Chelsea Rucka had an eating disorder for more than two years before anyone noticed.
“Not many people knew I was sick,” said this 16-year-old recovering anorexic. (Her name is changed to protect her privacy.) “Eventually my family and a few very close friends figured it out, but I mostly denied it.”
She didn’t think her eating habits were such a big deal, but her father insisted that she go to the family doctor, who got her into counseling sessions.
“I had to have people with me every time I ate,” she reports. “This irritated me and made my mood swings worse. I would fight with family and friends about the littlest things.”
Walking through the halls of any high school, an eavesdropper will hear conversations on just about every topic—homework, The Simpsons, Friday night get-togethers. In this instance, an eavesdropper would hear a girl talking to another about being anorexic. She doesn’t seem to have any kind of a problem—she looks fine, doesn’t appear overweight or underweight.
That’s not unusual. Many people who suffer from eating disorders, primarily bulimia and anorexia, look perfectly normal. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a reluctance or refusal to maintain normal body weight. It’s often accompanied by an intense fear of weight gain, even though the patient may actually be severely underweight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting (“purging”). Bulimia often happens concurrently with anorexia, but it can happen independently.
These disorders tend to occur in adolescent girls and young women, but there have been cases of adolescent boys, young men, children approaching puberty, and older women up to menopause who were afflicted.
Judy Prim-Shimahara, family therapist and counselor for 11 years at the Washoe Medical Center Life Skills Department, says, “Most teens are driven by perfectionism and self-image.” Obsessed with perfection, they drive themselves into serious illness.
Prim-Shimahara estimates about 10 percent of the teen population suffers from eating disorders, and 95 percent of those are women. Sometimes eating disorders are undiscovered simply because the patient doesn’t appear to have a weight problem. Their problem is one of self-image. Patients may complain about their weight when they are, in fact, of normal weight or too skinny.
The therapist notes that there are quite a few irreversible long-term effects to eating disorders.
“Be aware that the end point is death,” she says. “When people are bulimic their electrolytes are out of balance, so some get heart attacks and even go through menopause by the shocking age of only 17.”
In fact, eating disorders run deeper than vanity or self-image. Many people suffer from these disorders because they feel they have no control over their lives. They tell themselves the one thing, at least, that they can control is what they eat.
Further, a large percentage of people with eating disorders have been victimized. In The Anatomy of a Food Addiction, Anne Katherine reports that a study found that out of 172 female purging bulimics, 66 percent of them had been physically victimized, and 52 percent of those had been sexually assaulted. Such abuse contributes powerfully to a loss of self-esteem and a feeling of being out of control.
So how are eating disorders recognized?
When someone is anorexic or bulimic, she (or sometimes he) might complain constantly about weight problems, when in reality her body weight is normal. She might exercise obsessively. Other effects and warning signs are isolation or depression. Once confronted, it may take a while for sufferers to acknowledge the problem, and it may take time for the family to accept and recognize it as well.
There are also about a dozen other less well known eating or weight disorders, such as anorexia athletica (compulsive exercising) and orthorexia nervosa, a preoccupation with “proper” or “pure” foods.
There are many places where teens who suffer from an eating disorder or think they do can go for help. School counselors can provide help and sources of information, as can the family doctor. Good local sources are the Family Counseling Service, 329-0623, the Washoe Medical Center Family Lifeskills Center, 982-5756, and the Crisis Call Center, 784-8090, and Center for Hope of the Sierras, firstname.lastname@example.org. Also excellent is the Teen On-Line Directory, a web site at www.unr.edu/hcs/ssw/told/index2.htm that offers counseling on a number of teen-related issues and problems.
Lexi Goodwin and Naomi Cardi are students at Rainshadow High School.