One Woman's Successful Struggle Against Anorexia
April 23, 2009
Leslie Lipton has suffered from anorexia since high school. After years of recovery, she wrote Unwell, a novel about a teenage girl struggling with an eating disorder.
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This is Shomari Brown, a student at Lehman College. Leslie Lipton has suffered from anorexia since high school. After years of recovery, she wrote Unwell, a novel about a teenage girl struggling with an eating disorder. Lipton recently graduated from Barnard College and now advocates for the National Eating Disorders Association. She talked at Lehman College about anorexia and her personal struggles.
Before I get into my whole story, I'd like to tell you some basic things about eating disorders. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness at about ten percent. So, ten percent of people who develop eating disorders will die as a direct consequence of their eating disorder. Ten percent of people with eating disorders are also male. So, people generally think that this is an all-female disease. Well, guess what? It's not. And it's increasing in the male population.
Some other simple statistics are that 40 percent of fourth-graders have been on a diet before. Eighty-one percent of ten-year-old girls fear being fat. And one in five women suffer from disordered eating. Disordered eating is not a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, but a pattern of eating that is less ideal or less than healthy for one's body. Studies have shown-- and these are all statistics that are available on the National Eating Disorders Association website. But, studies have shown that the fear of being fat is so overwhelming that young girls have indicated that they're more afraid of this than they are of cancer, of nuclear war, or of losing their parents. That, to me, is absolutely astounding.
The five most important things to know about eating disorders. Most of them have to do with common myths and misconceptions. But, number one, eating disorders are not about food. They are illnesses with biological, mental, and environmental causes. No two people have exactly the same combination of reasons for developing an eating disorder.
Number two, eating disorders affect men and women of all ages and all socioeconomic classes. They do not only affect upper middle-class white girls. As I said before, ten percent of people with eating disorders are male. And the average age is spreading up and down the spectrum: as young as five and as old as or older than 65. Number three, eating disorders are not glamorous. They are not lifestyle choices, nor are they the latest fad diet, no matter what you might hear from Hollywood.
Number four, eating disorders can be fatal if they're not taken seriously and treated properly. A starving body begins to shut itself down organ-by-organ. The brain starves, and one can see cognitive distortions. And the body slows and is unable in, you know, just one instance-- to keep itself warm any more. Eventually, the consequence is that your heart will stop beating as well.
And number five and perhaps the least talked-about, and one of the most important to me and one of the things that I really try to highlight in these talks, is that recovery from a eating disorder is possible. There is no reason to lose hope.
There are countless, countless causes. I could sit here, and I could list them for you. Everything from genetics to bullying to a need for control to a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. And no one cause is any more or less relevant than any of the others.
For me, personally, my eating disorder began when I was in eighth grade. When I was in sixth grade, I developed anxiety. I became depressed. But, as a sixth-grader, I didn't know what depression was. I didn't know that there was a reason why sometimes I'd be sitting in the middle of a class at school and look over at the window and thinking, "Gee, I wonder what happened if I just jumped out." I just thought those were thoughts that I had to live with. I didn't know that I could walk into our guidance counselor's office and say, "Look, I'm really unhappy here. I really need some help."
So, my experience was not one of needing to find control in my life. My experience was really one of I was unhappy, and I looked around, and I saw girls starting to diet and become conscious of their weight. And I, in my head, equated, oh, maybe if I lose weight, maybe if I start dieting, maybe if I, you know, stop having the hamburger for lunch and start having the salad, maybe this will make me fit in better. Maybe this will make people like me better. And so that's what happened.
And at first, it started-- it really got bad in the ninth grade. And it started off where I, you know, I just said, "Well, I'll just try to lose five pounds, and I'll see what happens. And that'll make me happy." And, you know, I'd lose the five pounds. And then it would be, "Well, maybe if I lose five more pounds."
And I would lose those five pounds and still not be happy. And the truth of the matter is I don't think I would have ever gotten to a weight where I would have been able to turn around and say, "Oh, I'm happy now because of my weight." Because, as I said before, eating disorders are not about the food, and they're not about the weight. And I was unhappy for reasons beyond what the size of my thighs or what size pair of jeans I wore.
And so, my eating disorder spiraled out of control. I had no sense of when I was going to stop. I had no goal weight in mind. And finally, when I was in ninth grade, a friend of mine-- we were talking about some stuff one day. I told her that I had been making myself throw up after dinner.
And it was a Friday that I told her this, and on Monday, she went and she told our English teacher. By Tuesday, my English teacher had me in our school guidance counselor's office talking to him. And shortly thereafter, my parents found out and got me into therapy and into treatment. And it really was because of this friend and this teacher that I am recovered. Because at that point, like when I was in sixth grade, I didn't have the words to say to somebody, "Look, I'm really struggling, I'm really hurting, and I really need help."
I did lose a lot of weight pretty quickly. I also was constantly focusing on food and weight. If you sat down next to me and you had a conversation with me, I probably told you what I had to eat within the first, you know, five minutes of us talking. I had stopped going out with my friends. And then the other thing that was probably most pronounced in me and the thing that really gave my parents a clue that something was going wrong was the change in my personality.
