By Shari Phiel, Berthoud Recorder
You can never be too rich or too thin, or so the saying goes. While there’s little chance I’ll ever get to worry about the former, I am far more familiar with the latter then I would ever care to be. I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in 1984 not long after that same disease claimed the life of singer Karen Carpenter. It was a disease I would continue to struggle with for years to come.
Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, our society places an inordinately high value on physical appearance. For men and women alike, the message is to look as young as possible, for as long as possible, by whatever means necessary — whether it be plastic surgery, Botox or, in some cases, extreme dieting.
So it should come as no great surprise then that eating disorders affect more than 10 million women in the United States alone. And that number doesn’t include the millions more unhappy with their appearance — an estimated 80 percent of all women don’t like they way they look. Eating disorders don’t just affect women though. Of those diagnosed with disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, 10 to 15 percent are males.
Like many girls, I began dieting in high school — always aspiring to look like the models in “Glamour,” “Elle” and “Vogue” magazines. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize you had to be one of less than 2 percent of the population lucky enough hit the equivalent of a genetic lottery to look like that. Nor did I question why looking like a prepubescent boy was considered ideal.
Sometime during the later part of my sophomore year of college, the stress of living alone for the first time, attending classes, working part-time and a failed relationship sent my life spiraling downward. And by the start of my junior year, I had gone from being a healthy, average 19-year old to being dramatically underweight, having blackouts and determined to be clinically depressed. Following a brief hospital stay, I entered an outpatient treatment program. Unfortunately, anorexia was still relatively unheard of, and the only treatment programs available were for addiction or depression.
Thankfully, we not only know a great deal more about this illness, but treatment centers like the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, which opened in October 2008, provide the specialized care necessary for patients. The ERC’s highly trained staff provides inpatient, residential, partial hospitalization and outpatient programs tailored to the individual’s needs and will soon be an accredited behavioral facility.
Because of the complexity of eating disorders, treating them is an extremely difficult task, made one even more difficult without the proper care. In fact, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have very high relapse rates, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.
“Eating disorders are complex conditions that can arise from a variety of potential causes and affect a wide demographic of American women — including children and teens,” explained Dr. Ken Weiner, medical director of the ERC. “It’s vital that anyone dealing with these terrible diseases seek the appropriate treatment for their condition as soon as they can.”
After my first go round with treatment, I stayed healthy, and relatively happy, for several years and thought I was in the clear once I turned 30. By the time I turned 31 though, I once again faced a long, uphill battle with my disease. Within just two months, I had lost more than 30 pounds and had begun to have frequent blackouts. That was 1995, and I consider myself very lucky to have found an outpatient program specifically for the treatment of eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia are no longer diseases just for teens. Women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and even later are now being diagnosed with eating disorders, many for the first time.
While it may no longer make the front page of newspapers as happened in the ’90s, eating disorders still have one of the highest mortality rates for mental illnesses. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders “only 30 to 40 percent ever fully recover” from the disease. The study goes on to say that 20 percent of all anorexia patients die from complications related to their eating disorder.”
By the time I completed my treatment program some six months later, about one-third of the dozen or so young woman in my program had died — most from either heart failure or suicide. Although I was one of the lucky ones — this year marks my 14th year of my eating “sobriety” — I didn’t escape unscathed. A routine EKG four months ago finally revealed the damage done to my heart. While I may never know if my battles with an eating disorder were the solely cause, there’s no doubt it certainly didn’t help.
The key to effective treatment for any eating disorder is early diagnosis. Symptoms include a severely restricted diet despite being thin, obsession with tracking calories, carbs or fat grams, pretending to eat or lying about eating, preoccupation with food, and secretive food behaviors like refusing to eat in public or “ritualistic” eating.
For more information about eating disorders and treatment options available, visit the Eating Recovery Center’s Web site at www.EatingRecoveryCenter.com
. The ERC is located at 1850 Franklin St., Suite 500.
"Never Too Rich or Too Thin? The High Cost of Anorexia" by By Shari Phiel, Berthoud Recorder, 5/21/2009