We know that eating disorders can destroy lives, both of the sufferer and her/his family or loved ones. We know about the devastating health consequences of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders. We know that eating disorders can strip victims of their confidence and increasingly isolate them from the world, we know that anorexia has the highest successful rate of suicide among mental disorders, and on and on.
But how does the parent, the loved one or the health professional motivate the eating-disordered patient to make the superhuman effort that is required to overcome his/her disorder? Highly intelligent kids and adults die all too often from eating disorders, despite (in some cases) having read a shelf full of books on the condition that is killing them. Simply knowing what your disease can do to you doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to muster the will to overcome it.
Marcia has noticed that for young women, certain facts about eating disorders can trigger a shift, and help turn the patient from victim to conqueror. Sometimes it is the fear of losing the ability to bear children due to the effects of long-term starvation that finally motivates them to get better. Others are galvanized when they are told they have the brittle bones of an 80-year-old, or are courting the loss, over time, of brain function.
It takes someone, either Marcia, a pediatrician, psychologist or parent to explain these facts. For parents, it can be useful to have a store of such information at your fingertips.
On a recent visit to Canada, I came across this headline in The National Post daily newspaper: Anorexia can take 25 years off life: report. The article described a study, led by University of British Columbia psychiatry professor Dr. Laird Birmingham, which found that girls who develop anorexia at age 15 will live on average to age 56 — 25 years less than the average Canadian female. The study looked at the deaths of 954 women from anorexia in British Columbia.
Birmingham said he hopes the study will make people take anorexia more seriously and help fight the “stigma” of anorexia. I assume he means the not uncommon but mistaken view of the disease as pasttime of spoiled rich girls who have no regard for all those in the world who are starving. But I look at the study findings as another good factoid to casually introduce into conversation when you are trying to broach the sensitive subject of your child’s anorexia. As Marcia knows from experience, arming your child with facts about the disease you are both fighting can help build a sense of what’s at stake. It might not work right away, but those factoids will be filed away somewhere in your child’s brain for later use. Or the one you choose could be the one tidbit that turns the tide.
Granted, this is only one small study, and only gives an average life expectancy of the particular group studied. But the gist of it: that anorexia can shorten lives, tells a cautionary tale, and one that may hit home with your child or loved one suffering from anorexia.