Archives – The Deadly Reality of Eating Disorders

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The associated death rate in 15 to 24-year-olds women is 12 times higher than all other causes for that demographic. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of anorexics will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder. Though researchers are still studying the data, it appears the mortality rate for chronic bulimia is equally frightening.

Despite meeting hundreds of people on my road to recovery, I had never faced the death of a friend until this year. In the past two months, three fellow sufferers have passed away.

I knew these young women from an online eating disorder support forum. And with thousands of members coming and going, the odds were against our group. I have been part of that community since 2003, and without their honest and unwavering support, I wouldn’t have made it to treatment in 2005. Even when I wasn’t actively posting, I tried to keep an eye on all my beautiful friends struggling with this ugly disease. Some are healthy and no longer need an Internet message board to stay sane. Many are still there, six years later, fighting for recovery. Others have gone silent without an explanation. Though we hope for the best, that they got better or bored, we know the thing that brings us together could also end our lives.

Sadly we know exactly what happened to Jenn, Katrien and Jen. One of these young women was undergoing treatment for leukemia when her kidneys and liver failed. Weakened by years of bulimia, her organs could not take the stress of a blood marrow transplant. The other two took their own life.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for anorexics. For many years, doctors blamed this on frail bodies being unable to withstand even the most halfhearted attempts. But a recent study attributes the high death rate to the use of extremely lethal techniques with a low rescue potential. Hanging, taking a drug overdose and jumping in front of a train were the most popular methods. Whether you weigh 90 pounds or 290 pounds, it’s unlikely you’ll survive getting hit by a train.

Why is suicide the answer for so many? The toll that a chronic eating disorder takes on your body, and more importantly your mind, is devastating. More than a diet gone awry, eating disorders are a deadly disease with no proven cure. People struggle for years to develop a healthy relationship with their body and food, but only a third fully recover. When you see no end to the pain, the logical solution is to end it yourself. If you’ve been slowly killing yourself for years, it is much easier to take that last step on to the railroad tracks.

Farewell Jenn, Katrien and Jen. I hope you have finally found peace.


Archives – The Link Between Eating Disorders and Vegetarianism

A new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates adolescent vegetarians are more likely to have an eating disorder than their peers.

The study was designed to investigate the relationships between vegetarianism, weight and dieting behaviors in teenagers and young adults. Researchers found that 15 to 23-year-old vegetarians had healthier dietary intakes and were less likely to be overweight. The active vegetarians also displayed a higher incidence of disordered eating behaviors, including restriction, binging and purging. The highest risk group was young adults who’d formerly been vegetarians, with 27 percent displaying symptoms of an eating disorder.

The popular interpretation of this study has been an attack on adolescent vegetarianism. Admittedly any diet that allows you to reject an entire food group can be manipulated to benefit an eating disorder. Vegetarianism can also be a convenient excuse for someone looking to minimize or skip meals. In these instances, refusing meat is used as a method of restriction, which is distinctly different from vegetarianism motivated by morality or health concerns.

So I feel compelled to state the obvious – just because an eating disordered person is a vegetarian, it doesn’t mean they follow a vegetarian diet because of their eating disorder. Yes, I am a vegetarian, and yes, I am a recovering bulimic and anorexic. I began cutting meat out of my diet when I was 11 years old, before I had an eating disorder. My vegetarianism continues to be an ethical choice and has nothing to do with weight loss.

However I do think my vegetarianism and eating disorder share a common trait – thinking beyond the plate. In a society that encourages inhaling mass-produced junk food on a daily basis, conscious eating is a rarity. Very few people actually contemplate what they put in their mouth or how it will affect their body. Such blind consumption contributes to a slew of health issues, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be aware of where your food came from, to consider the impact it will have on your body, is exceptional. At its best, this attitude leads people to adopt a vegetarian diet. At its worst, this awareness contributes to a destructive mental illness.

It makes sense that people with eating disorders would also have moral opinions about where their food comes from. When you spend hours and days and years obsessing about the effect food has on your body, you are going to think about the food itself. You consider the ingredients, the processing and ultimately the origin. Spend enough time pondering these answers and vegetarianism is practically inevitable. But that does not mean the vegetarianism is disordered, it merely means the disorder helped bring you to vegetarianism.

