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Battling an Eating Disorder

By Abigail Natenshon

In a People Magazine article, American Idol contestant, Katherine McPhee disclosed that she has secretly suffered from bulimia for the past five years. It was her success in television's American Idol competition that inspired her to come forward and get help to recover from her life-threatening eating disorder. Katherine, a vocalist who at her worst point was self-inducing vomiting up to seven times a day, claimed that she realized her bulimic behaviors were equivalent to taking a sledgehammer to her throat and brought herself to treatment.

Some may think when celebrities like Katherine come forward with such problems it only glamorizes the illness and encourages dysfunction in impressionable young people. In reality, some impressionable youngsters may respond by engaging in self-destructive experimentation, but for the most part, the responses of people like Katherine McPhee provide invaluable role modeling for fans.

Though statistics show that 1 percent of young females in this country suffer with bulimia, the numbers most likely do not reflect the enormity of the problem, as bulimia is among the most frequently missed diagnoses, and only a minority of people with eating disorders, especially with bulimia nervosa, are treated in mental healthcare. A problem cannot be solved until it is defined. In coming forward as she has, McPhee has displayed the courage and intention to achieve her dreams, to become proactive in making her life as healthy, gratified and fulfilled as it can be.

Despite the widely held misconception that "once eating disordered, always eating disordered," eating disorders are fully curable in 80 percent of cases where recognized early and treated effectively. In her forthright and courageous stand, this American Idol contestant has become a true American idol.

The most lethal of all the metal health disorders, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are extremely hard to recognize. Highly secretive diseases, they rarely show up in doctors' offices during physical or functional assessments; even laboratory tests do not show evidence of eating disorders until they are in their most advanced stages. By their nature counterintuitive, eating disorders typically give victims a pseudo-sense of power and control, creating the illusion of feeling and becoming better than ever. In actual fact, certain stages of recovery feel more precarious and painful than does the disease itself. Making matters even more confusing, many of the symptoms of these lethal disorders lay somewhere along the continuum of normal human behaviors. Who doesn't overeat, under-eat or engage in emotional or social eating at times?

Eating disorders, which essentially represent an abuse of food in an effort to resolve emotional problems, transcend a dysfunctional relationship with food to represent the tip of a physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and social iceberg, with early signs of clinical eating disorders typically evident in diverse life spheres.

Eight signs that parents and families may see at home, around the dinner table, in the family bathroom, or the child's bedroom:

  • Erratic eating, eating too much or too little, too frequently or too seldom.
  • Dieting and other restrictive eating behaviors (in some instances vegetarianism or skipping meals) that can result in extreme hunger and gorging, irregular menstrual periods.
  • Fear of putting on weight, with an all-encompassing preoccupation with food and eating that can account for as much as 80 percent of an individual's thoughts.
  • Hiding food, and feeling shame and guilt after eating it. The refusal to eat in the company of others.
  • Depressive moods.
  • Various forms of purging, including self-induced vomiting, excessive exercising, laxative, diuretic, or Ipecac abuse.
  • Disappearances into the bathroom during or following meals.
  • Impulsive, immoderate and out of control behaviors beyond the realm of eating, that might include shop lifting, promiscuity, cutting, engaging in chaotic relationships, abuse of substances such as drugs, alcohol, nicotine, diet pills, etc.

There is nothing passive about eating disorders. Always on the move, they are either getting better or you can be certain they are getting worse. Eating disorder recovery can be a long-term process, requiring input from a diverse team of professionals including physicians, psychotherapists, family therapists, nutritionists, psycho pharmacologists and school counselors. The course of recovery will be as variable, must be as comprehensive, and in many ways will feel as convoluted as the course of disease, typically combining outpatient and inpatient treatment milieus and diverse treatment modes.

Victims of eating disorders, as young as age 5 or as old as 60, male or female, individuals alone or living within the context of a supportive or not so supportive family system, need help to recognize, accept and conquer these diseases to become capable of reclaiming their lives, proactively, with steadfast commitment to fight the good fight for life and life quality.

Specializing in the treatment of eating disorders for the past 36 years, Abigail Natenshon, psychotherapist, author of 'When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder' and director of Eating Disorder Specialists of Illinois, is on the cutting edge using techniques that enhance your body and heal your self-image. For free resources or to have Abigail speak at your next parental or professional group go to Empowered Parents.com.

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