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HERE AND NOW The Food Fix

I wanted to be thin more than anything else, but I couldn’t control my eating
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Monday, February 22, 1985, began like most other days, except for the gnawing feeling of desperation, the terror. It was the end. I was sick and unable to control my behavior. Not today, but tomorrow it would be over. I rolled out of bed and into the kitchen, where the chocolate breakfast bars were calling me. I grabbed two double packets of the disguised, candy and a carton of milk and headed to the bathroom to dress for work.

Downtown, hunger seized me again. Without thinking, I walked into a French bakery and ordered two chocolate croissants. I finished the pastries on the way to the office. I was only eight minutes late.

1 checked with my secretary to see what the day had in store, then went to the bathroom to wash off the croissant crumbs. I detoured to the break room on the way back to my office. The entire staff was getting coffee. My heart began to pound, and my palms became clammy. It took a long time for everyone to clear out, but 1 waited. I didn’t have any change for the snack box, but made a mental note to repay it later. Quickly, I grabbed two bags of Fritos and stuffed them in my pocket. It was 10:15 and I had work to do before we left for lunch. I couldn’t keep my mind on my work-and off my next fix, which I knew was coming soon.

It was Susie’s birthday, so we took her to Gennie’s Bishop Grille for lunch. At Gen-nie’s, everyone pigged out. I ate the entire special-chicken-fried steak, vegetables, and three pieces of bread. My stomach hurt and I felt sick, but I managed to stuff down a big piece of birthday pie. A button on my skirt popped, but luckily I always carried safety pins-just in case.

After sporadic snacking throughout the afternoon, I got home, tore off my clothes, and put on my binge uniform-oversized sweats, tennis shoes, and dark glasses. I was crazed and I knew it, but nothing mattered. I just had to get to the 7-Eleven as fast as I could. I always bought three economy-sized Hershey bars. I’d usually go to three different stores to get them, but tonight I didn’t have the time. I paid the clerk without looking her in the eye. She was a slender woman; she couldn’t relate. Back in the car, I greedily tore off the first chocolate wrapper and shoved the bar into my mouth. I felt calm as I drove to Church’s, my next stop, where I ordered two three-piece chicken dinners, two diet Cokes-and, as usual, two sets of plasticware. The family pack was cheaper, but I didn’t want the clerk to know I was going to eat it all myself.

Then to the Tom Thumb for a bag of chips, two bags of cookies, a carton of milk, a pint of ice cream, a frozen pizza, and some bran cereal for my diet breakfast in the morning. D-day was fast approaching.

And when it came, I failed again. Another day of binge eating, another blow to my vanishing self-esteem, and more calorie-packed proof that I was out of control. That’s when I went to my boss and told her I wanted to see a psychiatrist.

She was surprised. “You are one of the happiest, most successful people I know,” she said. “Why would you need to see a shrink?”

By my fourth session with Dr. Stiner, I was asking myself the same question. I lost no weight during my first weeks of seeing her. As I spoke to Dr. Stiner, trying to explain why I ate the way I did, I felt the futility, the vast gap between the sick and the normal. Try telling somebody you can’t control the number of cookies you eat. It’s pretty embarrassing. There I was, twenty-two years old, 5-foot-3, and I had ballooned to 170 pounds. Yes, I had tried diets. From Scars-dale to Beverly Hills, I had failed them all. The diets would take off pounds, but I would put them back on and usually end up weighing more than I had before dieting.

It was the middle of March 1985, and I knew I couldn’t take another food failure. All my size 16 clothes were winter fabrics, and I couldn’t fit into my smaller spring clothes. Disgusted and ashamed of my appearance, I had started to avoid my friends and family.

Groping for a solution. Dr. Stiner suggested I try Overeaters Anonymous, where I learned that I had a disease much like alcoholism. I was one of millions of Americans suffering from an eating disorder-a disease that cripples physically, emotionally, and mentally, yet often eludes detection. Even though I wasn’t deliherately throwing up, exercising fanatically, or taking laxatives, I was bulimic.

