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Eating disorders aren’t ‘all about vanity’

May 3rd, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Bonnie Phelps

LOGAN—Sharon Slack wondered what she was doing to herself as she sat on the cold floor of her bathroom, head hung over the toilet bowl. At 17 years old, Slack didn’t feel she was pretty enough; especially when she compared her Marilyn Monroe figure to her slender sisters and the stick-thin super models that were becoming so popular. Her fear of becoming fat caused her to take extreme measures that she knew were harmful to her health.

“My grandmother was very over-anxious about weight,” Slack said. “Every time we would go visit she would say to me, ‘Oh Sharon, you’re so pudgy.’” Slack said these remarks only fed her fear of becoming overweight and confirmed in her mind that she wouldn’t be acceptable unless she was thin.

“I was just really freaked out about being heavy, and I was really sick as a child, so I knew it was really easy for me to throw up,” Slack said.

She was 17 the first time she induced vomiting. She said she had eaten too much and felt uncomfortable, so she went into the bathroom and forced the food out of her body. That was the beginning of her struggle with bulimia.

“I knew it was harmful to my body, and that always bothered me,” Slack said.

She would get scared after she threw up. “It would just freak me out that I could do it so easily,” she said. Slack tried time and time again to stop throwing up, but it was easier said than done.

She struggled with bulimia off and on for 10 years, even after she was married. Slack said she didn’t have a problem with bulimia when she was pregnant because she was throwing up all the time anyway, but when she struggled to lose the naturally occurring weight after her first child was born, she reverted back to bulimia. “I probably would have two or three bouts a month,” she said. “I knew I was hurting myself, but I was just so afraid of being fat.”

Slack struggled again with bulimia after her second child was born, but after dealing with the emotional turmoil that came with knowing she was abusing her body, she decided enough was enough.

“It was my religious conviction that made me quit,” she said. Slack is a Latter-day Saint and has a strong belief in God. She said she would pray a lot during her bouts of bulimia, and God was the only person she ever told.

Not even her husband knew. “I couldn’t bear to be unacceptable in anyone’s eyes, and I feared that would happen if I told.”

When Slack was asked how she felt after abstaining from bulimia for one year, she said, “I was stunned that I could do it that long. I felt great.”

Slack said she never sought professional help, because she didn’t want to tell anyone about her eating disorder. “I never told anyone until I had it licked,” she said. “I was very blessed to be able to overcome it with God’s help. He truly was my counselor. But if you can’t overcome it on your own, you need to get professional help.”

Cache Valley has professional help >> Avalon Hills is a treatment center for eating disorders with facilities in Petersboro and Paradise, and headquarters in Logan. They treat eating disorders that produce too much weight loss, as well as those that lead to too much weight gain. They provide treatment for girls and women ages 11-60.

Dr. Tera Lensegrav-Benson is a psychologist for Avalon Hills and works with the clients on a daily basis. Asked what she considered the most common misconception about eating disorders, she said “that it’s all about vanity.” These aren’t completely self-absorbed, selfish girls who only care about looking beautiful, she said.

If your goal isn’t to lose weight, why do you develop an eating disorder? Some may want to narrow the cause of eating disorders down to one thing, but Lensegrav-Benson said you couldn’t do that.

“There isn’t one thing that causes eating disorders,” she said. “You have to look at it as a three step model—bio, psycho and social.” According to her, the bio part of the model is genetic makeup, the psycho part can be a way to deal with stress or other psychological issues, and the social part is the desire to be accepted and pressure to fit in.

When Lensegrav-Benson was asked what the hardest thing for a person with an eating disorder to overcome is she said, “Honestly, it’s highly individual.” She said she couldn’t say one thing is the hardest, or even give a rough estimate, because every person is different. Avalon Hills recognizes the uniqueness of every situation and tailors a course of recovery for each individual’s specific needs, she said.

Avalon Hills is a residential treatment center, which means that clients live in the homes during their treatment. Avalon Hills can accommodate up to 24 clients at a time, 12 in the adolescent home and 12 in the adult home. The adolescent home is for girls ages 11-17, and the adult home is for women ages 18-60.

Ken Cozzens, director of business development, said the average stay for a client is 90 days. The minimum stay length is 60 days for adolescents and 45 for adults. Avalon Hills started serving adolescents in 2003, has offered therapy for adults since 2005 and has had a running waiting list since 2007. Cozzens said before the adult home was opened the girls had to be discharged when they were 18, ready or not. He said that CEO Benita Quakenbush-Roberts didn’t feel like all the girls that were being discharged were fully recovered and ready to leave. This caused her to open the adult home.

Lensegrav-Benson said part of Avalon Hills’ recovery program is helping the girls cope with real life situations. “We take them shopping for things that might be challenging for their body image,” she said. She said the clients also get involved in community events to help them feel a part of the world while they are in recovery.