Even when they coexist, a vegetarian diet and an eating disorder do not need to be codependent. You can recover from an eating disorder without consuming meat. My treatment team was very respectful of my beliefs. They helped me setup a meal plan that incorporated alternative sources of protein. One staff member even made special trips to the natural food store and brought me black bean burgers every week. They proved it was possible to refrain from meat while learning to eat again.

If you are a concerned parent, please realize that adolescent vegetarianism is not an eating disorder. It can be a very healthy and responsible diet. If your child decides to become a vegetarian, try to actively support that choice. Engage them in a conversation. Discuss their motivations and highlight the beneficial impact this can have on society and their long-term health. Then help your child eat a balanced diet. That may mean cooking special meals, or better yet teaching them to cook meatless dishes themselves. But don’t make them feel guilty about their choice. Mixing food with shame is a guaranteed recipe for an eating disorder. Support their decision now and you’ll build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Archives – Valerie Bertinelli and the Bikini Body Disorder

Like baseball and BBQs, attaining the perfect bikini body has evolved into an all-American pastime. Starting with spring break and extending through Labor Day, women and girls across the country strive to lose weight, tone their tummies and find a flattering swimsuit. We must earn our fun in the sun with a suitable figure.

Our nation is once again in the grips of bikini body disorder. So People magazine is patting itself on the back for putting a 48-year-old TV star in a two-piece bathing suit on the cover. And while this editorial decision does challenge one ideal, the article staunchly supports another. The Valerie Bertinelli story is merely a glorification of weight loss. Thanks to a rigid diet and exercise routine, the actress was able to whittle her figure down to a stereotypically accepted size 6. Apparently middle aged women can be sexy, but they have to drop 50 pounds first.

This wasn’t Bertinelli’s first People cover. In April 2007, she earned that honor for her public declaration to slim down. “I need to do this in front of millions of people so I can’t mess up,” Bertinelli said. “It is freeing because I can say it first: I know what you’re thinking – I’m fat.” According to the current issue, she rarely made public appearances at her high weight of 172 pounds. This is obviously a woman with serious body image issues. But two years and a Jenny Craig endorsement later, she’s bearing it all on the beach, promoting herself as a health and weight-loss activist.

Because age is one of the ways our society discriminates against women’s bodies, the story initially appears inspirational. “A bikini? I’m too old for bikinis!” cries Bertinelli. “Then I realized, Wait a minute. Why not a bikini?”

But the article quickly devolves into a glorified diet ad. At times, it goes a step further, eerily echoing eating disorder rhetoric. “I’m just one jalapeno popper away from being 40 lbs. heavier again,” says Bertinelli. She adds that every time she looks in the mirror, “My eyes go immediately to the parts I don’t like, the jiggly bits.”

This type of story reinforces extreme dieting and negative body image. Bertinelli claims, “We all just need to appreciate our bodies for what they are, jiggly bits and all.” Yet she could not do that herself. Not only did she diet down to 132 pounds in nine months, she got down to 123 for the photo shoot, hiring a personal trainer and restricting her calories to rock bottom levels. Now she vows to “stay vigilant” and keep working on her waistline.

Far from a tale of body acceptance, Bertinelli’s bikini quest exemplifies our twisted obsession with losing weight. It supports the cliché that no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’ve accomplished professionally or personally, there is always room for improvement. And for American women, that improvement starts on the scale.

Archives – Verses of Forgiveness

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Beneath the salt of everyday life, there was a bitter taste to my skin. I could feel it on my tongue, intensifying after days of not eating, when the fat burned away and my essence rose to the surface. I was a sour girl. I was an angry girl. I was a girl who lived the opening lines of “Stay Golden” by Au Revoir Simone. “I saw it coming/ I just thought that you should know.”

What I saw coming this time was the inevitable break up of yet another unhealthy relationship. My boyfriend told me he was moving to LA in the middle of a rock concert. He handed me a drink, leaned close so I could hear him through the whining electric guitar and sharp popping of drums, and said he was leaving. The June night pressed into my skull, hot and pulsing, cauterizing the senses. By the time he said he didn’t want anything to change, he wanted to make it work, even over such a long distance, I had cut him away. He was already another ex-boyfriend.

“Stay Golden” is my anthem of forgiveness, fittingly off an album titled Verses of Comfort, Assurance and Salvation. Of all the things that weighed on me, that made my body feel fat and bloated, my latent resentments were the heaviest. I had never learned to forgive, probably because I can never forget. I remember every word, the clothes we were wearing, the books on the bed stand. The picture may fade with time, yet the negative is always there, smudged faces and ghost eyes burned into my brain.

