My first exposure to an eating disorder was at sleepaway camp. My bunkmate started working out excessively, skipping meals, and disappearing. After a game of soccer in the summer heat she would hardly eat. She always had a reason why. She would say she was not feeling well or she already ate or that dairy made her stomach hurt, even though we all knew she loved chocolate milk. Our conversations would go silent and get awkward.
I wanted to let her know she could confide in me if she ever needed to talk. But she grew more isolated and allowed herself only quick phone calls with her parents who we knew were concerned about her. I’ve never forgotten her struggle.
She’s the reason I decided to become an eating disorder therapist, to help young women like her.
I grew up in Westport; it’s a wonderful, privileged place in which to grow up. Many of our teens and pre-teens receive a great deal of love and promise in their lives. But they also face pressure from so many places: a wrong friend group, getting weighed at the doctor’s office, glamorizing a celebrity, anxiety over friends, peer pressure, to name a few.
There are hopes and dreams they absorb from their parents, teachers, and friends. They're bombarded by social media messages that glorify being beautiful and thin. Our kids walk around with a monster in their pocket.
All of these experiences can make adolescents feel they lack the control to live up to expectations, so they control what they can: their bodies. They do so by how much they eat and how much they exercise.
So how do we know if we or someone we love has crossed the line into dangerous territory? Typically, it’s when the individual becomes overly concerned with thinness and displays a heightened fear of gaining weight.
Often those struggling with the disorder will avoid family meals, refuse to eat particular foods, or disappear after eating. Anxiety, obsessive exercise, and fad diets are all common signs. The kitchen, once a joyful arena in which to share a meal and conversation, becomes a contentious place.
If you suspect someone is struggling with a food disorder, there’s no reason to wait to get help - in fact, early intervention is key. An eating disorder can quickly become a best friend, despite its cruelty.
Love and family support is essential, but there are signs that a skilled therapist will recognize and can treat.
In addition to traditional modalities like psychotherapy and group therapy, a therapist can provide on-location meal support. I’ve often gone to the homes of our patients and worked with them in their own kitchens and dining rooms - even restaurants - helping them to meet the challenge of getting through a meal.
No one, not the person with the eating disorder or their family, should feel defeated or hopeless. Treatment is essential, but there is every reason for hope. Patients with eating disorders can and do improve, taking control of their bodies and their lives in a positive way and leading healthy, happy lives.