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The road back: Recovery from an eating disorder can be life-saving journey

North Aurora residents Kerri and Scott Branson in their kitchen. Kerri survived an eating disorder and Scott is currently a middle school health teacher.
North Aurora residents Kerri and Scott Branson in their kitchen. Kerri survived an eating disorder and Scott is currently a middle school health teacher.

Deciding to get help for an eating disorder can be a life-saving action. 

But, only one-third of individuals struggling with anorexia in the U.S. actually obtain treatment, according to the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

“… There is hope and there is help, particularly, with early intervention,” said Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the New York-based National Eating Disorders Association, in a news release.

The National Eating Disorders Association launched its National Eating Disorders Awareness Week on Feb. 23. 

Katherine Walker, a therapist who specializes in clients with eating disorders at Cadence Behavioral Health in St. Charles, said that the most important thing to have people understand is that there are a slew of long-term, as well as irreversible, medical complications that can come with prolonged eating disorders, which can include – for anorexia – organ failure or permanent damage to organs, osteoporosis, heart failure and infertility; and – for bulimia – damage to the digestive system and esophagus, tooth decay and eventual extraction, and kidney failure from dehydration. 

The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery, according to NEDA.

Guilt, shame and embarrassment are several reasons someone suffering from an eating disorder may refuse to discuss her or his illness or receive treatment, Walker said.

Kane County resident Portia Belloc said her teenage daughter – who wishes to remain anonymous because very few people are aware she had an eating disorder – could have died from her battle with anorexia.

“I was in absolute crisis mode. I couldn’t get her to drink a sip of water, and we were in the ER three different times this one particular weekend,” Belloc said. “I could have said anything to my daughter – ‘I’ll give you an Apple computer; ‘I’ll give you a million dollars’ – she wasn’t going to eat.”

Once Belloc’s daughter was released from the hospital, the family used the Maudsley Approach – also known as family-based treatment or FBT – offered through the University of Chicago to help her daughter recover. 

The Maudsley Approach is a family-based, outpatient treatment program completed in three phases over the course of six to 12 months and includes 15 to 20 treatment sessions.

Phase one is weight restoration; phase two returns control of eating over to the patient; and during the third phase the patient establishes a healthy identity.

The treatment is designed to prevent hospitalization by giving the parents tools, knowledge and support to help their child recover from anorexia and remain unencumbered by the eating disorder, according to the Training Institute for Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders, an institute that disseminates evidence-based treatments for eating disorders.

“It’s a full-on commitment [from the parent] when you do this program,” said Belloc, who said she had to get her daughter to consume 4,000 calories a day to regain a healthy weight. “It was grueling. I almost had a breakdown. … [But] the program will tell you that it has the highest success rate in the shortest amount of time, because – typically – anorexia can take years if you go through the traditional route.”

Her daughter’s recovery took 18 months from her diagnosis to the last counseling session.

“My entire life ended for nine months of this, but what happened since … slowly and slowly she got better. And what has come out now is this strong, confident, funny, clever girl, who I think is fully recovered,” Belloc said, adding that through F.E.A.S.T. – a live online forum for parents of kids with eating disorders – she found strength when facing challenges, such as sitting at a table for four hours while trying to get her daughter to eat.

At the time of Belloc’s daughter’s treatment, the closest facility offering the Maudsley Approach was the University of Chicago, but TriCity family Services in Geneva also has started offering FBT. 

Mira Dahlheim and Laura Poss are the two individuals pioneering the FBT program for TriCity Family Services in Geneva, which provides counseling and other mental health services to community members. They officially launched the “evidence-based approach” in July.

“There’s not a ton of providers that [offer] FBT. … This is one of the only evidence-based approaches to eating disorder treatment, which really means they studied the effectiveness of the approach,” said Dahlheim, who leads the program as a therapist with Poss, the clinical director.

Poss said she’s excited about the facility’s new program and the “amazing” response the program has been getting. 

There is no wait list, and the program is open to anyone in the greater Chicago area. Treatment is typically covered through insurance providers, but Poss said a patient without health insurance would not be turned away. 

In general, treatment for an eating disorder often will include a form of psychological counseling with an eating disorder specialist, paired with medical and a nutrition plan. There are many treatment options and – because of the medical complications often associated with eating disorders – treatment is generally covered under most insurance providers, Walker said. 

A key to preventing restrictive dieting that can lead to an eating disorder begins with “educating our kids,” Walker said.

Preventative measures are being taken in many cases by the education systems in an effort to counteract the cultural behemoth that is the media’s idealized view of beauty. 

For a total of four or five days, eating disorders, body image and self-esteem are topics covered by seventh- and eighth-grade health classes at every Indian Prairie School District middle school in the Aurora area. Health teachers Scott Branson – the husband of Kerri Branson, a featured source in yesterday’s story, who suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager – and Jennifer Torza teach the lessons within a unit of mental and social health at Granger Middle School in Aurora. 

“We talked about a lot of the perceptions, primarily for young girls, and how the media can influence their decisions when it comes to their body,” said Branson, adding that during the unit they show before-and-after imagery as well as a specific Dove commercial – an ad that shows a time-lapsed Photoshop session. 

Torza, who has been to two conferences with the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, said it’s important to stress to her students that their bodies are going through changes that will eventually even out.

“Girls will start to take dramatic measures now, which will then damage their bodies’ natural ability to metabolize and stay healthy on its own,” she said, adding that in addition to the media, what parents say about their own body issues and flaws could have a drastic impact on the ways their children perceive their bodies.

To help curb body-image issues among teens, Branson said using disclaimers on ad campaigns that say “images have been touched up or Photoshopped” could, potentially, help.

However, Torza isn’t so sure that would help.

“Even though [the children] know that it’s unrealistic, it doesn’t change the fact that it still gets into their minds, and it still – whether they want it to or not – sets up these expectations that they think they have to meet,” Torza said.

Education is crucial in order to elicit change, but Branson said that there is not enough time to cover what he and Torza want when everything health-related is condensed into one-quarter of the school year.

A student sparking change of her own is Sarah Tennant, a senior at Carroll University in Wisconsin. The Geneva resident challenged the archetype of beauty during a 22-piece photo exhibition of her work that received a grant from her school. In the exhibition, she studied the work of five famous fashion and fine art photographers and the impact an image can have on a culture. 

The idea for the project stemmed from an English class unit that explored how society perceives beauty.

“Our culture has evolved so much from the early 1900s, and I think photography is a driving force whether we realize it or not,” Tennant said. “Through advertisement and consumerism, we’re always being bombarded with images, and a lot of it is implying ‘this is how you should act’ and ‘what you should look like.’”

Many photography students are being taught “responsible Photoshopping’ in class; however, Tennant said that she doesn’t know if it would ever be an accepted concept in the fashion industry.

As part of the next wave of budding fashion photographers, Tennant said she’s unsure of whether she’ll be able to stray from the overuse of Photoshop and the “thin-is-in” mantra sung by the fashion world, but she said she would like to do something akin to the “Special K and Dove commercials that are urging women to be confident and comfortable in their own [bodies].”

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