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Freedom from Eating Disorders

Photo by suizilla via Flickr. Looking back, Annie Blake’s parents can identify the first warning sign - the chocolate ice cream. Every night, from the time she was a toddler through her teen years, Annie would eat a bowl of her favorite dessert. When, at 16, Annie started refusing her nightly treat, her mother figured she’d grown out of it. Now, she realizes, it was one of the first signs that Annie was struggling with a deadly disorder, one that was determined to take her life. 

Tiffany Ingersoll was in high school when she decided to eliminate junk food from her diet. Before long, she was skipping breakfast and lunch, refusing snacks, barely eating dinner, and exercising compulsively. Her hip bones and knees began to ache. She piled on layers of clothes to stay warm and wore ponytails to hide her ever-increasing hair loss. Tiffany’s body was devouring itself, but she didn’t know it until it was almost too late. 

Annie and Tiffany are two of an estimated 11 million Americans, both men and women, who’ve suffered from eating disorders that include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating - patterns of obsessive behavior, emotions and attitudes surrounding weight and food issues used to compensate for overwhelming emotions. For both Annie and Tiffany, their eating disorders were triggered by unhealthy relationships and stressful life situations.

The statistics for anorexia alone are staggering, with a mortality rate 12 times higher than all other causes of death for girls ages 15-24. 

And yet, due to social stigma, lack of understanding and inadequate health care coverage, only one in 10 suffering from eating disorders will receive treatment. 

At the core of the disease lives a most insidious characteristic - denial. Tiffany believed she was making healthy choices, though she had escalated from eliminating junk food to skipping meals and forcing herself to vomit to counteract food intake. Annie was obsessing about food labels, often eating just one meal of fruit per day. Because she was a star swimmer, Annie’s parents thought she was just trying to be a better athlete. 

Even after Tiffany’s teachers convinced her she had a problem, she couldn’t find adequate treatment. Because she wasn’t underweight, her doctor didn’t believe she had an eating disorder. 

“Though I’d lost 40 pounds in two months,” Tiffany said, “my primary care doctor said I could still stand to lose weight.”

Another myth people believe is that skipping meals, bingeing or purging is acceptable if they only do it occasionally.

But the fact is, one purge can rupture the esophagus or stomach, causing internal bleeding and death. One skipped meal or excessive exercise session can cause electrolyte imbalance, triggering heart attack or stroke ending in death. It can all happen in one terrifying moment.

For Annie, that moment came just before Christmas. She hadn’t eaten for three days. Her brain was malnourished, causing the normally agreeable teen to fly into fits of rage. 

“It was like being in a mine field,” her mother said. “Just one word could trigger an explosion.”

On the third day of her starving streak, Annie blacked out. Her electrolytes had dropped so low, she was nearing heart failure. She was admitted to the hospital, where an eating disorder specialist saved her life. After four days of hospitalization and around-the-clock surveillance, Annie was sent home to continue intensive therapy and counseling, seeing three different counselors before finally finding one who completely understood what Annie was going through. 

That counselor was Tiffany Ingersoll. 

During college, Ingersoll had reached a turning point. After passing out on campus, she’d felt God saying it was time to make a choice.

“I realized the eating disorder’s ultimate goal was my death,” said Ingersoll. “I decided to choose life, but I couldn’t do it alone.”

Ingersoll persisted in finding the treatment she needed to fully recover. Now, as a professional counselor at SpringHaven Counseling Center in Dundee, she has made it her mission to educate the public and provide counseling for others suffering from eating disorders.

With Ingersoll’s help, Annie is learning to value her body. Her family is using the Maudsley approach, an intensive outpatient treatment where parents play an active role in restoring a healthy weight and identity in their child. Annie has stopped watching television programs and reading magazines that encourage obsession with slenderness and focus on people’s outward appearances. 

“I definitely see how much better I am,” Annie said. “Now I can laugh and get through a meal, thanks to the skills I’ve learned through counseling.”

Ingersoll said parents should trust their instincts, avoid comments about weight, and get their child the help they need, even if they don’t understand the issue. 

Annie’s advice to someone with an eating disorder is to push past the shame and guilt and ask for help. 

“You’ll hit rock bottom. Seek help right now while the damage can still be reversed,” she said. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose this, and you cannot control it alone.”

Feb. 26 through March 3 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, Tiffany Ingersoll can be contacted at SpringHaven Counseling Center by calling 330-359-6100. For more information on eating disorders, call the National Eating Disorder Association help line at 800-931-2237 or visit http://www.NationalEatingDisorders.org

Signs of possible eating disorders: 

- Skipping meals.

- Marked weight loss or gain.

- Avoiding eating meals or snacks around others.

- Categorizing “good foods” and “bad foods.”

- Obsessive calculating of fat grams and calories.

- Intense preoccupation with body image and weight.

- Compulsive or excessive exercising.

- Self-induced vomiting.

- Periods of fasting.

- Laxative, diet pill or diuretic abuse.

- Feelings of isolation, depression, or irritability.

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