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Dying to be thin: even though she was pretty and popular, Jennifer only saw fat and ugly when she looked in the mirror. She shares with us the devastation of struggling with anorexia.

My life seemed pretty perfect ... until I was 7, that is. That's when my dad died of cancer. I was very close to him, especially because he knew he was ill and made an extra effort to spend time with me, my brother and sister. After he died, I was so sad but too young to really understand grief. My mom continued her work as a doctor, but she was around us a lot more after his death. Even so, I felt this enormous hole in my life that I couldn't explain.

Eating Me Up Inside

As I grew, so did that empty feeling. At 13, I gained a little weight and became very self-conscious about my body. Suddenly, I was hyper-aware of what I put into my mouth and was dieting for the first time in my life. I remember in middle school watching other girls eat whatever they wanted, like chocolate cake, and I would get so jealous!

Then there was high school, which kind of threw me for a loop. I was at a new school with kids I didn't know and, to top it off, my brother, who was like a father to me, would be graduating and moving away. I was pretty terrified.

Around that time, I radically changed my eating habits. I only allowed myself to eat a few specific foods, like cottage cheese and oatmeal, which I felt were "safe" since they wouldn't cause weight gain. I always skipped breakfast, but I ate "lunch" with friends in the cafeteria. My friends, who ate regular packed sandwiches and hot meals, sometimes asked why I was only eating a cereal bar. I always had an excuse, that I had wolfed a big breakfast or had eaten my lunch earlier. Since I always wore baggy clothes, no one really noticed how much weight I was losing.

Every night, my family ate dinner together. I had become so controlling about food that I was the one who cooked meals. I served everyone huge portions and gave myself tiny spoonfuls. If anyone even mentioned food to me or said, "Have some more," I panicked. In fact, I was even mean to them, which was weird, because I'd always been this nice, happy girl. I was suddenly edgy, and everyone had to tread lightly around me. Inside, I was miserable and confused. Controlling my food intake had become a complete priority in my life.

Instead of getting excited when my mom wanted to take us out to dinner, I'd get upset. I thought every single person in the restaurant was watching and trying to catch me not eating. So I would pick at my food and push it around my plate to make it look like I was eating.

My mom never forced me to eat. I don't think she ever realized how desperate I was to lose weight. It's likely she was in denial. It's hard to accept your daughter is letting herself wither away.

Split Personality?

Out of the blue, I had a horrible feeling that I'd developed multiple personalities. I didn't understand why I was so freaked and obsessed about food. I didn't know why I was angry and secretive. It was like another person had taken over. Weight loss had become my identity.

I almost always went to bed hungry and had anxiety about falling asleep. I was so weak that I believed if I slept, I would never wake up. Sometimes, I'd give in and binge, eating a whole pizza and a pie. Afterward I felt incredibly sick. Although I never vomited, I'd cry and cry--I hated myself for eating.

I had one friend I could talk to about my problem. I'd call him up to tell him I didn't know what was happening and that I didn't have any control over myself. He was supportive but, like all of my close friends, he never tried to convince me to do anything about it. I'm sure no one understood my problem was so serious. In fact, when I first stopped eating, I got tons of compliments. But within months, the positive comments had ceased because I looked awful.

By the end of freshman year, I'd lost half my body weight. It was horrible. I'd hate for any girl reading this to think, "Wow! That's what I want to do!" Truth is, I felt like I was drowning. My entire schedule was planned around food--when and what I'd eat, or not eat. Nothing else mattered. To ensure no one would discover my secret, I pulled straight A's to look like I was just busy.

My moods during this time were so up and down. I was really cranky at home, but I hid it from most of my friends. They truly believed I was happy. In reality, I was depressed and terrified. As I got thinner, my brother, sister and mom asked if I was all right. Still, they never tried to get me to eat. They knew I would snap at them if they did. It affected my closeness with them.

A few times, my mom sat me down to talk about my problem but, each time, I acted terrible toward her. Controlling my eating was more important to me than anything, even my relationship with my family and friends.

Eventually, I stopped seeing friends and only left the house to go to school. Before, I was very sociable and always out on the weekends. But I had become too weak, and I only wanted to use what energy I had to focus on not eating.

My brain was so starved that I honestly can't remember much about my freshman year, except the pain. My skin got extremely dry, and I grew hair all over my body because it didn't have enough fat and needed warmth. My period stopped after only three months, and I didn't know what was happening.

Yet, I was secretly proud of my skinniness. I got a sort of high from it, which is hard to describe. It's probably a lot like a drug addiction, in which you just want more and more of that feeling. But by the end of the school year, I had an awful downward spiral. All that time I thought I'd been in control of my food, and I learned that it was in control of me.

A Cry for Help

I knew I had to do something, so I went online to learn about eating disorders. When I read the symptoms of anorexia, I thought, "This can't be me!" I just wanted to be normal, but I knew I was losing my life. I talked to my morn and, together, we found a therapist for me.

