Student’s journey through illness becomes source of hope for others
By Richard Gaw
The journey of West Chester resident Maria Hromcenco – one that saw her battle her way through a debilitating anorexia and has now become her shared story of resilience and determination for others -- began with a pizza.
In the Spring of 2019, the 14-year-old was vacationing with her parents Tatiana and Alexander and younger brother in Disney World in Orlando. As she recently shared with the readers of her blog – imperfect-recovery.com – Maria had taken the first steps to what would become a year-long spiral of self-consciousness, social anxiety, poor self-image and an obsessive and punishing sense of guilt.
“I started thinking about the calories listed on menus for the first time in my life; I even remember crying to my mom about feeling guilty for having had pizza,” Maria wrote. “This was not normal teenage behavior, but I didn’t think much of it. When we got back home, I started having more of these abnormal thoughts. It started off innocently enough: I’m just trying to be “healthy.” I’m getting rid of extra/unnecessary sugar, that’s all. I’m going to start eating more organic, whole foods. I’m going to exercise more.”
By the end of her freshman year in the University Scholars Program at the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, Maria would often come into school feeling completely malnourished and fatigued. Often, her lunch consisted of one hard-boiled egg.
In the summer of 2019, Tatiana took Maria to the family doctor for a routine check up, and the news was horrifying: Maria stood 5-foot-five inches tall -- and weighed 91 pounds. If Maria did not show signs of regaining her normal weight, the doctor said, he would recommend that she attend a treatment facility.
As her disease progressed, Maria began to invent an enemy – her body.
“I was always so insecure in myself and my internal capabilities and it manifested itself externally,” she said. “I could point to my body and say, ‘I don’t like the way that looks.’ Instead of realizing that I was insecure with myself, I could easily place the blame on something that was visual.
“I began judging all my actions harshly, which included my food intake, and that was detrimental to my emotions and my mentality. It was exhausting.”
As a present for her 15th birthday on June 20, Maria received a photo session with a professional photographer. The pictures told the truth: she said, in her words, that she resembled a “physically-drained skeleton.” Later that summer, she joined her schoolmates on a 10-day trip to Europe. After days spent walking and touring, Maria rejected the food that had been prepared for she and her fellow students.
When she arrived back home in Chester County, she was 85 pounds.
She argued with her parents. She negotiated with them. Meanwhile, she threw away food whenever she could and avoided restaurants.
“I had always been the perfect daughter,” she said. “I had good grades and was always been on top of everything, and I didn’t want to burden my parents with my problems, so I kind of pushed it down. Throughout that summer, I refused to admit that there was anything wrong.”
On Aug. 20, Tatiana and Alexander took their daughter to a nearby hospital. Maria Hromcenco was now 81 pounds. She was immediately admitted to the hospital, and brought to the cardiology department in a wheelchair. Her heart rate had dipped below 35, and she was a major candidate for a heart attack.
Six days later, Maria was welcomed at The Renfrew Eating Disorder Treatment Facility in Philadelphia. As the nation’s first residential eating disorder facility, and with 19 locations throughout the country, Renfrew has helped more than 85,000 adolescent girls and women with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other behavioral health issues move towards recovery.
Maria stayed at Renfrew for two months. She attended therapy sessions both private and public. She made friends. Slowly, her eating habits progressed to the point she was eating at the highest levels specified at Renfrew.
In one of her blog posts, she thanked Renfrew for saving her life.
“By my second or third week at Renfrew, I found a really great group of friends,” she said. “I began to glean as much as I could from the program. Once I managed to be weight restored, I was grateful for the experience because I was able to go through all of the levels of therapy and the progression of dining. I am grateful to have met so many people and challenged myself like I had never done before.”
Now, a little less than one year later, it seems the only barrier in Maria’s life is determining what effect the COVID-19 pandemic will have on what the beginning of her junior year at the Charter School will look like. She has regained her weight to a healthier range, but her journey back to wellness is measured in a way far greater than numbers. Her Imperfect-Recovery site has become a wellspring of personal reflections and information – all targeted to individuals who are living through eating disorders and mental health issues. The blog not only includes Maria’s personal postings, but opportunities for others to contribute artwork related to mental health recovery and links to articles and websites.
“When my health issues began, we didn’t know what to do and we didn’t have the resources available to us,” Maria said. “We were just scared to admit me to any kind of treatment. I didn’t want anyone else to be afraid or wait until it was too late.
“It was there at the hospital that my mom and I decided that as soon as I was discharged from treatment, I would start a blog that could help others, and provide them with resources and insights that would prevent them from entering into this in the same way we did.”
When Maria first started writing the blog, she knew she was sharing a vulnerable part of herself with a lot of people, and feared that readers – and her friends – would characterize her by her disorder. Instead, the opposite happened.
“I got such amazing feedback from people I didn’t even know,” she said. “They came up to me and said that the blog inspired them, or they shared the blog to someone else who was suffering. That just made me more comfortable in being able to share my true self and help and motivate other people, and that is just priceless to me.”
Maria plans to continue the blog throughout her high school career and if possible into her college years, where she intends to study biology and pre-medicine, while also sustaining her new role as a mental health advocate.
“Someone at the treatment center told me, ‘Recovery isn’t linear and it is never perfect,’” she said. “It has really stuck through me throughout my entire journey, and now I want to remind everyone else that there is no such thing as a perfect recovery.
“I think that even if I reach complete recovery - which is everyone’s goal – I would still like to help others,” she said. “I want this vehicle to focus on mental health and well-being and confidence, because these are things that all extend throughout a person’s entire life. As I grow, I would like to take this blog along with me – and continue to make it a part of my own life path.”
To visit Maria Hromcenco’s blog Imperfect-Recovery, visit https://imperfect-recovery.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.