Or perhaps it was just men. I could not forgive men. A man’s rough hands grabbed me and broke my trust long ago, and other men followed, snapping my instincts of worth and preservation, leaving only dry kindling behind. I tried to make my body perfect so a perfect man would love me. I merely succeeded at making my body sick so only sick men could love me.

So it is no surprise that my deepest grudges were with ex-boyfriends and former flings. “A careless word is complicated,” Au Revoir Simone sighs. “An emptiness still leaves a space.”

When I met Au Revoir Simone at SXSW, I had the uneasy feeling of looking in a mirror. They had the same dark hair and bangs, loose tops over skin-tight pants, an air of sweet sorrow even after a successful show. When I asked them about their fans, the singing keyboardists immediately acknowledged the dedicated young girls who grabbed onto their music with such force.

I smiled in recognition. Of course the lovesick band geeks and dark artists embraced Au Revoir Simone. These young women know what it is like to be a sour girl. I can hear the acid lingering in their lyrics. “So don’t feel bad,” they reassure the clumsy man who held a delicate heart. “Realize all your emotion/ And may you find all your relations/ Will keep you free.”

But in “Stay Golden,” Au Revoir Simone shows there is an aftermath to anger. The music is a fall day in Brooklyn, sitting alone at a coffee shop, the terrible memories buffered in a Prozac dream. It is a muted script, a close-up of a girl staring out the window, pale sunshine and poplars reflected on her cheeks, thinking, but not too deep, not so deep that it hurts. The sharp edges and chords of dissonance are removed.

“I’m feeling better every day.” When they sing this line in their soft bird voices, I think of mercy. I think of moving on, of recognizing and making amends. I think of a beautiful view. It is always fresh, always pure, always on the horizon. There is a reason to drift forward. There is something beautiful over the next hill.

“I’m feeling better every day.” The most beautiful lyrics, repeated twice, more melodic than the rest, remind me where I am today. They remind me to turn these patterns of golden light into a new memory. They remind me to forgive.

I do not have to make myself anything. I let myself be happy, I let myself be kind, I let myself be at peace. And I am feeling better. Every single day.

Archives – This is the Simple Life?

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

“Write yourself: your body must make itself heard.” – Helene Cixous

The thin body is made for consumption. Reduced to its essence, potent and pure, distilled on sleek magazine covers, we swallow it like a smooth pill. We stare hungrily at tabloids in the supermarket checkout line, rows of artistically angular women staring coldly back. The thin body itself does not consume. It transcends want and need. And Nicole Richie, a girl who is clearly needy, who so desperately wants to be wanted and has redesigned her body to attend those needs, rises above the rest.

In November 2005, the reality TV star graced the cover of cheeky Jane magazine. On The Simple Life, which debuted in 2003, Richie was the court jester to Paris Hilton’s princess routine. She had the foul mouth and dirty mind to pull it off, but she also looked the part. Hilton’s svelte body and carefully coifed appearance was the ultimate foil to Richie’s round, ratty, ridiculous look. So when she appeared in Jane, resplendent amongst a hazy field of summer flowers, she was barely recognizable. The rough-hewn recovering heroin addict suddenly possessed classic Audrey Hepburn grace. Richie had new clothes, new hair, new makeup, a new dog. But the most dramatic difference was her new body. The teaser on the cover read, “Nicole Richie on her drastic weight loss and that Paris catfight.” By dropping the pounds Richie shed her old image.

This is the slim-down dream: Leave your excess baggage behind, become light as a bird, and the sky is the limit. It is no surprise that her continuing weight loss was applauded as part of a stunning makeover. In Style dedicated their summer 2006 “Beauty Transformation” to Richie, displaying an initially unflattering timeline of pictures starting in November 2001 that culminated in her triumphant rebirth as “a modern Twiggy.”

Then the narrative became more sensational. On Nov.13, 2006, Richie was once again a cover girl. This time she was the lead story for celebrity magazines OK! and In Touch, and was prominently featured on the front of People, Life & Style and Us Weekly. She even got The National Enquirer. The headlines declared “Scary-Thin Nicole Seek Treatment” and “85 lb. Nicole’s Fight for Her Life.”