I'd always sort of been a shy kid. But I'd never been completely withdrawn. And all of the sudden, I really wanted nothing to do with anybody. And so that was one thing that I would tell anybody to be very cautious of, if you see that in a loved one or a friend or anybody, really. A huge change in personality. It might not signal an eating disorder, but it might signal depression. Or it might signal abuse. It might signal, you know, any host of things.
But my body had already shut, had already started to shut down. I lost my period for about a year and a half, I think, until before it finally returned. Which is really bad because for a young woman to lose her period means not only is she infertile, which didn't matter to me at age 14. Who cared? I wasn't having children. But it means that your bones aren't acquiring calcium anymore. So they are becoming more brittle. They're becoming more like the bones of a 60-year old.
And there's a disorder called osteopenia that's sort of right on the spectrum before you hit osteoporosis. And as a 14-year old, I went and I had my bones scanned to make sure that everything was okay. And lo and behold, I had osteopenia. Thankfully, I got help early enough that it could be corrected. And once I had regained weight and started to eat properly, my bones did regain the mass that they had lost.
But, I know people who have dealt with this, you know, from the time they were nine into their thirties. And that's too late. You don't get those years back to build that bone mass and also, my body was in ketosis, which basically means that it's eating itself for fuel. When my doctor found out that I was ketonic, she freaked and was very concerned.
The things that happen to me: I started to lose my hair. So, I'd take a shower and just clumps of it would just come out in your hand. And I think that was one of the, probably the most startling things, because I didn't see the things that were happening inside my body. I didn't see the osteopenia. I didn't see the ketosis. But, losing my hair was a very visual representation of what I was doing.
My teacher wasn't afraid to confront me. At least not this one that really ended up making a difference in my life. She was willing to put herself on the line and to say, "I care about you, and I cannot sit back and let this happen." I had other teachers that didn't, for whatever reason, didn't know enough. Or didn't know how to approach me or were afraid to.
And while they knew that I was sick, they never said anything. And those are not the teachers that ended up helping me in the long run. And, sure, I wasn't thrilled when my, you know, English teacher said, "Well, we're gonna go to the guidance counselor now." I did not say, "Oh, that's great." I cried, and I begged her not to. And she took me by the hand, and she said, "No, we're going." And we went. And she sat with me while we told him what was going on, and she was there through the rest of it, too.
My parents put me into therapy. I was seeing a medical doctor. But, for whatever reason, I was too entrenched, and I could not put the weight back on. So they put me in a hospital program. And for three weeks, I was on a locked, in-patient unit that basically re-fed me. There was a very little bit of therapy. Maybe I saw a therapist twice.
I was also put on medication from the very beginning. Medication is a long and difficult road. And it is not-- it's probably one of the most frustrating parts because there's no sort of magical pill that you can take that's gonna make you feel better. Everyone's different, and I happen to be a very complicated person to medicate.
The medications that should work for me typically don't. The medications that do work, I tend to have very odd, rare, side effects such as, say, lactation. Really unhelpful when you're 18 years old, not pregnant, not having a child any time in the near future, and all of the sudden your breasts are filling up with milk. Really unpleasant and consequently couldn't stay on that medication.
That's a whole, long other story. But, anyway, it is an important part. And for many people, it's easier than it was for me. It can help lessen anxiety. It can help make the re-feeding process a little bit easier. And it can also have to do with, you know, with me, it was underlying depression and anxiety and that's gonna have to be treated, you know, even once my eating disorder is gone. I'm still going to have to deal with the depression and the anxiety. And that, for me, does involve taking medication. Even to this day, it involves taking medication.
One point that I always have to make, and I usually make it at this point, and I tell you some very scary things about the hospital. As I said before, eating disorders are not glamorous. So often we hear about them in the context of, you know, this model or this Hollywood actress that lost a lot of weight and, oh, she must be anorexic.
And I will tell you just one story quickly. When I was sick, my medical doctor told me that I had to have a bowl of ice cream every night before I went to bed. This is part of my treatment and part of putting weight back on. I freaked.
Every single night, I would sit there on my bed and I would attempt to pull my hair out, attempt to pull my skin off, all over a stupid bowl of ice cream. Which probably wasn't even a bowl of ice cream. It was probably like one tablespoon of ice cream. And that is not glamorous. That's not fun. It's not a cool way to get attention. It's not a cool way to fit in. It's not any of those things that you might think when you see the celebrities on television.
And it's certainly-- it's certainly not having fun having your life taken away and being hospitalized at age 14 on a locked unit where you hear the door click behind you, and you know your parents can't come back until the next day's visiting hours. Where the nurses watch everything that you do, every movement that you make, everything that you put in your mouth.
The first morning at the hospital, they told me I had to shower. And I was like, "Okay, fine. I'll take a shower. Whatever." Well, no, I didn't just have to take a shower. I had to take a shower in front of the entire unit and the nurse so that they could make sure that I wasn't going to drink the tap water in order to alter my weight. So, that's not fun. That's not glamorous. I've never met anybody with an eating disorder that's happy.
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