Eating Disorders: Everybody Knows Somebody

February 5, 2012, Mark Baldwin, The Republic, Columbus, IN

Although we don’t exactly shout it from the rooftop, my family never has hidden the experience of our middle daughter’s struggle with anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that leads some people — and especially smart and pretty young women — to starve themselves.

Very often, the conversation produces a flash of understanding.

There was the baseball executive. The City Council member back in Wisconsin. The fellow parishioner. The neighbor. The casual professional acquaintance.

All had firsthand experiences with eating disorders.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

After all, the theme of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, to be held Feb. 26 to March 3, is “Everybody Knows Somebody.”

Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, pegs the number of Americans battling a form of the illness — anorexia or one of its evil cousins, bulimia or binge eating disorder — at 24 million, a figure that dwarfs the number of those suffering from, for example, Alzheimer’s disease, estimated at about 5.4 million in 2011.

Some estimates put the eating disorders number as high as 30 million.

“The piece that’s missing is ‘eating disorders not otherwise specified,’” Grefe says. “That’s probably where most people are.”

To put it simply, that means sufferers are prone to bouncing pinball-fashion from anorexia to bingeing to bulimia.

Here’s one more fact to make you shiver: The mortality rate for eating disorders is higher than for any other mental illness, with death typically resulting from medical complications or suicide. And anorexic patients remain at higher risk for premature death for years after treatment.

One key to reducing the awful toll is to raise public awareness. Ignorance of eating disorders, their warning signs and their long-term effects is widespread. Teachers, coaches, physicians and plenty of others who ought to know, don’t

And that brings me to Daughter No. 3, a clever and articulate lass named Jane, who was required by circumstances beyond her control to transfer to Columbus North High School before her senior year. With the change of schools, of course, came the requirement that she produce a senior project.

Almost on the fly, Jane decided to draw a positive result from the experience of her sister’s illness and make eating disorder awareness the focus of her project.

One result of her work will be on display at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Bartholomew County Public Library, where Jane will screen a documentary called “Someday Melissa,” the story of Melissa Avrin, a New Jersey woman who died three years ago at 19 after a grueling battle with bulimia. The movie was produced by Melissa’s mom, who resolved to make something good come out of her daughter’s death.

The documentary will be followed by a question-and-answer session with a representative of the Coalition for Overcoming Problem Eating at Indiana University in Bloomington.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by Jane’s choice of topic. The two sisters are best friends — except, of course, when they’re mortal enemies. They’re very different, but their bond is unbreakable.

Her sister’s ordeal has been a significant influence on Jane’s teenage years. Like alcoholism, eating disorders distort family routines nearly beyond recognition as the illness exerts a centripetal force that draws all things to it.

Life in a household struggling with an eating disorder can be isolating. After all, who else understands that for the sufferer, “dinner” can be a few strands of chicken breast and a lettuce leaf?

Let me rephrase that. It was isolating — until it became clear just how many families out there have dealt with the same thing.

That’s why I’m writing today. If an eating disorder has wrapped itself around someone you love — or if you simply want to learn more — head to the library on the 16th.

A six-week hospital stay provided Daughter No. 2 some valuable tools for coping with her illness, though eating remains a high-anxiety endeavor. A sharp, sympathetic therapist in Bloomington has made a difference. Still, you can’t wave a magic wand to make an eating disorder vanish.

If you know what I mean, we should talk.

Mark Baldwin is editor of The Republic, Columbus Indiana which is where this post was published.  You can reach Mr. Baldwin at 379-5665 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MarkFBaldwin.

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