'Transformation is possible': Naperville vigil to support those affected by eating disorders

 
 
Updated 5/18/2019 5:28 PM
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  • More than 300 people are expected to gather Monday at the Linden Oaks Candlelight Vigil in Naperville for those affected by eating disorders.

    More than 300 people are expected to gather Monday at the Linden Oaks Candlelight Vigil in Naperville for those affected by eating disorders. Courtesy of Linden Oaks Behavioral Health

  • The theme of Linden Oaks Behavioral Health's 16th annual vigil is "Embracing Transformation and Becoming the Change."

    The theme of Linden Oaks Behavioral Health's 16th annual vigil is "Embracing Transformation and Becoming the Change." Courtesy of Linden Oaks Behavioral Health

There were times when Andrea Chow didn't think she would make it to the other side.

She spent more than 15 years fighting an eating disorder that made her feel ashamed and embarrassed. She used behaviors she knew were unhealthy, that didn't align with her morals and values. She was living a life that didn't match who she really was, but she didn't know how to stop.

Several years and many different types of treatment later, Chow will stand before hundreds of people Monday night in Naperville and share her recovery journey during a candlelight vigil for those affected by eating disorders.

She predicts it will be the best moment of her life.

"It's a dream come true," said Chow, who hasn't used eating disorder behaviors for more than three years. "I really never thought that I could get there. I always hoped that I could, but it was just so difficult for so long that it was almost impossible sometimes to even think I'd have this opportunity.

"I definitely am just so grateful to be able and alive to do it."

A Glen Ellyn native who now lives in Chicago, Chow will be among a handful of patients and family members to speak at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health's 16th annual vigil, which has a theme of "Embracing Transformation and Becoming the Change." The event is open to the public and begins at 6 p.m. in the healing garden on the Edward Hospital campus, 801 S. Washington St.

The vigil will feature musical performances, presentations by former patients and a candle lighting ceremony. In addition to celebrating patients who are going through recovery, it will recognize those who have died from eating disorders, said Erin Terada, clinical director of the Linden Oaks eating disorders program.

Anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, she said. They also can lead to serious, long-term medical complications, such as infertility, weakening of the bones, or damage to the heart and other organs.

Once eating disorder behaviors begin, it takes an average of five years for a person to be accurately diagnosed, Terada said. Then comes the challenge of seeking treatment.

Chow developed an eating disorder when she was in her teens, sometime around 2000. As an athlete, she was experimenting with "healthy eating" that quickly escalated to unhealthy behaviors.

Though she hid her disorder for a long time out of shame, Chow eventually realized she needed help because no matter how hard she tried, she wasn't able to stop on her own.

Unfortunately, she learned, there is no fast fix.

The road to recovery has been long and tedious, said Chow, who went through inpatient treatment twice at Linden Oaks and once more at another facility. The behaviors would ebb and flow through the years as she tried going to different therapists, seeing dietitians and attending group therapy.

"It really is something that does take a while, because any sort of change in environment or change in how your meal plan is arranged or change in circumstance could kick you back to relapse," Terada said. "It's not unusual for people to come in and out of treatment while they're on that path of seeking full recovery."

Eating disorders affect people of all ages and walks of life, she said, and everyone's treatment, recovery process and moment of clarity is different.

For Chow, the first step was lowering her expectations and understanding her situation wouldn't change overnight. The turning point, she said, was the realization that her issues with food were the smoke and mirror to larger, unresolved mental health issues.

"It's easy for people to say, 'Why don't you just eat? Why don't you just stop?' If it were that simple, we would do it," Chow said. "It's usually not about appearance or weight or calories. Those are just the indicators of something else going on."

In the midst of recovery, it can be difficult to see the big picture. But once Chow reached the light at the end of the tunnel, she said, her life changed completely. She became an environmental activist in her spare time. She was more honest, reliable and available for her loved ones. And she's been able to use what she's learned to help others in similar situations.

"That's a part of the message, I think, is you have to hold on until the miracle happens," Chow said. "Change and recovery will happen. Transformation is possible, and it'll all make sense one day."

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