Treating anorexia, which is characterized by self-starvation and a lack of ability to maintain a sufficient body weight, seems absurdly simple on the top: just eat and gain weight. It’s something Heather and an incredible number of others suffering from eating disorders have noticed countless times. The problem is that it is never that easy. Heather has long since lost track of the number of times she has been accepted to hospital for lower body weight, electrolyte imbalances triggered by starvation or self-induced vomiting, or thoughts of suicide. In hospital she benefits weight, but when she is discharged she promptly profits to her old ways and manages to lose what little weight she’s gained.
And so to get more than 20 years, she has remained hopelessly, incurably, stuck. Up to one in five people with chronic anorexia may die as a total result of their illness, either due to the direct effects of malnutrition and starvation or credited to suicide, making it the deadliest of most psychiatric disorders.
Although scientists have made tremendous progress in decoding the underlying biology of eating disorders and in finding ways to intervene in instances of teenage anorexia before the disorder becomes chronic, this hasn’t translated into effective treatments for adults like Heather. Chance publishing on Facebook last fall, however, brought Heather the first breath of hope she had sensed in years.
In Ohio, there is an experimental five-day intensive program to help adults with anorexia. What made this one different was that it used the latest neurobiology research to mold its goals as well as how its treatment was shipped. And since research confirms that a lot of patients struggle to make changes with their entrenched behaviors on their own, patients also needed to ask up to four support visitors to sign up for them on the home program.
Heather asked her father and her sister and began to raise the money to fly them all to Ohio. Despite its reputation as a quintessentially modern disorder, anorexia is nothing at all new. Historians think that many of the ‘fasting saints’ of the center Ages acquired anorexia. The first medical report of the illness made an appearance in 1689, written by London physician Richard Morton, who referred to it as “a Nervous Consumption” caused by “Sadness and anxious Cares”.
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Even as recently as the 1970s, anorexia continued to be something of the clinical oddity – an illness that doctors hardly ever saw, let alone experienced a hint how to take care of. Rates of anorexia had been climbing since the 1950s steadily, but it wasn’t before the death of singer Karen Carpenter in 1983 that the disorder became a household word. She died from heart failing due to anorexia nervosa, and all of the sudden newspaper stories and after-school TV specials started featuring teenage women “dying to be thin”.
Besides highlighting the spectacle of a healthy, attractive young girl’s determination to starve herself, the storylines usually centered on the grouped family dysfunction that psychologists believed lay in the center of the disorder. Parents were told not to be the food police, that anorexia was a misguided search for control. Only once they let the youngster maintain control of their own life would the anorexia handle fully. Psychiatrist Walter Kaye wasn’t convinced.