Coping with a Consuming Obsession

Anorexia nervosa, the self-starvation disease that Tracer Gold continues to battle, is one of two major eating disorders that afflict mainly women. The other, bulimia, involves a cycle of bingeing and vomiting. “People with bulimia nervosa are feeling pretty-much out of control of their lives, while anorexics feel very much in control, “says Craig L. Johnson, a clinical psychologist and codirector of the eating disorders program at the Laureate Psychiatric Clinic in Tulsa. What the two diseases have in common, though, is a brier patch of psychological problems rooted in adolescence. “Many if not most of the patients we treat, “says Johnson, “have been traumatized either physically, sexually or simply in relationships where they’ve experienced some disappointment in others.” The majority require a year or less of psychotherapy, he says. But in a third of all cases, symptoms may persist well into adulthood, afflicting some even in their 40s and 50s.

Part of the recovery process involves confronting food. A program at Laureate reintroduces fat and carbohydrates into patients’ diets. For anorexics, says Johnson, “we will include vegetables cooked in low-fat margarine. We nudge the bulimics toward pasta, bread and [other] starches. Later in their treatment we work around the scary food: pizza, ice cream, junk food. Some will eat it, others won’t.”

The greatest challenge for many patients, though, says Johnson, is the culturally heretical notion that “the pursuit of thinness is not a reasonable goal for all people.” Still, with the long-term support of therapists, as well as family and friends, many anorexics and bulimics do manage to resume normal eating habits.

Here are the stories of two women who, despite the hard road to recovery each has traveled, may offer guidance to other sufferers.

First denial, then a near-suicidal plea: ‘Mom, I need your help’

A rice cake in the afternoon, an apple for dinner. That was Heather Rhodes’s typical diet her freshman year at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., when she began to nurture a fear (exacerbated, she says, by the sudden death of a friend) that she was gaining weight. But when Rhodes, now 20, returned home to Joliet, Ill., for summer vacation a year and a half ago, her family thought she was melting away. “I could see the outline of her pelvis in her clothes, but I didn’t want to believe she was anorexic,” says Heather’s mother, Kay Ernst, 51, a registered nurse. Bui the evidence was too real. “I was afraid she was going to die,” says Heather’s older sister Kelly. 28. So she and the rest of the family, including Heather’s two other siblings, father Robert, 46, a contracting-business owner, and step-dad Gary, 46, a railroad contractor, confronted Heather one evening, placing a bathroom scale in the middle of the family room. “I told them they were attacking me and to go to hell,” recalls Heather, who nevertheless reluctantly weighed herself. Her 5’7″ frame held a mere 85 pounds—down 22 pounds from her senior year in high school. “I told them they rigged the scale,” she says. It simply didn’t compute with her self-image. “When I looked in the mirror,” she says, “I thought my stomach was still huge and my face was fat.”

For Heather, the schism between what’s real and what she sees in her reflection remains the shifting battleground in her ongoing fight with anorexia and bulimia. That early encounter with the scale did lead lo counseling, and, for a time, a 15-pound weight gain. But back al school, where she excelled as class president and as a tutor, Heather lapsed into her old habits. “I was running, doing aerobics, and I had started restricting [my food intake] again,” she says. By last summer, in addition to overexercising and taking laxatives, she started purging. She reached the breaking point in October, when, without telling anyone, she left school and drove home. “Heather told me, ‘Mom, I need your help,’ ” says Kay. ” ‘I’ve been lying lo you. I haven’t had my period in three years. Last week I almost killed myself. I had the pills ready, and I’d already written you a note.’ ”

The confession itself was a relief, although Rhodes was terribly frightened. She spent a week and a half at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville, Ill., which specializes in helping eating-disorder patients through an intensive program of group discussions and nutrition counseling, and she continues to receive treatment as an outpatient. Her mother, meanwhile, belongs lo a support group, ANAD (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders). Heather, who now weighs 113 pounds, returned lo school earlier this month, and the college junior has picked up where she left off, resuming her duties as a freshman “leader,” and taking courses toward a B.A. degree in psychology. “Eventually I want to work with eating-disorder patients,” she says. But first she must deal with her own illness. “It’s hard,” she says. “Every day is a struggle. I still feel huge. I still want to be thinner.”

Hooked on laxatives, sedatives and ‘wonderful’ skinny legs

Kathy Sloan, 41, remembers the thrill of suddenly finding herself thin, in 1971, Sloan, then an 18-year-old, straight-A freshman in dental hygiene school in Vermont, ruptured her appendix and was rushed to the hospital, where, following surgery, she battled an infection for two weeks. “I weighed 118 pounds when I went in,” she says, “and 85 when I came out.” Her parents, Leonard Friedman, now 77, a retired dentist, and Anita Friedman, also 77, a homemaker, were alarmed, but not Kathy. Standing on her bathroom scale shortly afterward, she noticed, “For the first lime in my life, I had skinny legs. I thought it was wonderful.” Sloan, who had grown up in North-field, Vt., self-conscious about her chunky, muscular build, was determined to keep the weight off. “For many years,” says the 5’3″ Sloan, “I stayed under 100 pounds.”

Throughout the ’70s, Sloan restricted her food intake to salads by day, ice cream by night. She also abused laxatives. (“Throwing up was not an option for me,” she says.) Simultaneously, she became hooked on Valium, which she look lo relieve anxiety. Eventually, concerned that she had stopped menstruating, she sought out several doctors, none of whom recognized the then-less-diagnosed disease anorexia. In 1979 she married a physician. “I think he probably knew I had a problem,” she says, “but he didn’t know what to do about it.” The couple divorced in 1983, and Sloan’s eating disorder and drug use steadily worsened. First using her husband’s prescription forms, she had also begun taking diuretics and become addicted.

Finally, in 1986, the husband-and-wife dentists for whom she worked, concerned by her lack of concentration, confronted Sloan and phoned her father. “That was the bottom,” she says. “I wanted lo die. But when I finally got honest, my parents really rallied to the cause.” After going through 11 days of intensive treatment (her Valium intake was up lo 100 milligrams a day) and joining a drug-rehab program, she started to gain weight and fortify her self-image. At the time she was going through rehab, she met her second husband. Although the couple are now divorcing, they have a daughter, Hannah, 3, whom Sloan is raising alone in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she works as a mental-health counselor specializing in eating disorders. Like alcoholics and drug addicts, they will always be “recovering,” she warns her patients. “It’s a total lifestyle change.” Still, comfortable in her 129-pound frame, she says, “I like to cook and I eat basically everything, but in moderation. Even Doritos,” she says, “once in a while.”


BARBARA SANDLER in Joliet, DON SIDER in West Palm Beach and GIOVANNA BREU in Tulsa

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