Sarnians need to wake up to the prevalence of anorexia nervosa and bulimia in their community, say three teens battling eating disorders.
“We want change in the schools, in the hospital, in the programs that are available to us,” said Olivia Musico, an 18-year-old Northern Collegiate grad. “I know of at least 17 others in Sarnia with it.”
She has been in treatment for nearly a year for anorexia (self starvation) and bulimia (binging and purging). Last week, she started a new program at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph after waiting seven months to get a bed.
Olivia and two friends – Steph Shaw, 16, and Randi Babcock, 18 – met recently with The Sarnia Journal during a weekend home from their respective treatment centres where they are seeking help.
All three attended Northern and met at school but became friends after each was admitted for treatment at London’s Children’s Hospital.
All three said they are working hard to get better, but a lack of education in Sarnia delayed their diagnoses and a lack of professional resources makes it necessary to leave town.
“We want change,” said Randi, whose bulimia started in Grade 6.
“We want people to understand that so many are going through this. Parents, teachers, coaches and doctors need to know what to look for and what to do.”
Early intervention is important, said Randi. “The longer it isn’t dealt with, the more ingrained it becomes.”
She started purging after changing elementary schools. She was so distressed she began craving the endorphins produced by vomiting food.
“I didn’t fit in and I’d sit in the bathroom at lunchtime, not eating all day. When I got home, I’d be so hungry, I’d eat and purge.”
She hid it so well that three years went by before Randi told her mom. That’s when she stopped eating. If her mom was watching for purging, Randi believed she could fool her by controlling her weight a different way.
By December of 2014 she showed signs of serious anorexia. She was tired, depressed, her hair fell out and, finally, she passed out at school after her potassium levels dropped dangerously low.
A series of hospitalizations began that continue to this day. She is currently at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in Whitby, a residential program that also took seven months to get into.
“I think it’s terrible we don’t have the programs or beds in Sarnia to help us,” said Steph. “There are some beds on (Bluewater Health’s) medical floor but the focus isn’t on treating our (psychiatric) problem, it’s just to physically stabilize us.”
At age 14, Steph felt pressure in Grade 9 to do well as an athlete and began controlling her weight by purging. But her grades slipped and she lost the energy an athlete requires.
Last week, she started as a day patient for children and adolescence with eating disorders at London’s Health Science Centre.
“I want people to know that you can die from eating disorders, just like you can die from cancer. But eating disorders don’t get anywhere near the same attention,” the 16-year-old said.
As an overachiever all her life, Olivia said she sometimes feels overwhelming anxiety and stress. To feel control, she focused on her weight, gradually eating less and less until her health was critically impacted in Grade 12.
“I was in denial for a long time and didn’t believe anything was wrong,” she said. “But the truth is that no matter how much I lost, I was never satisfied.”
Once her parents began watching her eating, she took to purging and became critically ill.
Parents in Sarnia also need support locally, she said.
“We hope that having the three of us talk about it will let people know it is an issue here,” added Olivia. “We want to change the fact that people think that if you look okay, then you are okay.
“It’s not always true.”
NINE TRUTHS ABOUT EATING DISORDERS:
Truth #1: Many people with eating disorders look healthy, yet may be extremely ill.
Truth #2: Families are not to blame, and can be the patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment.
Truth #3: An eating disorder diagnosis is a health crisis that disrupts personal and family functioning.
Truth #4: Eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically influenced illnesses.
Truth #5: They affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes and weights, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses.
Truth #6: They carry an increased risk for suicide and medical complications.
Truth #7: Genes and environment play important roles in their development.
Truth #8: Genes alone do not predict who will develop eating disorders.
Truth #9: Full recovery is possible. Early detection and intervention are important.
Source: Dr. Cynthia Bulik, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina.