My name is Tyler Wilmer and this is a small piece of my four and a half year struggle with an eating disorder throughout high school. I’m now a healthy freshman at Roanoke College in Virginia, where I still compete in cross country and track. My story was first published on News Leader in May of 2020.
It was the night before the state cross country meet in 2017. The Riverheads boys team had qualified for the race and Tyler Wilmer, then a sophomore, was excited about getting the opportunity to run.
A call from his doctor changed all of that. Blood work had come back indicating Wilmer’s electrolytes were too low. His heart rate was low also, and the doctor said that if Wilmer ran, he could die. Heart failure was a very real concern.
Jessica Wilmer had to break the news to her son that he couldn’t run in the state meet.
“It was pretty devastating,” she said. “He had worked so hard.”
It was a health issue that had started more than a year earlier when Wilmer was a freshman. He began to have negative thoughts about himself, feeling like he wasn’t good enough or that he didn’t perform well enough on the cross country course. He didn’t like the way he looked.
“I started having these terrible mental thoughts about myself,” he said.
He coped with those thoughts by using extreme diets and long exercise routines. He started dropping weight, which he was happy about, but he was never satisfied that it was enough. He ate less and less.
Jessica Wilmer noticed something was wrong with her son. At first, she and her husband, Andy, just thought he was losing weight because he started running. But they began to realize it was more than typical weight loss. He was being very restrictive with what he ate, and his parents knew that wasn’t good.
“Then it kind of snowballed until we knew something was really wrong,” Jessica Wilmer said.
She took him to the pediatrician, but could never get a diagnosis that seemed correct. That’s when his parents took him to the Teen and Young Adult Health Center at the University of Virginia. They diagnosed him almost immediately.
Wilmer was suffering from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by weight loss and a distorted body image. At the beginning of his freshman year Wilmer weighed 165 pounds. By his sophomore year, he was down to 104 pounds.
“It was a very difficult sophomore and junior year for me,” he said.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) cited a study showing that males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying from the disease.
Young people in general, those between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia, have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their peers in the same age group, according to NEDA.
Until he was healthier, running was out for Wilmer. He not only missed that state cross country meet as a sophomore, but he also missed the indoor and outdoor track seasons.
He was hospitalized three times. He took classes and was in therapy. None of it seemed to be working until he found residential treatment, a live-in healthcare facility where Wilmer stayed for five weeks in the summer before his junior year.
There were other people around his age in treatment with him, but Wilmer had very limited contact with anyone outside of the facility. That included no contact with family for the first three days.
When the shorter hospitalizations weren’t working, Jessica Wilmer knew that residential treatment was probably the next step.
“It was a hard decision,” she said. “Probably the hardest one we ever had to make.”
The first 72 hours there were the most difficult. He didn’t go willingly. Looking back now, he said he was in “complete denial,” and wasn’t happy that he was placed in treatment, but almost two years later he understands the benefits.
“It made like a spark go off in my head that I needed to recover,” he said, “and I needed to really focus on becoming happy again.”
He returned to running as a junior. And now, with high school over, Wilmer is ready for the next chapter in his life. He’ll be attending Roanoke College in the fall, where he’ll run cross country and track.
He also wants to major in health and physical education. For now he’s considering going into the mental health field when college is over, possibly as a therapist or nutritionist. He believes he can talk to others dealing with similar issues. He wants to help them avoid the struggles he faced.
“I know that he is going to help somebody along the way,” his mom said. “If he can just help one person not to have to go through this I think he’ll have done his job.”
Wilmer is now between 130 and 135 pounds and said his doctors are happy with that weight. They’d like for him to weigh a little more, but as a runner that’s not easy. They continue to do blood work to monitor his health, which is good now as he gets ready for college.
That doesn’t mean he’s completely healthy. It’s a daily battle he faces, one of negative thoughts toward himself. Doctors and others who have been through this tell him those will probably never go away completely.
“They kind of haunt you in the back of your head,” he said. “It’s more of having to see through the fog and realize that it’s something you can’t do to yourself again. It’s something that you need to kind of ignore those bad thoughts. It’s a very challenging thing to do.”
His mom knows it’s been a struggle for their son, for the entire family. It could tear some families apart, she said, but for them their bond grew tighter. Now, she’s excited to see where he goes next.
“He came out stronger,” she said, “and we’re super proud of him.”