When I was 15, I went on a diet. I was always a skinny kid, but as a freshman in high school, I was starting to fill out a little – and as a cheerleader freshman surrounded by dozens of beautiful, thin, dieting juniors and seniors in a gym with mirror-lined walls, I didn’t like it one bit.
Let me rewind a little. When I was 10, my Dad’s girlfriend Kim lived with us. She was 28, perma-tanned, Barbie-doll thin, always had perfectly drawn eyebrows, and never went anywhere without her hot rollers. She could French-braid my hair, even tried a home perm on me once, and would make (but never eat) delicious tater tot casserole. I idolized her. One day, I read her diary. The only thing I remember – and this says a lot, because I can’t recall the plots of books I read just two years ago – is this: “I would rather die than be fat and out of control.” Kim moved out maybe a year later, and I never forgave her for not sending the birthday cards she said she would, and for hurting my Dad. But I always wondered what happened to her. A few years later, I Googled her but found nothing. I never told my Dad. I don’t think he knew where she was either, and I certainly didn’t want to bring it up. Every couple of years I would think to search for her again, most recently just a few months ago. This time I sleuthed a little deeper and found her. Her obituary, at least. One sentence made my heart drop into my stomach: “Kimberly died Wednesday after suffering for years from anorexia.” She died three years ago at age 38. Even though I hadn’t known Kim for years, it was a sad and unexpected ending to my decade-long mystery and a reminder of how lucky I am to have recovered so fully.
When I was 10, I didn’t know what anorexia was – but I never forgot that one sentence from Kim’s diary or how thin and beautiful she was to me. When I was 13, I’d laugh at stories I read in Teen magazine and CosmoGIRL! about girls with eating disorders – not because I thought they were stupid, but because I literally couldn’t understand it. I loved food, I could never do that! Sure, my parents encouraged healthy meals, but I could also down a whole package of E.L. Fudge cookies with the girls in a single night without a second thought. That all changed when I was 15.
A few months and a handful of compliments about “how great I looked” later, I was down to eating 500 calories a day and eventually wasted away to 87 pounds on my then 5’6” frame. I was so miserable that I didn’t even care I was killing myself physically – I knew I had to be rescued from the emotional hell I had built myself or I was going to die.
I could go on for pages about my struggle and what worked for me and what did not, but it all comes down to this: I was lucky enough to have so many people in my life who loved me and knew I needed treatment, whether they understood my illness or not. And most of them didn’t but that didn’t matter. Because of the financial and emotional support that I had and the amount of work I did myself to heal, today I like to say that I probably have a more “normal” body image than the average person. That came with love and support from family and friends, and knowledge from experts in the field like my counselor and the wonderful author Geneen Roth (years before her recent Oprah-driven fame), whose retreat had a huge impact on my recovery.
I say I am one of the lucky ones – and unfortunately it’s true, but it does not have to be that way. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) formed in 1999 is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders. NEDA “campaigns for prevention, improved access to quality treatment, and increased research funding to better understand and treat eating disorders. [They] work with partners and volunteers to develop programs and tools to help everyone who seeks assistance” A couple months ago, I was visiting the NEDA website to research statistics, and saw a promotion for the upcoming 2nd Annual NYC NEDA Walk. I noticed that several other cities were hosting walks as well, including Austin where I live. I have never done any type of charity fundraiser on my own, but I knew instantly that this was my time. I set up my fundraising page and got to work soliciting friends to join me. I posted links to my sponsorship page on Facebook and Twitter and emailed them out to family. I was overwhelmed with the support I got from family and friends.
NEDA held their First Annual Austin Walk (the first-ever in Texas) on November 6 – and being Texas in the fall the weather could not have been more perfect. Over 100 people registered and the volunteer team did a great job putting the event together. In total, participants raised $5,000. At the beginning of the walk, it was announced that my team, “Freedom is Beauty,” was the number one fundraising team, so we had the privilege of leading the walk.
Afterward, we listened to the keynote speaker, Shannon Cutts, author of Beating Ana and the founder of MentorCONNECT, a free support system that pairs individuals who have achieved recovery from an eating disorder with those who are currently working toward recovery. Shannon’s story was touching. She had struggled with eating since she was a child and was anorexic by her teen years – but at that time, there was not even a word for it.
We have come a long way since then, but there is much work to be done. That’s why I chose to get involved with the walk, and why I believe our society should work toward dispelling the myths about eating disorders and uncovering the truths, the pain, and continue working toward paths for recovery. Every person is different, and every person’s recovery is different, too.
Check out these statistics from NEDA:
- Despite its prevalence, there is inadequate research funding for eating disorders. Funding for eating disorders research is approximately 75% less than that for Alzheimer’s.
- Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. The majority of deaths are due to physiological complications.
- In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder.
- The incidence of bulimia in 10-39-year-old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993.
- Only one-third of people with anorexia in the community receive mental health care.
- Only 6% of people with bulimia receive mental health care. The majority of people with severe eating disorders do not receive adequate treatment.
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
- 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day.
If someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder or you are battling with one yourself, and you live in the United States, visit NEDA’s website today or call their Information & Referral Helpline at 800.931.2237.
If you live in Canada, visit NEDIC’s (National Eating Disorder Information Centre) website or call 1.866.NEDIC.20.
If you are in the UK, visit the National Centre for Eating Disorders’ website or call 0845.838.2040.