Teen eating disorders terrifying, hidden


"Jenna" speaks the lingo of therapists who work with eating disorders. She uses terms such as "purge free" to say that she no longer throws up after meals. She says "restricting food intake" to refer to the girls she knows who try to live on 150 and 200 calories a day.

She speaks the language of a girl who has been in and out of counseling and treatment since the ninth grade, when her mother discovered that she was throwing up after meals.

Jenna is a junior at Steamboat Springs High School. In February, her heart was barely beating. After years of malnutrition and subsisting on barely enough food to keep her alive, Jenna's body was shutting down. She was dying.

She knew that she wasn't well, but she didn't care, she said. Dying was better than getting fat.

Jenna began throwing up after meals when she was in seventh grade. A few friends at school had discovered they could eat whatever they wanted and still lose weight if they threw up after the meal. Jenna decided to join them.

"I'd always been worried about food," she said. "My older brothers are both ski racers and they were always talking about diet and body weight."

At the beginning, she just threw up after dinner. Soon, she was throwing up after every meal.

Seventh grade may seem young to be so concerned about body weight, but according to one report, 42 percent of first- and third-grade girls surveyed wanted to be thinner, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds were afraid of being fat, Steamboat Springs High School counselor Valerie McCarthy said.

Eating disorders commonly start in adolescence and early adulthood, said therapist Nan--cy Young who treats eating disorders in Steamboat.

"When women over 25 come to me with an eating disorder, usually they've been doing it for five, 10 and 15 years," she said.

Dieting is a major part of our culture, Young said. The United States supports a $50 billion-a-year industry dedicated to the business of dieting and weight loss. No one is suspicious of a teenage girl or woman counting calories or watching what she eats, and that makes eating disorders easy to disguise.

Jenna's mother didn't find out about Jenna's bulimia until she had been throwing up meals for two years. Her mom confronted her and took her to a counselor, but even after treatment began and her family's watchful eyes were on her, she didn't stop purging.

"No one in Steamboat was able to help my daughter," Jenna's mom said. "They kept trying to figure out some deep dark secret that was driving her to do this. It was discussed, not treated."

After two years with bulimia, Jenna compared her eating disorder to a drug addiction.

"If someone was dying next to me and I needed to go throw up or workout, I think I would have," she said. "Your mind gets addicted to it. After a while, your body won't let you hold food down. It's not the kind of thing you can just stop."

To the outside world, Jenna was living a perfect teenage existence. Her grades were good. She played sports and was involved in several extra-curricular activities.

Including dance classes and sports practice, Jenna was exercising for more than four hours a day, all on a starvation diet.

A year ago, her body shut down for the first time and she was taken to The Children's Hospital in Denver. She was admitted into treatment for eating disorders. She shared a room with another girl from Steamboat who was going through the same thing.

She stayed in the hospital for three weeks. She pretended to get better, she said. "It didn't scare me at all."

She didn't get scared until months later, when her body started shutting down for a second time. Her potassium was low. Her heart was slow and skipping beats. Her doctor was afraid she might have a heart attack. A pediatric heart specialist was put on call, and Jenna was rushed to the emergency room at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

The next day, her parents drove her to The Children's Hospital in Denver, where she stayed for five weeks.

"The first time around, I thought I needed to pretend to get better to please everyone," she said. "This time, I realized that if I wanted to live after high school, I needed to get over this."

Jenna was released from the hospital in March. She still has three doctor appointments a week and regular meetings with a dietician. Only six weeks out of treatment, Jenna has a long way to go.

According to the PBS documentary, "Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family," residential treatment is the beginning of recovery, not the end. The average recovery time from an eating disorder is seven years.

"It's a battle every day," she said. "There's this voice in your head that's always telling you that you are gong to get fat. Food is evil."

According a 2004 Steamboat Cares Survey ad----min--istered to high school students, 50 percent of freshman girls and 11 percent of freshman boys were trying to lose weight. The numbers grew with each year. By their senior year, 64 percent of high school girls were trying to lose weight. But that didn't mesh with results from Body Mass Index tests given to the students by Dr. Dan Smilkstein. According to the BMI tests, no one at the school was obese and very few were overweight.

"What the survey proved to us was that a lot of our kids feel they are overweight, when they are not," McCarthy said. "It's already hard to like yourself in adolescents, but between shows like 'Extreme Makeover' and fashion trends that encourage girls to show their midriff, there is a lot of pressure these days be thin and beautiful."

Jenna said she could name eight girls off the top of her head who are bulimic or anorexic at the high school.

"Now that I've been close to dying, I know there is so much more than being thin and perfect and making everyone else happy."

Her mom started crying as she listened to her daughter talk.

"It's been so hard to watch her suffer," her mom said. "We could have lost her."

High school senior Krista Walters chose to focus her senior project on eating disorders. Visiting Nurse Association nutritionist Roberta Gill mentored her project.

Of the many things Walters has learned about eating disorders, her biggest lesson is an understanding of how hard it is to talk about. Often, no one intervenes when they suspect girls (or, increasingly, boys) have an eating disorder. They wait until it has reached the crisis point or until the signs can't be denied -- sunken eyes, swollen cheeks and rotting teeth caused by stomach acid eating the tooth enamel.

"I've been studying eating disorders for two years now," Walters said. "I can talk eating disorders all day, but when it comes to actually intervening with someone I know has one, I have a hard time bringing it up."

Jenna's mom wanted the community to hear her daughter's story for that very reason. No one is talking about an issue that is right under their nose, she said.

She referred to the other girls struggling with eating disorders as "being in the closet."

"It breaks my heart when I go to school and see people heading to the same place I was," Jenna said. "It's not something to be ashamed of. It's a disease."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.