The journey back from an eating disorder
Esther Martin's voice trembles and her eyes fill with tears as she describes her daughter's struggle with anorexia. She vividly remembers the day she discovered Brooke needed help.
Brooke, who was a freshman at Arizona State University, had flown home from college for a visit. As Esther greeted her daughter at the airport, she was shocked by Brooke's appearance.
In just a few short months, Brooke had lost so much weight that she was, according to Esther, "almost unrecognizable." Esther knew a swift intervention was needed. She immediately brought Brooke to see her therapist, who confirmed Brooke was suffering from an eating disorder (ED).
Brooke says that she has struggled with anxiety and an unbalanced relationship with food since childhood. Cyndi Mesmer, a licensed clinical professional counselor, and founder of The Art of Living Counseling Center in Crystal Lake, says that it is not unusual for individuals with eating disorders to often "have underlying issues of anxiety and obsessive tendencies that they have struggled with the majority of their lives."
In eighth grade, Brooke began to experience severe panic attacks after her older brother left for college. She began seeing a therapist, but still had difficulties coping with anxiety as she began her freshman year at Marengo Community High School.
In high school, Brooke became a three-sport athlete, a role she says helped her manage the constant anxiety. By senior year, Brooke's anxiety had increased exponentially, resulting in a change in her relationship with food. She began to control her eating by monitoring her intake. Shortly after Brooke's high school graduation, her father suffered a heart attack, launching her into highly rigid eating patterns. Mesmer notes "the onset of many eating disorders tend to coincide with a traumatic event or major life transition," adding the feelings of power result from managing food are "developed as a way to manage the lack of control in their circumstances."
Brooke's continual restriction of food empowered her as the weight fell off. She began "body checking" as a way of monitoring her figure. "In the shower, I would grab my arm, and if it felt big, then, OK, I wasn't going to eat much that day."
Her "safe foods" were apples, popcorn and vegetables, which she believed would prevent any weight gain.
Dr. Denise Styer, clinical director of The Center for Eating Disorders at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates, explains labeling food as "good" or "bad" is a red flag. Indeed, as Brooke continued to eat only "safe foods," it wasn't long before she presented with a full-blown eating disorder.
Brooke is not alone in her battle with an ED. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), almost half a million children and teens will struggle with an eating disorder this year. NEDA also reports while females tend to have more ED diagnoses, millions of males also "battle all forms of the illness."
Several factors contribute to the onset of eating disorders, including biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences. Life transitions, traumatic events, and family dynamics and patterns also "play a vital role in the etiology and development of the illnesses," Mesmer says.
Styer and Mesmer agree there are specific warning signs signaling the onset of eating disorders. And while the list is not comprehensive, parents should be aware of the following indicators: excessive/rapid weight loss; distorted body image; use of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills; bingeing and purging; perfectionist tendencies, avoidance of social situations involving food, mood swings, frequent trips to the bathroom or use of shower following meals, hair loss, dizziness/fainting, changes in dental health, increased consumption of non/low calorie foods and/or beverages, bloodshot eyes, calorie restriction, skipping meals, excessive exercise, irregular menstrual cycle, and quirky or unusual eating habits.
Esther had missed the warning signs and her initial reaction to Brooke's anorexia was one of shock, fear and confusion.
She remembers asking Brooke, "Why are you starving yourself to death? Why can't you see what I see? You're a beautiful girl."
It is not uncommon for parents to misunderstand EDs. Styer explains the eating disordered brain struggles to process personal value and self-worth in a healthy way. "Eating disorders are not logical; they are distorted."
It is critical that parents focus on showing their child empathy and understanding, rather than trying to control the ED. Esther Martin wants other parents to know they cannot take responsibility for their child's eating disorder.
"You have to fight with them and take the time to listen. You want to react, fix it, and take it away from them. But you can't. You have to love them through it. It's a lifetime commitment and it takes courage."
According to Brooke, the keys to her continued healing have been a mixture of individual therapy, family support, and prescription medication. She fully believes the combination of each component is essential to her continued success in recovery, and wants others to know that utilizing helpful therapeutic interventions that improve mental health are a sign of strength. She also stresses the importance of parental support. "To know that you're still willing to listen helps give me the power to still be willing to fight."
Like so many others who struggle with eating disorders, there are days Brooke still wrestles with the symptoms of her ED, especially during life transitions. However, instead of simply focusing on the challenges she faces, Brooke's desire is to share her story in hopes others will learn to let go of the shame attached to their ED, so they can "dig deep and do the reflection" necessary for recovery.
Brooke has shared her message with area high school students, and desires to continue in this endeavor, hoping her voice will be an inspiration to a younger generation of adolescents struggling with an ED.
Brooke's journey through recovery, although difficult and often painful, highlights the beauty of her strength and reveals her incredible determination and courage. Her story brings hope and inspiration to others as they walk their own path toward healing.
Helpful hints for parents and loved ones caring for a person with an eating disorder:
• Know that YOU are an important part of the recovery process.
• Don't force the individual to eat or get pulled into power struggles.
• Attend family therapy sessions with an open mind and a willingness to make changes.
• Let the therapist/medical professional monitor your child's weight.
• Provide a safe and supportive environment that promotes health.
• Remain calm and manage your own emotions.
• Avoid self-criticism and be a model of self-acceptance.
• Model healthy eating habits.
• Practice effective communication and healthy management of emotions.
• Get support for yourself.
-- Cyndi Mesmer
Local author shares struggleMallory Faye, 18, of Buffalo Grove, author of the self-help book "Be FREED," (Tate Publishing, 2014) writes about her struggle with the eating disorder that defined her adolescent years and almost destroyed her life.
Faye, like Brooke Martin, knows that recovery is not a linear process.
"I am recovering to reality, not a utopia. There are relapses, but you're not back to square one. Every time you fall down, you stand up and keep moving. I'm unstoppable."
Faye believes that raising awareness of eating disorders is essential. She is on the junior board of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and is starting her own nonprofit organization called The Eating Disorder Mentoring Association. Her book is available in stores and online.
-- Catherine Dodd