When her body continued to shrink, going from stunning to scary, Richie defined a new breed of skinny star. The tabloids anointed them the “pin-thins.” Teen idols like Lindsey Lohan, Mischa Barton and Richie passed their nights in the same clubs with the same men wearing the same designer clothes. Yet the common link in their narratives became self-destruction in all forms, especially those vices that could support their poignantly waifish appearance.

Eating disorders are conventionally interpreted as a way to take control, to reestablish personal power by seizing your own body. But control took on a different connotation with the pin-thins. These young women were referred to as “out of control.” Their alleged eating disorders looked more like a rebellious outburst or angry addiction than the passive submission of starvation. Each pound lost symbolized another screw falling from their unhinging lives. Ultimately, these freefalling party girls overindulged, even when it came to restrictive nature of extreme weight loss.

In a perverse inversion that confirms every little girl’s body image nightmares, the dangerously tiny stars become increasingly popular. Life & Style featured Richie in a September cover story called “Body Obsession: Extreme diets! Plastic surgery! Why gorgeous young stars are risking their lives for the perfect body.” The perfect body meaning extreme thinness, an aesthetic that physically and mentally weakens women. Losing significant amounts weight requires a caloric deficit through restriction or purging that leaves the body constantly lacking fuel. So the body begins to eat itself in an attempt to survive, burning both fat as well as muscle tissue, which includes vital organs like the heart. Maintaining an unnatural weight requires a similar physiological struggle. As the body attempts to reset its metabolism, everything slows to a sluggish pace, the brain fuzzy and the body weak, still consuming itself in an attempt to find enough energy for daily functions.

Richie adamantly denies her weight loss is due to an eating disorder, but do the semantics matter when her body so clearly plays the part of an anorexic? The drastic weight loss has stripped away her multi-dimensional personality and turned her into a commodity, something to buy and consume. And commodities do not get to speak. In lieu of quotes, the tabloids prefer to highlight photographic timelines of her figure. In Touch estimated Richie is 5’2″ and lost 35 pounds in 3 years, equal to 28 percent of bodyweight. Life & Style guessed 40 pounds, showing three pictures of Richie labeled with their assessment. “First she was plump” at 125 pounds in 2003. After dropping to 108, “she was just right” at the end of 2004. “But then she went too far” when she hit 85 pounds.

Richie’s thinness, initially praised, now suspicious, has become the only voice we listen to. In the startling pictures, beneath the layers of designer clothes and huge sunglasses, her bones are razor sharp, her joints luminous in the fluorescent lights. We see an empty body; we see an empty soul. An empty soul is a blank canvas; a blank canvas is endless with possibilities. This lost girl, searching for love, found it the dead space that now surrounds her. So we watch, stealthy as vultures, always wanting, ravenous for more.

Archives – Whine On, Amy, Whine On

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Amy Winehouse won’t go to rehab. No no no. But we know she should.

“Rehab” is an undeniably contagious track. The defiant anthem of denial is the jazzy songbird’s personal motto and claim to fame, blurring the lines between creative expression and scandalous exploits, saturating both popular and alternative media. And in Winehouse’s personal life, each new debauchery exceeds the last. It is tragically inevitable she will abuse herself into some sort of treatment program, voluntary or not, and onto the cover of Rolling Stone. Or perhaps Wenner and crew will wait until she releases her third album, a painful yet mature reflection on her troubles and triumphs, glorious with emotional rebirth. As long as the main character survives, the story can write itself. If she falls, switch to the alternative ending that references Janis Joplin.

“I don’t need drugs or alcohol,”€ Winehouse told the British press in October. “It’s something to do when I’m bored.”

Apparently the 23-year-old is nearly bored to death. Winehouse is firmly enmeshed with the gossip columns, which means a very public record is kept of her various binges and outbursts, as well as her fluctuating weight and tumultuous relationships. During interviews she loudly declares she faces nearly every mental demon in the DSM-IV, from unmedicated manic depression to addiction to bulimia, while simultaneously insisting she does not need help.

I can certainly relate to the situation. Before I entered residential treatment for an eating disorder that was supported by a regime of pharmaceuticals, I did not plan on going to rehab either. As Winehouse said, “I don’t need help because if I can’t help myself I can’t be helped.”€ I could admit that I was sick, but it took two weeks of detox and stabilization to admit checking myself in was a good idea. After ten years of bad decisions it was hard to believe I finally made a good one.

