THE BLOG
03/29/2013 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2013

Fatal Obsession

My life seemed glamorous and promising: I was in my 20s, living in Paris and Normandy, spending my days training in ballet, modern dance, and jazz, and spending my evenings clubbing with VIP actors, models, and athletes. There was just one little problem: I was killing myself.

I disciplined my body to perform hours of rigorous dance routines each day, yet I subsisted on grapefruit, oranges, and coffee alone, with the exception of an occasional dinner. I pushed myself to dance and present well, and I pulled it off: On the outside, I was beautiful and successful. On the inside, however, I was a black hole of death -- sick with one of the most dangerous mental illnesses.

I had no idea that I was anorexic.

"Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition, with a standardized mortality rate approximately 10 times greater than the general population," C. Laird Birmingham, M.D. states in his book, Medical Management of Eating Disorders. These statistics are supported by a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and on several reputable medical sites.

Unlike other mental illnesses, anorexia is potentially fatal because of the chain reaction caused by nominal food intake: The nutritional depletion catalyzes physiological changes in the brain, which in turn diminish the capacity to use normal reasoning. The hedonic system (animal fear part) of the brain then takes over -- triggering impaired social and emotional regulation and additional ritualistic behaviors, like obsessive calorie-counting, which only amplify systematic food deprivation.

"All these nutritional consequences on the brain," Birmingham says in his book, "may cause eating disorder symptoms to be more firmly entrenched over time and may explain how recovery from anorexia nervosa becomes more difficult the longer the illness persists."

The research supporting Birmingham's assertions is sobering:

  • Five to 10 percent of anorexics die within 10 years of onset
  • Eighteen to 20 percent die within 20 years of onset
  • Only 50 percent or less report ever being cured.

In addition, the Refrew Center reports, "Twenty percent of people suffering from anorexia prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems." Make no mistake: Anorexia is a fatal obsession.

Sadly, the illness takes hold early on in life. According to the Renfrew Center, 50 percent of teen girls and 30 percent of teen boys engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors -- including food restriction, self-induced vomiting, ingestion of laxatives, over-exercise, and abuse of stimulant drugs that suppress appetite.

Given the life-threatening capacity of anorexia, it is critical to diagnose and treat the disease in the early stages. Following are three tips for helping a child with anorexic behavior:

Respond as a family: Your child's success in overcoming an eating disorder is bolstered by family participation. Demonstrate your unconditional love for your child. In addition, be brave and open enough to look at the impact of your own behavior and show willingness to change it if necessary. Your child depends on you in so many ways, even while asserting independence.

Encourage your child's creativity, intellect, and spirituality: Avoid speaking directly about your child's body image, even if you think that complimenting her body may help. Because our society prefers those who are thin, children often take on anorexic behaviors to gain approval and acceptance. Help your child stop fixating on body image, by encouraging her interest in art, science, religion, sports, and so on. Invite her to express her authentic identity, and when she does, be sure to demonstrate your value for her talent, intelligence, soul, and character.

Get professional support: If your child continually refuses to eat and otherwise exhibits an obsession with losing weight or being thin, consult with your pediatrician; call an eating disorders helpline; or reach out to the school nurse. Below are some organizations that can offer additional support:

  • National Eating Disorders Association (website): This organization offers referrals to eating disorder counseling, treatment, and support groups nationwide; it provides an eating disorders hotline; and it serves as a clearinghouse for educational information about and research studies on eating disorders.
  • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (website): Focusing on anorexia and associated eating disorders, this organization offers referrals to support groups, nutritional counseling, outpatient treatment, and inpatient/residential treatment. It also provides an eating disorders hotline and an online forum for those suffering from or caregiving for someone with an eating disorder.
  • Eating Disorder Hope (website): Eating Disorder Hope provides online information that educates visitors about eating disorders; offers guidance on how to help a family member with an eating disorder; and lists eating disorder therapists and support groups nationwide.
  • Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness (website): This organization provides information, resources, and referrals. Among other features, it provides a road map of the various treatment options available to those with eating disorders, and it offers guidance on the kinds of questions to ask prospective eating disorder practitioners.
  • The Renfrew Center (website): The first residential eating disorder facility in America, this center now has eleven locations throughout the country, providing full-service treatment programs to those with eating disorders.

For more by Suna Senman, click here.

For more on eating disorders, click here.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.