On the outside, Brittany Burgunder was the perfect child. She got straight A’s in school, was a talented tennis player and horseback rider and wore a smile at all times. But underneath the smile she learned to wear so well was a girl struggling with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
“I wanted people to look at my smile and think ‘Oh, she’s perfect, she’s fine,’ but on the inside, I was the complete opposite,” Burgunder said.
Burgunder has spent the last 17 years battling the spectrum of eating disorders. She went from tirelessly restricting the food she ate to binging on every type of fast food and processed sugar imaginable. Between countless treatment centers, hospitalizations and standing face-to-face with death, she now lives to tell her story today. After a successful recovery, she became a published author and certified personal coach who shares her story in hopes of helping others going through similar struggles.
Burgunder said she was regularly bullied throughout elementary and middle school, leading to low self-esteem. She figured if she could maintain perfection in everything she did, then there was no reason she would be looked at differently. But this constant drive for perfection, mixed with her OCD, started to affect the way she consumed food.
“Before even really knowing what calories were, I started making a game out of it,” Burgunder said. “I would eat the same thing everyday at the same time. I would time myself. I had these really weird rituals.”
She slowly stopped eating her favorite foods and, before she knew it, Burgunder was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 13.
After her diagnosis, Burgunder visited her first treatment center, where she finally learned what an eating disorder was. She recalls the whole experience as both a blessing and a curse.
“I was with a group of 30 girls that were struggling with the same things and I realized I wasn’t alone, which was the best feeling,” Burgunder said. “But my new friends also taught me more tips and tricks.”
Burgunder remained relatively healthy both mentally and physically throughout high school. So when the time came around to head off to college, she felt like it might be the perfect opportunity to restart.
“I wanted to turn my life around and I wanted college to be this dream opportunity to reinvent myself, hoping it would be the change that I needed,” Burgunder said.
In the fall of 2008, Burgunder began her freshman year at University of California, Davis. The stress of college and being away from home for the first time began to weigh on her — slowly but surely, she started to revert back to her old ways.
“I was so overwhelmed and felt so alone,” Burgunder said. “Instead of letting go of old habits and rules, they only got stronger. Those were the only things that were still familiar to me.”
Over the next few months, she became severely underweight and her health began to deteriorate. By the time she got home for winter break, her parents — Susan and Lee Burgunder — could not even recognize her.
“We thought, ‘This is it,’” Susan said. “Her doctors said she was going to die. We sent her to a treatment center and I thought for sure that was going to be the last time I saw her.”
She spent the rest of winter break hospitalized. Her doctors said there was no way she could go back to school, yet she returned for winter quarter. UC Davis administration, aware of her dire health, monitored her closely. It only took a few more weeks before the university told her she could not continue with school until her health improved.
“UC Davis was amazing and did all they could to help her, but they didn’t want her to die on their watch,” Susan said. “They extended her admission, but she needed to get her health under control first.”
When she returned home, things hit rock bottom. She was at her lowest weight of 56 pounds — no more than what the average 8-year-old weighs. She lost all of her hair, mobility and her vision was starting to fail. She had infections all over her body and her liver was shutting down.
“My parents were planning my funeral,” Brittany said. “My doctors told me I was going to have a heart attack and die, but I just screamed back, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m fat!’”
Against all odds, she survived. Brittany continued to stabilize and improve over the next six months. But in August 2009, her eating habits suddenly jumped to the other side of the spectrum: she binged.
“I was finally allowed to eat foods that were forbidden for the past seven years,” Brittany said. “It was the scariest and best feeling that had ever happened to me.”
Brittany ate roughly 20,000 calories a day during this time — 10 times the recommended daily intake, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). She gained 70 pounds within three months. A year later, she had gained nearly 160 pounds.
“Watching your child eat again after so many years was such a relieving experience,” Susan said. “But it started to spiral out of control, and again, we didn’t know what to do.”
At the time, binge eating was not talked about much. It was not recognized in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a real disorder and professionals were not quite sure how to handle these unique cases.
“I still felt the same way mentally when I was binging versus when I was at my lowest weight,” Brittany said. “There was me and then there was my eating disorder, and there was no ounce of Brittany left. That part of my mind was possessed and had fully taken over.”
“There was me and then there was my eating disorder, and there was no ounce of Brittany left. That part of my mind was possessed and had fully taken over.”
Brittany once again hit rock bottom. She started taking steps to make a change, but her new solution was just as harmful — she turned to laxatives to control her binging.
“When you say bulimia, you think of someone throwing up,” Brittany said. “But I never once threw up.”
Brittany recalls bulimia as the most difficult of her eating disorders to control. At her worst, she would swallow approximately 100 laxatives in one sitting. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends using no more than one dose of these medications within a 24-hour period due to potential organ failure.
“People would give me compliments and tell me how great I [looked], but of course [I was] thinking of what I was actually doing,” Brittany said. “I was living a double life: one foot in life and one foot in self destruction.”
“I was living a double life: one foot in life and one foot in self destruction.”
At this point, she said she was mentally and physically exhausted. It was not until she began watching people she had crossed paths with at treatment centers die from the disease that she realized how lucky she was. Something finally clicked, she said. She began taking steps toward recovery, and one of the biggest steps in this process was transferring to Cal Poly.
“I will forever credit Cal Poly for being one of the biggest influences in my recovery,” Brittany said.
“I will forever credit Cal Poly for being one of the biggest influences in my recovery”
However, both Brittany and her parents had reserves about sending her back to school.
“When she returned to Davis after winter break, she suffered with [post traumatic stress disorder],” Susan said. “We didn’t want to see that happen at Cal Poly, but she was determined to make it work.”
She loved school and had grown interested in psychology, so in Fall 2014 she transferred to Cal Poly. Because she was born and raised in San Luis Obispo, Brittany had a large support team in town that made for an easier transition.
“Cal Poly healed me in ways that I didn’t even know I still needed to heal,” Brittany said. “It gave me back everything that I had lost growing up.”
She recalled various on-campus support systems crucial in her transition back to school. The Disability Resource Center (DRC) allowed her to ease back into school without taking too heavy a class load. The health center also offered her resources to assist her while in the recovery process.
“We all struggle with highs and lows and different challenges, and we all need support,” Brittany said. “The DRC was amazing for me and there are so many resources that should be utilized for anyone dealing with some sort of mental health issue.”
Brittany is taking Fall 2018 off to reallocate her time towards helping others. Today, she is a Certified Professional Coach (CPC), specializing in eating disorders. In 2016, she released a memoir on Amazon titled Safety in Numbers, and looks to publish two more books in 2019. Her story has been featured across numerous platforms including the New York Post, Cosmopolitan, and, most recently, the Emmy award-winning talk show The Doctors.
She plans to return to finish her degree in the near future. She said she is particularly passionate about helping college students because she understands how difficult the transition can be.
By continuing to share her story, she hopes she can help others struggling with similar issues and remind them that they are not alone.
“Mental illness can affect anyone,” Brittany said. “I want others to know that you can change at any time and you should never give up. It might click in a year or it might click in 10 years … but there’s always help, you just have to be willing to take it.”
If you or anyone you know are struggling with mental illness or have concerns about eating-relating behaviors and body image, visit the Cal Poly Health Center or online at http:/hcs.calpoly.edu for more resources.