Eating Disorders: Recovery Is Possible

12/30/2010 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I read about the tragic death of Isabelle Caro I felt deeply saddened. Along with many of my colleagues in Australia, UK and USA, I work hard to raise awareness of the dangers of dieting in an effort to reduce the incidence of eating disorders - and as someone who has recovered from anorexia and has intimate knowledge of what it takes to recover, my personal crusade has evolved to mentoring people through recovery and empowering them to move forward and rediscover purpose and passion as they rebuild their lives.

According to one article Caro herself spoke out about her efforts to recover, and the menace of eating disorders on the fashion industry. However eating disorders are not limited to the fashion industry and the incidence continues to climb.

In Australia, 68% of 15 year old females are on a diet(i). Of these females, some will engage in dangerous dieting behaviour resulting in the onset of eating issues. Some will even self harm and binge drink.

Justine, an ex-bulimia sufferer, says "on my 18th birthday, my heart stopped beating. It was a few days before I was to be admitted to hospital, and my last chance at freedom. So I went out with friends, drank too much and collapsed. I was rushed to hospital."

A Sydney study of adolescents aged 11 to 15 reported that 16% of the girls and 7% of the boys had already employed at least one potentially dangerous method of weight reduction, including starvation, vomiting and laxative abuse(ii).

And according to The Butterfly Foundation, more recent statistics indicate an increase in males suffering from eating disorders, with Australia having some of the worst levels of male anorexia in the world; one in four children with anorexia in Australia are boys and almost a third of year-nine boys use dangerous methods to try and keep thin, including popping diet pills and smoking cigarettes.

In addition, the incidence of binge eating disorder in males and females is almost equal (iii) .

Unlike bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not purge, starve themselves or engage in strenuous activity after a binge, and are on average overweight, which makes it harder to identify that there is a serious problem.

When I first met Mitchell Doyle, a senior student, I was moved by his story. "In primary school the 'cool kids' ruthlessly bullied me. I changed schools but felt I didn't fit in," he said. "Then my parents separatedand my brothers moved out. I felt that everyone had left me and this made me feel hopeless and abandoned."

Mitchell resorted to restricting his food intake to the point where is weight plummeted to a dangerous low, but then bulimia took hold. Fighting feelings of inadequacy, Mitchell struggled to accept that he was a male with an eating disorder. "This struggle was manifested by what society perceives as being 'male': masculine, courageous, unbreakable. These traits were hammered into me by images in my teenage world."

Exhausted from the battle within, Mitchell made the conscious decision to recover. "To stop the desire to purge, I'd stare at myself in the mirror and yell 'I am not doing this'". It was hard but with persistence and belief in himself, Mitchell turned his life around. "I feel that people who bully others are insecure themselves. I don't buy in to what others say about me anymore. I trust myself first and foremost."

Mitchell says that recovery brought him inner peace and happiness because he has a greater understanding of who he is. "If you feel you should change to be accepted, don't, because you are who you are for a reason and you should embrace that."

Justine's turning point came when she realised she was the only one who could make the decision. "I felt I couldn't talk to people about how I was feeling because it was wrong to inflict my negative feelings on others. This became a core belief so my secretive behaviour stemmed from this. I now realise had I asked for help sooner, a lot of heartache could have been avoided. I recognised my illness had become a conscious choice - and I chose to fight it."

Emily, on the other hand, endured over fifty admissions to hospital. "I fought so hard to hold onto my eating disorder, to the point of needing sedation. I was pulled out of school because I had no cognitive function - I couldn't even put a sentence together. I lived by self imposed rules and rituals. I was in the most incredible pain but the only way I could communicate this was through self destruction."

After breaking several bones due to severe malnourishment, including her feet six times (one time multiple fractures in both feet), hips four times and ribs multiple times, Emily was told she had osteoporosis and her bone density was the same as someone aged 110. Terrified, she felt compelled to recover. Although her recovery has been littered with relapses, Emily has progressively improved and her determination is paying off. "The medication for my osteoporosis has regenerated cells in my bones and as a result they have improved tremendously. To be able to run, jump and play is such a gift."

Having recovered from anorexia I know the value of recovery. It is important that those affected by Isabelle Caro's death who are afflicted by eating issues, and those who love them, know that recovery is possible. It takes hard work and commitment, but it is possible. In my book Why Can't I Look the Way I Want I've profiled seventeen people who have recovered, including how they used their newfound strength and self awareness to go on and do amazing things. Living proof that it is possible not only to recover, but to move forward and create a wonderful life.

(i) Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. British Medical Journal, 318, 765-768. Source: Patton, G.C., Selzer, R., Coffey, C., Carlin, J.B., & R Wolfe, R. (1999)
(ii) Source: O'Dea JS, Abraham S, Heard R. (1996) Food habits, body image and weight control practises of young male and female adolescents. Aust J Nutr Diet, 53:32-38
(iii) Source: Paxton, S. (1998). Do men get eating disorders? In Everybody Newsletter of Body Image and Health Inc. vol2, August 1998.