That is one of the most difficult aspects of accepting help: giving up your old identity. Problems like alcoholism and depression become so pervasive that they predetermine your entire life. Every thought and every choice, it all falls back to that place of suffering, maintaining the sick circle. At least you know what is coming.

Who would Amy Winehouse be if she wasn’t a boozer and brawler? What would she do everyday? And what on earth would she sing about?

“I only write about stuff that’s happened to me, stuff I can’t get past personally,”€ she said in this month’s Blender. “Luckily, I’m quite self-destructive.”

And when there is nothing left to destroy, no fat left to burn, the ultimate decision arrives. All the excess self, the bad feelings and recurring nightmares, are gone. You are down to bones, the vital organs, pale skin that barely keeps the world out. Do you preserve what is left or push ahead, oblivious, disappearing?

If you have already worn yourself down to the heart, cannibalized the muscles that bind your soul, it is too late. The stories cannot be untold and the pictures cannot be erased. There is nothing to salvage, just tiny pieces of paper, floating aimlessly, bleeding in the rain, forgotten. The once persuasive record becomes a rallying cry of demise, a pathetic plea, a suicide note. The DJ won’t spin such sad songs on Saturday night.

Archives – A Love Letter to Margot

This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Winter in the Midwest is a bitter time. The sky is gray and heavy, flattened steel, holding back the sun, pressing down on your shoulders. The grass is brown and the trees are bare. Each breath is sharp, sending small crystals of frozen air into your aching lungs. How do keep your blood flowing and your body awake? How do you crack the foggy ice that has petrified your mind?

If you are Richard Edwards, a 21-year-old college student living in a dank Indianapolis basement full of spiders and worms, getting in bed at 11 a.m. and sleeping until 9 at night, trying to keep your heart beating through your first break-up, you write a song. Then you write another. You play your guitar. You make something beautiful.

“I’ve always been a writer,” Edwards says, a hint of self-consciousness creeping into his already quiet voice. “And yeah, most songs are about myself, something that is bugging me. That record was not all personal, but it was certainly introspective. I was younger, I was upset about life.”

Unlike most ballads of depression, Edwards’ music begged for something bigger than a single acoustic guitar. He began collecting talented musicians, from a classic cellist and trumpet player to a pair of guitar-rocking, drum-beating brothers. Armed with Edwards’ songs and the power of eight inspired players, Margot and the Nuclear So-and-Sos exploded onto the indie rock scene.

I first heard Margot in 2005, when I was struggling to find my way in a new city and a new life. I was a new person, only one year out of rehab for an eating disorder, still struggling with the inertia of my self-destructive impulses. But in this confusing and ugly world I could always escape into the beauty and hope of music. I laid my body on the bed, put “Dust of Retreat” in the stereo and let Margot’s haunting lyrics and unyielding strings lift me up.

There was one song in particular that resonated in the marrow of my bones. It begins with the steady thump of a bass drum, cello and guitar layering on top of it, Edwards’ voice growing from the melody. “On a freezing Chicago street we shook/ Your hands were trembling from all those pills you took/ And we got drunk on cheap red wine in a paper cup.”

It was my Midwestern hometown, it was the oppressive winter, it was that faulty body, it was those easy escapes. Yet this time it was beautiful. All these sad, painful things created beauty.

“And I was barely awake when you got home/ And climbed yourself into bed wearing cheap perfume/ And Sarah screamed, your every breath is a gift/ if you weren’t so selfish then you might want to live.”

Yes, selfish. That was the right word. So selfish that you want to throw the pain away. You see the potential, you know what you could make yet you waste it. Not only is every breath a gift, every ache is a blessing and every tear is a promise. Yes, you are lucky to have this pain, to have its power.

“So if your lover should leave don’t get too sad/ And don’t compose epic poems to win her back/ Cause when your bird has flown, she’ll never return home/ Though all your life you’ll wait she never will return.”

When Edwards thinks back to the mildewed basement, the girl that got away, the nights that were his days, he is happy. Not content or ready to stop creating, but he is at peace.

“I always had this grand dream,” he says. “As long as you are doing it for the music, I think those goals act like hope. It meant all this had a purpose.”

Even the unbearable, the broken heart, can lead to this. From the cracks in the dark, pulsing muscle a delicate life begins to grow. The heart has already been broken, the sadness has already washed over you, these things will not change. Pull them all together, weave in each disappointment and fear and sharp memory, and you will find something new. These are not endings but a beginning. Make something beautiful.