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Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family
Personal Stories
Anna's Friends
I think it's based on fear... and wherever that fear comes from, it's very real. It's very controlling. It's not just something you can ignore or shut off. It's poisonous. It takes your life away from you and it convinces you that you're nothing without it, that there isn't a life without eating disorders at all. And that's just the biggest load of crap ...

Vanessa, Emily and Nick, Anna's friends, sit around Kitty Westin's kitchen table; the love and pain is palpable as they talk about their friend who took her own life. This household has a different understanding of what an eating disorder is. They've lost the most precious thing-they have lost their Annabelle, and they want to talk about her and their experience with this deadly illness. They're experts because they saw their friend fade away and felt powerless. Anna committed suicide at age 21 as a direct result of anorexia.

Vanessa's experience strikes at an even more personal level because she too fought anorexia for six years.

Vanessa:
You have no life anymore. Congratulations, everything is taken away from you. You've pushed all your friends away; you're lying all the time to your family, your friends and to yourself. I mean, first of all you're lying to yourself. And I really feel that's rooted in fear. For whatever reason. You forget who you really are.

The huge lie starts differently with each individual, but weaves a common strand that "links all these beautiful, smart, creative, funny, independent girls and guys from all different walks of life," says Vanessa. They're achievers and perfectionists, peacemakers, everyone's good friend, daughter or wife.

Emily:
People put up barriers to understanding, because they think that it's not real, that it's just something certain girls go through for whatever reason, that it's stuck up, all about something very self-centered; and it's not like that-it's nothing like that at all.

"Prissy," is the word Emily comes up with, "and it's not about being prissy." Emily knows the truth about the young women who are stricken with eating disorders, because two of them are her best friends.

Emily:
Our truth is ugly and is brutal, everything that nobody wants to hear. Someone else's truth is that it's a wealthy white girl's disease ... they're just prancing around, and they don't really care about anything, and they get everything handed to them. I think you have to get to the root of the eating disorder to realize what the real truth is, or be involved with someone you are intimate with, that you know... then you see the truth.

Nick:
Anorexia is a personality and at first it's telling you something to do. It's telling you you're bad. But you can, a lot of the time, avoid it and put it behind you. You might not think about it for a year, but it comes back and is talking to you again. And that personality is coming out full force. It's not the same person.

This is the voice and face of the illness. In the beginning her friends and family noticed that Anna was not herself. She would get angry, sometimes vulgar, but definitely, as they describe her, "crabby at first, and not fun, not fun at all to be around." Emily called her, "just girl crabby." " People with anorexia are irritable because they're hungry. They are starving themselves to death.

Emily:
And it's so easy to step away from. It's so important not to. I remember the first time I sat down with my Dad and said, "I don't think Anna's doing well at all. But oh, I can't do anything, she won't listen to me, she doesn't want to hear anything from me. Anytime I try to bring it up she turns away. So I'm just not going to do anything." And he looked at me and said, "Emily, that is the worst thing that you could do at this point."

Kitty Westin, Anna's mother, is grateful that none of Anna's friends left her. Anna needed to know that she was still a person and that it was Anna who they were going to the movies with, or stopping for ice cream with, or out to a party with, and not her eating disorder. It is so important not to abandon that person.

Vanessa:
Not abandoning, or forgetting the person that you're friends with or related to, and doing those things you've always done together. Don't abandon those things, because that's what makes you who you are, and that's what brings you a half a step, or a step closer to reclaiming that part of yourself. Because you'll forget eventually who you even were. Just help them decide on life.

When Anna's doctor insisted she either go voluntarily into the hospital or be admitted into a facility against her will, Anna was furious. She got in touch with the patient advocate that same night. "You can hold me for 72 hours and then I'm out of here."

She told her parents, Kitty and Mark, to leave, but they wouldn't; they just sat there in the room. Anna told them not to bother coming to an appointment with the therapist, because she wasn't going to talk to them anyway. But the next day she embraced her parents, and during the meeting, the therapist asked what changed so dramatically from the night before and Anna said, "They came back."

Anna's parents didn't listen to the disease. They didn't care if Anorexia was telling them "I hate you" and "You can't make me do this, leave me alone." They saw only their daughter, Anna. They only listened to their daughter, Anna.

Vanessa:
You eventually think that you are the eating disorder. It has conflicting personalities. One just wants to be helped, the other wants to be totally independent. Somewhere in the middle, you've just got to take hold of what you really know is your own truth, and you just walk forward with that.

There's that eating disorder part that wants you to identify with it, and wants you to die with it. "Just c'mon, c'mon over to my side... the dark side." These are decisions you have to make every second of the day. And on that side is life, and on the other side... well, you'll still have a life for a while, and then ... eventually you won't. Keep in mind your dreams.

Because of her own experience with anorexia, Vanessa knows how you need to take control over acting on those voices "screaming at you at the top of your lungs," and recognizing your triggers, and be strong enough to "blow them off." You can't be complacent, either, because a trigger can come out of nowhere.

Vanessa:
I've struggled with it for five or six years, but now I'm definitely at a point of recovery, and I base that on the decisions that I make not to feed into the eating disorder voice, and doing that every day. It will start with the moment you stand up to it and make the decision to eat or not to purge after a meal, and then pretty soon it's weeks in a row, and then it's months, and you've had no diet pills and none of those eating disorder habits.

You can live a beautiful happy life, after eating disorders. You did before - you did in the beginning - you just need to trust yourself to be strong enough to make those decisions again to not be afraid.

