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Words from a Recovering Bulimic

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I could hear the teenaged girl in the next stall. The forced cough. The strangled noise. The rush of vomit.

sad teenage girl

Jeanne Sager: Most of you would block your ears and rush out of the room, disgusted. But while waiting for my 4-year-old to finish her business in the Target bathroom, I was weighing my options.

Do I step out to the sink and gently whisper, "I've been there? I'm a recovering bulimic"? Do I watch to see if her mother is outside, and whisper out of motherly concern, "You might want to go check on your daughter in there"?

Or do I do nothing but feel her pain from afar -- afraid first that the teen will fly off the handle at this strange older woman with a kid, and second that the teen's mother might take my words of understanding as judgment of her parenting?

Because that's the first response I hear from parents of kids with eating disorders: They take it as some sort of affront to their own parenting. It's usually short-lived, because parents eventually step in to care for their kids. But when something goes wrong with our children, we always wonder: What did I do wrong?

In the midst of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I have to tell you a hard truth, Mom and Dad: It's time to get over yourself.

You may or may not have played a role in your child's eating disorder. Studies have indicated there's a genetic component to eating disorders. They've shown that girls with "cold" mothers are often at a heightened risk; that kids with absent fathers are more prone to disordered eating.

But here's what your child's eating disorder isn't:

A Choice: Your children aren't throwing up to punish you. They aren't going to start eating properly overnight. They aren't even aware how serious their problem is. Simply put, when your child looks in the mirror, she (or he) doesn't see what you see. Whether I am 118 pounds or 168 pounds, I see the same tummy bulge, the same ripple in the thighs. And that's after years of therapy, medicine and lifestyle changes -- including motherhood.

Treating eating disorders like they're weaknesses rather than valid medical conditions -- which are even listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- means denying more than 11 million Americans who suffer from eating disorders their right to treatment and compassion. You wouldn't expect a diabetic to "get over it" or argue that she's making her own pancreas go on the fritz. Why expect it of a bulimic or an anorexic?

A Sign That She's Skinny or Not Eating:
Although anorexia -- defined by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) as the "refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level" -- is perhaps the best- known eating disorder, it's not the only problem today's kids face.

Compulsive eating is also an official eating disorder -- one characterized by frequent binges and, often, severe obesity. Bulimics likewise binge, often eating much more than their peers in one meal -- only to throw it up later, or use laxatives or excessive exercise to get rid of the calories quick.

People with eating disorders can start at any weight and end at any weight. So don't look for skinny. Instead, look for up-and-down changes in weight, and try to find their cause. Sometimes kids are eating more because they're going through a growth spurt; sometimes they're eating to ease their pain.

The Easy Way Out:
If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they wished they had the willpower to do what I once did, I'd have been throwing up hundreds of dollars in junk food each time I purged.

If it were easy to be bulimic, I wouldn't worry about passing it on to my daughter. Nor would I suffer from an acid-reflux disorder caused by years of sending stomach acids back up my esophagus. I wouldn't be terrified every time I compare my current goal of getting 20 pounds off by swimsuit season to the threat of falling off the wagon. My husband worries he'll start smoking again one day; I worry that my addiction to throwing up will come calling again -- and destroy my family.

Simply put, eating disorders can kill you. According to NEDA, anorexia nervosa alone has the highest premature-fatality rate of any mental illness.

An Upper-Class White Girl's Problem:
Of every eating disorder diagnosed in America, 10 percent occur in boys. What's more, a 1996 study found that among the leanest 25 percent of 6th- and 7th-grade girls, Hispanics and Asians reported significantly more body dissatisfaction than did white girls. In another survey of 6,504 adolescents (completed in 1999), Asian, Black, Hispanic and Caucasian youths all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates (32.7 percent, 31.9 percent, 36.1 percent and 34.9 percent, respectively); among Native-American adolescents, 48.1 percent were attempting weight loss.

I didn't talk to the teenager in Target, or to her mom. But I shouldn't have had to. Once we all start accepting that eating disorders can happen to our kids too, we'll start knowing how to fight them.

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4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Christina February 25, 2010, 6:59 PM

How about a simple “are you ok in there”? That might be all that’s needed to start a conversation. If you get a “yeah, I’m fine why?” type of response you can go into the issue of your eating disorder making you sensitive to certain things. As someone who has experienced this problem, I think you are likely more aware of particular indicators than those of us who have not. You may never know the good you have done, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you can.

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