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Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family
Personal Stories
Annie
You just learn to depend on it more and more until, pretty soon, that's the way you cope with everything. You're scared about something, you are angry, you're anxious, you're fearful... I mean, anything, and you deal with it with your eating disorder, whatever eating disorder behavior you do. And it's a lot like an addiction, and it's a lot like alcoholism. People use alcohol and drugs to numb themselves, to deal with things.

Annie is a college student in Seattle. You wouldn't think she has an eating disorder. Yes, she's lean, but in our society that's prized, and ironically she fields compliments that come her way regarding how thin she is. But Annie has long unhealthily restricted calories and tried to adhere to an impossibly stringent diet. When that fails and she does eat something she deems "unacceptable", she purges. She is anorexic and bulimic.

Like most people with eating disorders, Annie's mode of operation was to keep her eating disorder well-hidden. She often marvels that she could do this in the house where she lived with her parents. She ran the shower and bath to hide the sound.

It was a sorority sister who called to tell Annie's mother, Ginger, that her daughter was seriously bulimic. Her mother's very first response was denial, but then she knew it must be true. Annie is proud of how well her mother handled the discovery at first.

Ginger:
It's a shattering experience to suddenly have all of your memories over the past four or five years tarnished, to find out you weren't doing a good job at all. You were clueless as to what was going on with this child.

Annie's greatest fear was that her parents would find out and realize she was "more flawed than they had ever expected." She sought in-patient treatment on her own: psychotherapy, combined with anti-depressant drugs. Then individual therapy was supplemented with family therapy, and it was the first time that the family ever dealt with those shared issues. This is crucial to recovery.

Annie:
I'm pretty sure that my Mom expected the focus of my therapy and focus of my treatment to be on me, and me changing, and me learning to live differently. I don't think she expected anyone to turn to her and be like, "I think you need to make some changes."

The therapeutic work necessary for parents to do is difficult. Parents can feel attacked as part of the cause, oblivious to the needs of their children, kept at a distance because "they've done enough damage already." They need to hang in there.

Annie:
They expect the person to come back from treatment-or to go through treatment-and emerge on the other side as the same person, minus the eating disorder. But the nature of an eating disorder is that it's a coping mechanism. And it masks a lot of things, and it masks problems, it masks parts of that person that they don't like. And you can expect that, in the course of treatment, there's going to be a lot of things that bubble to the surface.

Ginger:
Maybe instead of worrying about what she eats, whether she's eating enough, whether she's gaining or losing weight, I need to worry about my relationship with her. I need to have better conversations, I need to really demonstrate that I care about her.

It is difficult to accept that a person with eating disorders doesn't get "fixed" so easily. It's been very challenging for Annie's mother.

Ginger:
Getting treatment, going into a residential treatment program, is the beginning, it's not the end.

Epilogue

Annie feels she is doing quite well. At the time the documentary, Perfect Illusions was taped, she had already come to that point that defies definition, that point of transition where one decides to change perspective, to do something different.

"You start the work of getting better, then things get better. Not a lot changes very quickly after that." Annie maintains that recovery is a slow process, but most people expect you to be completely well once your disorder is acknowledged, and you've decided to get well. It just doesn't work that way. Everything doesn't just get better when the person starts eating again; a lot more has to change.

Annie has no idea what makes one change. "You're tired of feeling bad, tired of being depressed, tired of hitting bottom." After admitting she couldn't do it on her own, and going to therapy, she realized there was no reason why she shouldn't be getting more help.

Annie doesn't obsess about weight any more, doesn't count calories. She still isn't okay with eating certain things. And she doesn't, (she smiles) "eat with abandon."

It is frustrating for her to talk about eating disorders to people who have a limited comprehension of the illness. Most people focus on the odd and secretive behaviors, and how little you weigh and what you don't eat. She asserts that those things don't seem unusual to a person with eating disorders. The focus really is on bigger issues. Those issues are what the eating disorder is about.

For herself, Annie's concern is more the issue of depression. Medication has alleviated symptoms in the past, but presently she's on hiatus from anti-depressants and doing well. She's optimistic, in school and going for her degree. A biology major bound for veterinary school, Annie now shares her apartment with two ferrets.

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Annie
Annie

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You just learn to depend on it more and more until, pretty soon, that's the way you cope with everything... you deal with it with your eating disorder... it's a lot like an addiction.

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