“The media has popularized binge-purging as bulimia, but bulimia has to do with how a person eats, not how a person purges,” says Lucy Letton, program director with the Rader Institute Eating Disorders Unit in McKinney. “More than 80 percent of people with eating disorders are non-purging bulimics, or people who are in most cases overweight.”



ulimia, which literally means “ox-hunger,” indicates a tendency toward engaging in uncontrollable, usually secretive overeating. According to the American Psychiatric Association, bulimia is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating, termination of a binge by abdominal pain, purging, or sleep, and consumption of high-calorie food during a binge. Other criteria include repeated attempts to lose weight, frequent weight fluctuations, and fear of not being able to stop eating voluntarily.

A recent Gallup Poll reported that 10 percent of young women indulged in food binges more than once a month, One in sixteen binged at least once a week. Other statistics show that up to 30 percent of all college-age women binge and purge. Despite the dimensions of the problem, doctors have been slow to recognize and treat bulimics. “Society’s understanding of eating disorders is about where alcoholism was thirty years ago,” says Lyra Shieder, community relations coordinator with the Baylor University Medical Center Eating Disorders Program.

The health risks to bulimics are enormous: tooth decay, hormonal imbalance, erratic blood pressure, gall bladder disease, electrolyte imbalance, hypertension, ohesi-ty, menstrual irregularities, malnutrition, and osteoporosis are among the side effects.

The emotional consequences can be equally devastating, and may include social isolation, despair, withdrawal, inability to work, depression, and low self-esteem. About 5 percent of all eating disorder cases lead to death, most commonly from cardiac complication due to chemical imbalances in the blood. One study found that among bulimics, one in four attempted suicide.

Researchers believe that most eating disorder victims come from troubled families, in which alcoholism, depression, and divorce are often common denominators. Obsessive-compulsive thinking and addictive behavior often spring from poor family

relationships and lead a person to deponden-cy on a substance as a means of coping with the stress. The emphasis in treatment, then, is on the feelings that cause the extreme behavior, rather than the food.

Treatment of eating disorders is as varied as the sufferers” favorite binge foods. Some receive help from private counseling sessions, others participate in self-help programs, and. for a growing number of people, out- or in-patient treatment in a hospital is the prescription.

“We find people in complete despair. They’ve resigned themselves to the fact that there is no hope.” Letton explains. “By the time people gel to the point where they need in-patient treatment, they will have gone and done Just about everything that they can. This is the last house on the block.”

“First we treat the symptoms of the eating disorder and get the behavior under control. Then the person’s thinking comes back.” Dr. Sandra Steinbach, Baylor Eating Disorders Program’s medical director, says. “The second stage is to figure out what causes the behavior and its underlying problems. That’s when they begin to look at their feelings and recognize that the behavior is symbolic. The third stage is planning the after-care.”

Before the evolution of hospital treatment programs, groups like Overeaters Anonymous, which is patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, helped sufferers maintain normal eating, OA, which was founded in I960, was one of the first organizations to recognize compulsive eating as a disease. Currently. OA holds more than seventy weekly meetings in the Dallas area and has more than a thousand active members.

Research on recovery rates is limited. However, with treatment, the addiction is controllable in most cases.

“Here’s the catch,” Letton says. “If we are treating this like an addiction, what we’ve got is something much harder to treat than the alcoholic or drug addict. You can’t give up food. At the very best, you have to use it in controlled amounts.”

During eight months of treatment, Dr. Stiner helped mc begin to understand my addiction, but it wasn’t until I joined OA that I began to control my eating habits. I finally realized that food was my drug of choice, a temporary escape from my feelings. I ate when I was nervous, uncomfortable, or worried . And what I worried about most was my weight, so the self-destruction continued.

1 haven’t binged in more than two years. I am maintaining a weight loss of forty-two pounds and I am learning a whole new way of life. It’s hard for me to believe that I ate the way I did. And although I don’t think I will ever be “cured” of my disease. 1 know the action 1 must take to keep it in remission. 1 know now when I want to binge, or gel self-destructive about food, that I need to look past the food to see what is really go ing on. I still attend OA meetings twice a week to help me keep on track. Getting out of the food has given me a chance to get into life.

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