When her kids were in school, Sharon spent her days alone, clinging to an unhealthy routine. She would exercise all day, and not eat anything until late at night. After years of suffering, Sharon finally sought treatment for her eating disorder. Maiken Scott has her story.
This week marks eating disorders awareness week, a topic that might evoke images of emaciated teenagers. But treatment centers in our region are seeing older women come in for help with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Treatments vary, and research into results is surprisingly sketchy. Maiken Scott of WHYY’s Behavioral Health Desk looks at the situation.
In her one-woman performance piece Eating Disorders from the Inside Out Philadelphia therapist Judy Freed sings about the suffering and frustration involved with eating disorders…
Lyrics: staring at the mirror, hating everything she sees. Keeps getting clearer, all that she’ll never be. And how she wants to be what she’s supposed to be [song title Reflections from the CD Chipping Away by Judy Freed]
Freed, who has both personal and professional experience with the topic, wrote the piece to show hard it is to make sense of your life when you have an eating disorder.
Sharon, a 45 year old mother of two who lives in Philadelphia has been to the dark place Freed describes.
Sharon: The whole day revolved around exercising, thinking about what I was going to eat, finally eating it, and then going to sleep.
Maiken: And what did you eat?
Sharon: My famous bowl of cream of wheat with just a little jelly and a little margerine, had a little piece of toast with that.
Sharon says at the height of her disorder, she feared she would ingest calories just by smelling food:
Sharon: We lived across from WAWA and so when I walked the dogs I would always have to pass WAWA and of course people coming out with food and this and that so that meant, when I got home, I had to exercise more.
Sharon’s fear of food became so strong that one evening, she found herself unable to comfort her son because he had eaten a hamburger:
Sharon: He had had a horrible day at school, I will never forget this night, and I wouldn’t kiss him, i wouldn’t give him a hug, so that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So then I knew that if I couldn’t even relate to my kids, something was way wrong.
Sharon checked herself into Belmont Treatment Center. Her therapist, Susan Bash remembers her as anxious, emaciated, and frail.
Bash: And I remember you told me, Sharon, that you practically fell over with the wind one day…
Sharon: And I broke my leg…
Bash: …and you broke your leg, and I never forget she came in with hand weights because she was so stuck on continuing this life style even though part of her knew she had to give it up.
Therapists say understanding what is at the root of obsessive behaviors around weight and food often uncovers underlying issues.
Inkeles: There’s usually a constellation of different factors that may be involved
Barbara Inkeles, PsyD is a therapist at the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia. She says that in addition to eating disorders many of her patients have depression, anxiety, or struggle with addiction. Their eating disorder is coping mechanism in dealing with bigger problems:
Inkeles: Focusing that difficult energy on something concrete like your body or your nutrition and trying to control that can be a way of trying to manage difficult feelings about something else that is going on.
Renfrew and Belmont are well-known centers – but there’s little hard data testifying to the effectiveness of the treatments they provide to people like Sharon. Drexel University researcher Michael Lowe says there is a big disconnect between university research into eating disorders and what happens at community treatment centers. Lowe just completed a three-year study aimed at narrowing this gap. The research was done at Renfrew, as opposed to a controlled university setting.
Lowe: We brought in a whole new treatment approach that is very much based on the research literature on treating eating disorders and compared the outcome of our treatment with the normal treatment that goes on there
The results of the study haven’t been released, but Lowe says having researchers and practitioners work together to compare notes is crucial to providing better treatments for eating disorders.
As for Sharon, she’d count herself as evidence that current treatments can work. After completing weeks of in-patient and out-patient therapy at Belmont, she says the suffering and isolation caused by her eating disorder has ended. She describes her recovery simply, in a few words:
Sharon: I feel like I’m part of the world.
In recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 22-28), Friends Hospital is offering a free telephone consultation to individuals who believe they are suffering from an eating disorder, and concerned family members, from the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Callers to the hotline will speak to a licensed counselor who can provide input and feedback on a recommended course of action and determine whether follow-up treatment is needed. If you think that you or a loved one might be suffering from an eating disorder, please contact the Eating Disorder Program hotline at Friends Hospital at 215-831-4719, or visit their crisis center located at 4641 Roosevelt Blvd., Philadelphia, Pa.