A big part of Cozzens’ and Lensegrav-Benson’s job is to work with the clients’ insurance companies for funding. The cost at Avalon Hills is based on a sliding scale, Cozzens said. This means the cost will be adjusted to someone’s ability to pay. When asked if insurance pays for this kind of treatment, Cozzens smiled and said, “They pay. Most programs don’t fight like we do as far as insurance goes.”

Lensegrav-Benson said the most frustrating part of her job is the “lack of appropriate funding for girls who are critically ill.” She said eating disorders are very prevalent, but those with authority often lack understanding of how serious it is, so there isn’t adequate funding.

Alzheimer’s affects fewer people than eating disorders but receives more funding>> According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorder prevalence is estimated to affect approximately 10 million people, 5.5 million more than Alzheimer’s disease. The estimated research funding for eating disorders is $12 million, $635 million less than Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, “The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15-24 years old.”

A NEDA fact sheet said anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Other facts from NEDA include:
–Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. –42 percent of 1st-3rd graders want to be thinner.
–Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet related products each year.

According to the National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC), it is important to know the symptoms of and reasons for eating disorders so you will be able to recognize them if they are manifested in the actions of someone you care about.

The Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) said anorexia nervosa has two subtypes: the restricting type and the binge-eating/purging type. A person with the restricting type will lose weight by abstaining from food, and possibly by excessive exercise. Someone with the binge-eating/purging type will also restrict food intake, but will binge regularly. In order to reverse the effects of binging, they induce vomiting, or misuse laxatives, diuretics and/or enemas.

Also according to AED, bulimia nervosa has two subtypes: the purging type and the non-purging type. The purging type describes individuals like Sharon Slack whose binges are followed by self-induced vomiting, or the misuse of diuretics, laxatives or enemas. Non-purging bulimics compensate for binging by fasting or excessive exercise.

According to NEDA statistics, “The average U.S. resident is exposed to approximately 5,000 advertising messages a day . . . A study of one teen adolescent magazine over the course of 20 years found that in articles about fitness or exercise plans, 74 percent cited ‘to become more attractive’ as a reason to start exercising.” The same website said women’s magazines have 10.5 times more articles and advertisements promoting weight loss than men’s magazines do.

The statistics posted on the USU Student Health and Wellness Center’s website say 91 percent of women on college campuses have tried to control their weight through dieting.

Another NEDA fact sheet said that dieting can lead to an eating disorder. “Dieting may not cause an eating disorder, but the constant concern about body weight and shape, fat grams and calories can start a vicious cycle of body dissatisfaction and obsession that can lead all too quickly to an eating disorder,” the fact sheet said. It also said that studies and health professionals say that several patients suffering from an eating disorder were dieting when the eating disorder was developed.

Psychiatrist Anne E. Becker is the director of the eating disorders clinical and research program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Becker conducted research in Fiji on the relationship between eating disorders and the media.

An article on Becker’s research was written by Corydon Ireland and published in the “Harvard News Office.” It said, “In 1995, without television, girls in Fiji appeared to be free of the eating disorders common in the West. But by 1998, after just a few years of sexy soap operas and seductive commercials, 11.3 percent of adolescent girls reported they at least once had purged to lose weight. To illustrate this rapid transformation of ideals, Becker quoted from the 1998 interviews. ‘I want their body,’ said one girl of the Western shows she watched. ‘I want their size.’”

Eating disorders can be overcome>> When Lensegrav-Benson was asked if a person could recover from an eating disorder she said, “Honestly, the answer is yes.” She said it’s a long haul, and the struggles and thoughts will probably always be there, but that doesn’t mean they are going to act on them. This means that, yes, a person can fully recover.

This was true for Sharon Slack. When she resolved to take control of her bulimia after her second child was born, her determination saw her through. She became pregnant again three years later and was very ill for a few days. “I couldn’t keep any food down and I threw up every half hour,” she said. “It was then that I realized this was not a healthy lifestyle and I would never do it again.”

Slack hasn’t induced vomiting for 33 years now. When asked if she has more confidence now than she had then, she responded with a hearty “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I feel so much better about myself now.” She did say that occasionally the thought to vomit will enter her mind, but it is immediately shoved out with a determined “absolutely not!

“I am still very health conscious and jog three miles two to three times a week,” she said.

She said she has found peace in being healthy and has realized her worth as a woman.

When Slack was asked what she would tell girls who are struggling with feelings of worthlessness, she answered through tearful emotion, “I would tell them they are so incredibly, uniquely beautiful . . . If she would just be honest with herself, she would realize she is such a wonderful, incredible person; and that if someone has a problem with her, that’s their problem, not that young woman’s.”

After regaining her composure, Slack ended by saying “Truth is freedom. When you recognize you are a person of value is when you release yourself from that prison. And eating disorders are a self-made prison.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, Lensegrav-Benson reminds you that there are options for you. “Keep hope,” she said. “If you want treatment, that treatment can be available to you. It is possible to recover.”

You can call Avalon Hills at 1-800-330-0490, or visit their website avalonhills.org.


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