I began weekly therapy sessions and was prescribed medications. My therapist tried to talk me into going to the Renfrew Center, a nearby inpatient facility for eating disorders, but I refused. Finally, after three months, I agreed to visit the center.

The day I went there was March 30 which, although I didn't realize it at the time, was the anniversary of my dad's death. I really didn't want to enter treatment because I knew I'd have to be admitted for seven weeks, and everyone at school would hear about it. But as soon as I got in the car with my mom after the visit, I said, "I think I need to go there." I went in the next day.

My treatment program turned out to be great. There were about 30 other girls there with eating disorders. We journaled, and had group and individual therapy sessions, all day long. We also had art, dance, coping and empowerment classes. It was just this amazing place where everyone worked together to get better. I felt cool being there because I was the youngest and could still remember a time when I was happy.

During my stay, I gained weight, which was emotionally tough to do. But, at the same time, it was a relief. I was determined to get my life back on track so, when they wanted me to eat, I ate. If I had refused to eat, they would have hospitalized me for tube-feeding.

My mom visited almost every night, giving me strength to get through it. My friends, brother, sister and even classmates I barely knew came to see me. It was awesome because not one person ever placed judgment on me. They just wanted me to know they cared.

A Full Life Once Again

I was released from Renfrew just before finishing ninth grade. I was so grateful because my brother had his graduation that weekend and I was able to be there. That had been a major motivation for me to do whatever I had to do to get better. After I got out, I had support from doctors and therapists. But I knew every day would be a challenge.

Looking back on my time at Renfrew, I think it was the best experience of my life. It was the first time I faced my problems and dealt with them instead of just stuffing them down. I learned so much about myself. I even learned to love myself, although that's still a work in progress. While I can't say I'm "cured," it is an ongoing daily process. But I haven't relapsed, even during stressful times. I haven't forgotten--and never want to forget--how I used to starve myself during trying times.

Now, I use my skills to deal with things in a more healthful way. My life is fairly normal, even though I'm still a big overachiever and get stressed. But I accept that about myself, and I know how to cope. My experience with anorexia was awful, but it definitely had a silver lining. I appreciate life more now--every millimeter of it. I've learned to be humane, to think things through and to be happy with myself. I truly believe my dad helped me through this rough spot. He showed me courage in the face of his illness, so I knew I could do it. And I definitely did not want to put my family through any more pain after they'd already endured so much.

If you have an eating problem, talk to someone about it right away. It's very difficult, if even possible, to get better on your own. Although it's scary to think about, I probably would have died if I hadn't gone to treatment. That would have been a waste, especially seeing how my life has turned out. There are just too many things I want to do--go to college, get married, have kids, help people and even change the world! I couldn't do any of that if I hadn't gotten well. Now, I'm completely confident that I can--and will--accomplish my goals.

Thank Heaven

Aetren Scarlett Pomers, 18, who plays Kyra on The CW's Reba, battled anorexia and won. Scarlett missed most of Robe's fifth season when her mom checked her into an eating disorder clinic after her weight was down to a mere 73 pounds. One gear later, healthy Scarlett was back on set for season six, but was also taking on a more serious role: Scarlett started Arch-Angels, a charity organization to benefit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and provide treatment for those who can't afford It. She even recorded Project Chains, a CD to raise, money for NEDA. Visit nationaleatingdisorders.org or scarlettpomere.com to learn more about what she is doing to help.

Wasting away

Its no surprise models strive to be super skinny. But some are literally dying because of it ... Ana Carolina Reston of Brazil began her modeling career when she was 13. But last November, at just 21 gears old, the 5-foot-7 model died of an infection related to anorexia. She weighed just 88 pounds at the time.

Ana was not the only model to die last gear from complications of an eating disorder. Luisel Ramos of Uruguay, 22, died of anorexia-induced heart failure after stepping off a runway during a fashion show last August. She reportedly had been living on only lettuce and diet drinks.

In response to the devastating problem of eating disorders in the fashion world, models auditioning for Madrid Fashion Week in Spain last gear were examined by doctors. Any model whose body mass index fell below 18 (healthy is between 18.5 and 25) was barred from the runway.

It's not just models who die from eating disorders--with one in 10 cases ending in death, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

SKIN DEEP

In her novel Unwell, Leslie Lipton draws on her personal experiences with anorexia to weave the fictional tale of Stefanie, whose obsession with losing weight spirals out of control. Leslie, a student at Barnard College in New York, realistically captures the complexity of the disease and the overwhelming feelings involved.

Help is here!

Need support, info and referrals related to eating disorders? Try these resources:

* The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (anad.ors/847-831-3438)

* The eating disorder web site Something Fishy [something-fishy.org)

* The Renfrew Center (renfrew.org/ 1-800-RENFREW).
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Author:Ryan, Sandy Fertman
Publication:Girls' Life
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:2192
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