If I detoured from that, in my head, I really could not live with myself,” Lax said.
“I never thought I could get those thoughts out of my head,” she said of the eating disorder.
But in treatment after the YMCA intervention, she learned that food was just food, and that she loved to write and wanted to go back to school and help other young girls find healthy things to be passionate about. People who’ve read her blog over the past two and a half years often reach out to tell her how much it helped them.
Lax is set to graduate in May with a doctorate in occupational therapy from Belmont University.
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Sam Penrod, KSL.com
Kevin Conlon, Euan McKirdy and Johanzynn Gatewood, CNN
Susan Scutti, CNN