Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa: Finding Hope and Help
There’s a picture of me hanging on the wall of my grandmother’s house showing me leaning against a tree. My brother and cousins, having climbed up the tree, are hovering above me among the branches. I couldn’t be more than 4 or 5 years old, and my face is tear-stained. I don’t remember the exact details, only that a comment had been made at my expense for a quick laugh.
Around the same time, I remember standing among my brother and another set of cousins in the kitchen of my other grandmother’s house. We had been laughing about something and having fun. I mistakenly drank out of someone else’s cup — a cup that distinctly had someone else’s name on it. My brother made a comment about my mistake and, once again, laughter filled the air because of something I did (or didn’t do). I began to cry, ran upstairs and spent the rest of the afternoon alone in a room watching my cousins and brother through the window play hide-n-seek outside.
These events might seem trivial, but 20 years later I still remember them. Looking back, I can see how my reactions and feelings from those episodes are emblematic of my sensitive personality and nature. That sensitivity — the same emotion that allows me to have such empathy for others — is, I believe, one of the predisposing factors that coupled with a later “trigger” event, would cause me to develop anorexia just a few years later.
What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa, characterized by extreme weight loss through excessive dieting or exercise, a distorted body image, and an intense fear of gaining weight, is an illness that affects as many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States. Anorexia has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness, and according to some studies, people with anorexia are up to 10 times more likely to die compared to those without the disorder. The most common causes of complications that lead to death from the disorder are cardiac arrest, electrolyte and fluid imbalances, and suicide. The disease is more often than not coupled with depression.
Children that develop anorexia and other eating disorders at a young age usually have characteristics — such as extreme sensitivity — that make them more susceptible to developing the disorder, says Ovidio Bermudez, the medical director of the Eating Disorders Program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic in Tulsa. While other people might let a remark or an event roll off their back, some people will internalize it.
For me, the feelings I had internalized for years came out in 4th grade during an event that would trigger me to spiral down into the eating disorder at the age of 10. As a perfectionist — another common trait among those who develop anorexia — I was a very good student in school, meaning my teacher often used my work as an example to show to the rest of the class. One Friday afternoon in October I was outside playing with the rest of my class at recess. Suddenly, the eight or so girls that were in my class surrounded me on the basketball court and said they needed to speak with me. They proceeded to tell me that I was a “suckup” and were tired of me being “little miss perfect.” Some people may have fought back. I, however, sat in stunned silence and, at the end of the day, ran as fast as I could to my mom’s waiting car . I later realized how little effect the incident had on the other girls when one of my best friends, one of the ringleaders, yelled after me as I was running to the car that she wanted me to come over to her house that weekend to play.
The lasting damage for me, though, had been done. Around the same time this event occurred, I had started competing in gymnastics and was quickly improving each day. I distinctly remember coming home from the gym that one Friday night — the same day I learned a great new skill — and telling myself I didn’t need friends. I was going to be the best gymnast there was, no matter what it took. Thus began my descent into anorexia: exercising up to eight hours while consuming only a few hundred calories
each day, followed by hospitalizations and therapy sessions.
Fortunately, I was one of the approximately 50 percent who overcome the disorder, and by age 15 I was catching up on my life and what I had missed the last few years.
Causes, Warning Signs, and What Parents Can Do
My story isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s becoming more common for young kids to develop the disease, according to Harry Brandt, director of The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, Md.
“I have to say, in my 25 years of experience, there’s been a progressive increase in developing eating disorders (in young kids),” he says.
For years, Bermudez says, people believed anorexia only afflicted upper-middle class Caucasian females in their teens or adulthood. Now, the eating disorder community is realizing that it can affect anybody, no matter age, race or socioeconomic status. Bermudez says kids as young as 5 or 6 are developing the disease.
Both Bermudez and Brandt say there are predisposing factors, such as the ability to handle criticism, that parents should watch for in their children that may make them more susceptible to developing an eating disorder like anorexia. Brandt notes that children with perfectionist tendencies are more apt to develop an eating disorder. Also, those who have a harm-avoidance tendency, which means they are very timid and afraid something bad will happen, are more susceptible.
Parents should really take notice, Brandt says, if young kids are worried about their weight or the calorie content of foods.
“It’s just something they shouldn’t be concerned about,” he says. Parents should reassure their children that their bodies can change as they get older. But if the worry persists, it’s important to get professional, specialized help, Brandt says.
“We know that the earlier an eating disorder is treated, the better chance of successful treatment,” he adds.
More than anything, Brandt says, it’s important parents take a proactive approach.
“Parents who stay more attuned are in much better shape than those who take the wait and see approach,” the doctor says.
National Eating Disorders Association
Oklahoma Eating Disorders Association
Eating Disorders Detection Signs:
• Significant weight loss when already thin
• Frequent bathroom visits after a meal
• Extreme dieting behavior
• Exercise more than one hour per day and more than five days per week