FOFs are seeking treatment for anorexia in increasing numbers. Here, one FOF shares her story to help us figure out… why?
“No, I’m here to check in my wife,” said Diane’s husband.
Clinicians across the country are reporting a rise in the number of FOFs seeking treatment for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, according to the February 2012 Harvard Health Watch. “There’s probably a several fold increase in the last decade,” said Dr. David Herzog, director of the Harvard Eating Disorders Program at Mass General Hospital.
Boomers are the first generation to face their 50s in an age when eating disorders have become widely reported and treated in this country. According to Herzog and other experts, a mid-life crises, or the fight against mid-life weight gain can trigger eating disorders. “They may be married or suffered a divorce. They may be have had a recent loss of a parent.”
In fact, there’s no easy explanation for why women in their 50s, 60s and 70s are falling prey to this tricky disease. But our research turned up numerous explanations—everything from menopause and empty-nest syndrome to job loss and illness. So we sat down with FOF Diane, who has been battling anorexia and bulimia for almost 10 years, after first being diagnosed at age 42. Diane has been married to her husband for 27 years and has two children–both in college. Her story is heart-wrenching, and also provides incredible insight into this difficult disease and why FOFs might be at risk.
Read Diane’s story and tell us, have you ever suffered from “disordered eating?” Or do you have a FOfriend you think might have this problem?
How did this start? Had you suffered from eating disorders at a younger age as well?
It started after a traumatic event in my life—I had no previous experience with eating disorders. I was leaving work one day and was hit by a car while walking across the street. I broke my ankle in a few places and ultimately lost about 30 percent of the function of my leg.
That sounds awful.
The accident itself was really traumatic, but the hardest part was that the driver took no responsibility. She said it was my fault. I ended up in court, having to prove that I didn’t ‘walk into her car.’ I was out of work for about seven months for surgery and rehabilitation and also fighting for worker’s comp. At the time, my son was 8 and my daughter was 12. It was very traumatic for them and for my husband, too.
How did this trigger an eating disorder?
I was home and off of work after several surgeries on my leg. I could only move from the bed to the living room–no housework or exercise. Previously, I had been very active. I ran in the Susan G. Komen race; I was an assistant coach for my son’s little league; I had been working full time for 26 years, and then… nothing.
I started thinking, I’m not expending many calories, so I really shouldn’t be eating so much. That was my mindset: calories in = calories out. I started restricting what I ate.
Had you dieted before then?
No. I was always an athletic person. I enjoyed exercising and bike riding and walking—but I was never thinking about burning calories.
When did things get serious?
I remember going to a Christmas party—December 15, 2002—and I had eaten more than I wanted to. I came home and purged for the first time. It gave me a rush. All that frustration of the lawsuit and workers comp and work. It was such a relief, I remember telling myself, I’m only going to do this until the first of the year. But by then, I was addicted. Purging became my new way of dealing with stress and anger.
What did you weigh at your thinnest?
Honestly, I don’t like to talk about numbers, because I feel like there’s a stigma to the numbers. If they don’t sound low enough you can think, I’m not that sick. It’s not about the numbers; it’s more your psychological reasonings for doing the things that you’re doing.
Did your family know what was going on?
Not in the beginning, but my daughter came home from school one day and caught me purging in the bathroom. She was upset, naturally, and opened her health book and pointed to eating disorders. She told me that it was really dangerous. She was taking the parental role. Over the years, that is how the dynamics in my family continued to shift… to where my daughter and my husband were making decisions about me and my problems. And I was really out of it.
Has this continued to be a problem for your family?
Yes. In the past, I’ve really put my eating disorder before my family. It’s like having an affair or a drug addiction. There were times when I went out on a binging spree, and my husband and daughter would be calling me, and I wouldn’t answer the phone, and they didn’t know where I was. I wanted to escape. I didn’t want the stress; I didn’t want people bothering me. I wanted to be numb.
I know they are angry and frustrated. If the roles were reversed, I would be totally destroyed.
How has it affected your career?
I worked in a microbiology lab in a hospital for 26 years, and they let me go after a year of this. My job was a huge part of my life—a lot of my self-esteem was tied into that. They were patient for a while, but once I started leaving work to get treatment, they replaced me. I hadn’t ever explored what I wanted to do in life. That was very anxiety provoking, and I’m still dealing with that. My plan right now is to get my master’s in public health.
You’ve been battling this for 10 years, and you’ve been in treatment programs 6 times. Why do you think it’s been such a struggle to get well?
A few reasons. First, this disease is triggered by stressors, and in the last 10 years, those stressors have just kept coming for me… losing my job, financial struggles, dealing with insurance, family issues. When I get out of treatment, I think, how am I going to deal with all this stuff that’s going on without my eating disorder? It’s like being in an abusive relationship.
What I’ve also had to face is that being sick—having this problem—has gotten me out of a lot of responsibility. I had always been someone who was doing stuff for others–at work, with my family and my children. I always put myself last. As long was sick, I didn’t have to meet expectations that my family—my parents, siblings—were putting on me to do things for them. I’ve realized that’s a big part of it, and I need to set boundaries with people. Right now the guilt is so strong, I’d rather just disappear.
What would you tell another FOF who is secretly struggling with some of these eating issues?
Get help right away. The earlier you get help, the better your chances for recovery. Also, I understand that the eating disorder is helping you disassociate from the bad feelings. It’s like an addiction to alcohol or drugs. But the problem is, you disassociate from the good feelings, too, so you never really feel that true happiness or enjoyment. I know people who have recovered and they are enjoying their lives. They tell me that it’s worth it to feel the good and the bad. I believe them… I have hope.
For more information about eating disorders, or to find help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website.