You have to be on your guard. Vanessa has, as she put it, "come out of the woods," but she had seen Anna come out of the woods too. During the course of her illness, Anna had gotten very sick, then well, only to become very ill again two years later. The disease is sneaky: it infects your entire sense of self. Vanessa believes that once you know the root, where the patterns originated - and they are different for everyone - it's easier to counteract those habits. For her, it has a lot to do with her family, the conflict and the non-communication. She internalized everything. Her instinct was to avoid creating conflict.

Vanessa also points to the ideas that you have about yourself when you are young. She was always the "little one." Then, in the 8th grade, she became a cheerleader. All of a sudden, "I got boobs and ooh, what are these? And I got hips. I thought, people are thinking I'm getting really fat now. I was developing a little faster than some of my friends."

Body image played a significant role. Hers didn't fit. She had always considered herself a little bit smaller, petite, and thought she should just stay that way. These are pieces of a puzzle that she is still trying to figure out.

Vanessa:
You can try to chalk it up to the media and the way they portray everything, I definitely think that has something to do with it. Because you're comparing yourself to either somebody on TV or you're comparing yourself to your friends, but there's so much more.

Vanessa had flown across the country to see her friend in the hospital. Anna was sitting on the bed with her back to the door, her hair in braids. Vanessa remembers thinking, "Oh, I want my hair like that too." Then Anna turned and brought Vanessa to tears. She had always been small, but she had lost 40 pounds. Even so, as Anna looked around at all the thin girls in the ward, Anna wanted to be assured that she was thinner.

It was Nick who spent time with Anna just before she committed suicide. That week didn't seem any different from the last week or three weeks before. Maybe she had tried to talk to all of them; maybe all the pain just built up. Maybe she had already made the decision. She and Nick went to a movie, and after that she committed suicide.

Nick:
I knew she changed, I mean everyone changes-there's just a core part of a person that's always going to be there, no matter who they are, there's just certain qualities about a person that are never going to change. And that's what you always try to hold on to ... you could tell anorexia though, you could really tell the difference.

I felt like she was trying real hard, always asking questions, and I could tell where those were stemming from. She was trying to get out of this Someone talking to her, this Personality who is telling her she's ugly, or that she looks really bad.

Maybe anorexia kept telling her all those negative statements about herself, and she had to make a decision. Nick didn't know if there were hints he could have picked up on; she was Anna that night. She just looked ... very tired.

Some people think that this illness comes from, among other things, negative, disparaging comments that people may hear when they are growing up. Emily feels that damage can also come from growing up thinking of yourself as being just a pretty little girl.

Emily:
Girls need to learn, "I want to be more than a pretty girl that's put on a poster, and glamorized." It's an important thing to realize that you will turn into what a woman is supposed to be, and that's no longer this little thing, this thing that you keep wanting to be that's cute all the time. It's dangerous.

Kitty Westin believes that in our society, in our culture, any comment about being cute, or thin or too heavy, is a value judgment. There's not one right way to be. When a young woman, or anybody for that matter, is complimented for being small and "cute," then that just feeds into a belief system: "Well, I need to be that because that's what I'm valued for, because I'm little and I'm cute: a cute little thing."

Vanessa:
I think a lot of girls, hear, "Oh you're so cute," and parents hear, "Look at how cute your daughter is." Instead of, "Look at how courageous she is. Look at how smart she is. Look at all of these other things that she's doing." Our society bases a lot of a woman's power on her beauty and her sexuality.

Emily:
Their concept of beauty isn't a woman. It's Barbie, or Twiggy.

Vanessa:
Americans really have to wake up to what they're doing to their women and to their little girls and to their daughters and to their sisters and to their wives and to themselves. Just generally as a society, we should be responsible for the message that we're sending.

The concept of what is a woman is different in many other countries. Emily has spent time living in Africa, and experienced a completely different idea of what beauty is to most Africans. But even in the short time she lived there she saw these basic root concepts change.

Emily:

In their country, fat is being beautiful and healthy. It's being a woman, in Kenya. They have no idea what an eating disorder is. You explain it to them as, girls don't want to eat, or they eat and then they throw up. And they look at you like you're... they have no idea what you're talking about, and they just think that's so silly, and they'll usually start laughing. They don't have enough food to feed their families! Why would someone want to throw up after they eat? They think that being big and being a woman is showing that you can provide for your family, and that you are healthy enough to support your babies that come through your body. That's beautiful to them.

But ideas are changing in the urban areas where the trading of commodities and concepts is fervid.

Emily:
The scary thing is that we're sending it out to the world. It's spreading like a disease and people will say, there's no anorexia in Third World countries. Well, there wasn't, but now there is. You can see Western influence infiltrating their society. The new generation there, that grows up in the clubs - that wears halter tops, and takes fancy drugs, and wants to live the chic American lifestyle - they're all 90 pounds!

Around the Westin's table the questions fly. "How did our image of what beauty is, become so skewed? What have we done here? We do need to look at what we are doing to our daughters."

Anna's friends have decided they have to speak out about what they know of this disease that took their friend.

Kitty Westin now speaks about eating disorders at middle schools, high schools, parent meetings, hospitals, churches and community groups. To date, Kitty has spoken to over 5,000 people on eating disorders, treatment options, education, prevention strategies and how to help a friend.

The Westin family has founded The Anna Westin Foundation, which offers support, advocacy, education and prevention programs to individuals and communities...

...just to let the whole world know.

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Vanessa

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It's very controlling. It's not just something you can ignore or shut off. It's poisonous. It takes your life away from you...

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