Rachel was 17 years old when she was first taken to her local doctor by her worried Mom for help. She looked older than her years— her lifeless eyes were shadowed, and her cheeks sunken. Her skin was pasty and stretched tightly across her cheekbones giving her a skeletal look. Her collarbones protruded sharply through her loose-fitting shirt. Despite her current appearance, Rachel still retained the traces of the beautiful young woman she had once been.
Two years earlier Rachel had been “chunky”, as her best friend, Chloe, had one day innocently commented. It didn’t help Rachel that Chloe was one of those naturally slim girls with all the leggy grace of a prize racehorse. And, just to turn the knife a little more, Chloe was also extremely attractive. On that particular day, something snapped in Rachel’s mind and she decided that she was going to be fat no more. She was going to look like Chloe. In fact, she was going to be even slimmer than Chloe.
Rachel began dieting in earnest. Soon she began losing weight and receiving compliments from her friends at school. Her parents commented she was looking particularly attractive. Within three months, she was even getting comments from the boys, something she had never previously experienced. For Rachel, life was good. For the first time, she felt in control.
Two years later, Rachel looked a sorry sight as she presented at a clinic with her worried mother. She weighed just 75 pounds. Why would an intelligent young woman enforce such a life-threatening regime on her body? And how is it possible to gain pleasure and self-confidence from losing enough weight to resemble a famine victim?
Anorexia nervosa is a perplexing disorder to both the friends and family of the sufferer. This is compounded by the fact that the sufferer themselves cannot see that they have a serious problem. In fact, ask any active anorexic what they think about their body and they will invariably tell you that they could stand to lose a pound or two. But most importantly, anorexia provides a means for the sufferer of not only controlling their body, but also, their lives. They derive a sense of power by being in control of their food intake. But although they use food in order to derive a sense of personal control, they are profoundly out of control.
Sadly, in gaining that sense of apparent control, many anorexic sufferers pay the ultimate price. World class gymnast Christy Heinrich died from the effects of anorexia at just 22, the singer Karen Carpenter met a similar fate after a long term battle with the disease.
It is important for the family and friends of the anorexia sufferer to understand that this is a recognized disorder and their daughter and friend is genuinely ill. Although anorexia does occur in males it is relatively rare. It is a disorder that requires and demands patience, unconditional love, and endless support from the associates of the sufferer.
We will look at issues such as early symptoms, understanding the anorexic mind, and current treatments in future articles.
Contact Beth McHugh for further information or assistance regarding this issue.