B E E N  T H E R E:  E A T I N G  D I S O R D E R S

May 1997

At the age of 12, Vanessa decided she was too fat. Her compulsive dieting turned into anorexia and she was hospitalized three times. Fortunately, she did not die, and what she learned, she's now ready to share.

Vanessa Barr, 14

The InSite: How did your anorexia begin?

Vanessa: Between the summer of 6th and 7th grade. I had just gone through puberty and was ready to meet new friends and start separating from my parents. Then all of a sudden I was faced with this big problem... I thought I was too fat. I knew it was really other problems that I was dealing with, social problems with my friends. But my weight was the easy thing for me to control, instead of the problems I had relating to other people.

TI: People have a really distorted view of what anorexia is - people starving themselves by choice. And they can stop whenever they want. Your experience is very different from that, isn't it?

Vanessa: Yes! There's a drive that you cannot stop telling you that you have to diet. The mind of an anorexic person is so different from the mind of a "normal" person. Deep down you believe that one extra bite of bread or something is going to put 50 pounds on you. When you look in the mirror you see an obese person when you are really skin and bones. In your mind you cannot change this view that you have of yourself and these weird ideas that somehow got into your head about food. It's not fake. But that doesn't mean that it's something that can kill you without your participation. The soul is much more powerful than anorexia.You can make the decision yourself that you don't want to live as an anorexic anymore. Then you, with the help of others, can fight off the disease.

Deep down you believe
that one extra bite of bread or something
is going to put 50 pounds on you.

TI: Did anyone ever tell you that you were too fat?

Vanessa: No, but I always thought when I was a little kid that I was. I wasn't overweight, but I have a big bone set and I was normal. I just perceived myself as bigger because I was a more mature person than a lot of my friends. So I just put that idea [of being too fat] on to my body.

TI: Were you looking at lots of teen magazines at that time?

Vanessa: No. I was never into fashion or any of those things. That's why I think, in the beginning, my eating disorder didn't have a lot to do with cultural, media influence and women expecting to look thin. I think it had a lot to do with the psychological idea of control. Controlling what I could which was my body size and the way that I looked. Instead of trying to work on other things that were harder to deal with, like emotional issues with my friends. Then, when I was really into the diet, and really wanting to lose weight, the culture totally had to do with it. I learned what was an "acceptable" body size from TV and magazines. I dieted with the aid of women's magazines and infomercials on TV.

Then, when I was really into the diet...
I learned what was an "acceptable"
body size from TV and magazines.

TI: So one day did you say to yourself, "That's it! I'm not going to eat any more?"

Vanessa: Well, I decided that I just was going to go on a diet. Three of my other friends and I decided that we were going to start eating healthier and go running everyday after school. But I took it a little bit further. After I went running with my friends I would come home and do 100 laps around my backyard. And I wasn't eating any sweets like I used to. I suddenly became a vegetarian. I just started to eat bread and fruit. I stayed on that diet for 4 months.

TI: What did your parents say? They must have noticed.

Vanessa: They definitely noticed! [laughing] My family is not into the whole diet thing and they were not very supportive of me going on a diet. My dad is a meat and potatoes kind of guy and he was criticizing me a lot for becoming a vegetarian. They both became very concerned when I started to look emaciated.

TI: How much weight did you lose in the four months?

Vanessa: About 35 pounds.

TI: That's a lot! How were you feeling physically and emotionally?

Vanessa: Physically I felt awful. I totally felt like I didn't have any energy. I couldn't do any of things I used to think were fun because now they all revolved around my food. Just a walk to the park turned into walking to burn calories. And having lunch with my friends was now avoiding eating. Life just became food and exercise and that's all. And it was not fun. I got sick a lot because my body couldn't fight off diseases and things as well. Emotionally I wasn't happy at all. I felt really caught up in my food and my weight. Those were the only things I thought about all summer long. I had this wonderful vacation with my cousin which could have turned out to be a really good thing but I spent the whole time dieting and thinking about my weight. I could not see out of my world of food and diet.

Emotionally I wasn't happy at all.
I felt really caught up in my food and my weight.

TI: Did your cousin say anything to you about the way you were behaving?

Vanessa: During the time I was with her I didn't pay any attention to her. When I was in recovery, I talked to her about it. She told me that she thought I was really weird and that she had had a really awful time and that she was concerned about me. But she didn't really know how to show me because she was the same age as I was... we were only 12. She didn't really understand what was going on with me although I do have other cousins who are anorexic. It's something that seems to happen a lot in my family, probably as the result of self-esteem and poor self-image.

TI: So what happened at the end of the summer?

Vanessa: That's when my mom became really concerned because I had lost so much weight and I was so emaciated I was getting really dizzy all the time and blacking out. I was spending all my time writing down food and exercise schedules for myself. I got totally isolated from all of my friends. So my mom decided it was time to bring me into the doctor, who would set me straight about what was healthy about eating.

I got totally isolated from all of my friends.

TI: How did you feel about going to the doctor?

Vanessa: I thought it was going to be great because the doctor was going to tell me new ways to diet! She'll tell me not to eat cookies and things like that and then I'd have an excuse! But that's not how it went.

TI: How did it go?

Vanessa: She weighed me in. And said, "Whoa! You've lost a whole lot of weight this summer. What are you eating now?" And I said bread and fruit, basically. And she asked, "Are you exercising?" And I said, "Every day." And she said, "You know what? I think you are anorexic." She had treated my other cousin who was anorexic so she knew it was an issue in my family and could spot it really quickly.

TI: How did you feel when you heard her say that word "anorexic?"

Vanessa: I thought... "Oooh, gross, what is that?"

TI: You hadn't heard of it before?

Vanessa: I'd heard of the word because of my cousin. It was this big family secret that we all knew about but we weren't supposed to know about. And I thought to myself, once before, during the summer... I was sitting there in bed and thinking about my birthday party, which was in the summer... and I was thinking "Oh, great! What am I going to do about cake?" And for one second the thought crossed my mind, "What about anorexia? What's going on with me?" Then I thought, "Oh, no, no, no! Definitely not." And I totally dismissed the idea.

TI: So you are in the doctor's office and the word comes up again. How'd you feel?

Vanessa: Scared! I didn't want to admit it. I was embarrassed. I was really ashamed. I didn't want my mom to hear that.

TI: Was she in the room with you?

Vanessa: Yeah. She was in the room. The doctor said, "You're anorexic and these are the things you're going to need to do now. You're going to have to see me practically every day to make sure that you're not going to die because of your heart rate." My heart rate was so low. And she said that I needed to get into therapy. And she said, "Tonight you cannot go out for your jog and you have to eat something good. Because if you don't you might faint, and that would be really bad."

I wasn't really happy...
all I was thinking about was food.

TI: Did you realize at this point that you had a problem?

Vanessa: Well, for a little while I think I was in denial, but that only lasted a couple of minutes. I realized that I didn't have any friends anymore. And that I really wasn't happy. I knew that all I was thinking about was food. And I was wondering why all of a sudden my world had become this... anorexia became an answer for me. This might be different from other people's experiences because I didn't go through much denial.

TI: So did you start taking care of yourself?

Vanessa: No. I truly wanted to. I wanted to be healthy and all that. But I went home and that night for dinner I ate Lean Cuisine TV dinner and I really wanted to go out for a walk. I was sitting there the whole night thinking, "My god! I really want to go out on a walk." I felt safe in my pain, my anorexia. At that point I hated myself so much and was so afraid of who I really was that I would rather be miserable, but "safe," than happy and have to take a risk. So I dwelled on the walk I couldn't take because it meant I had to start taking care of myself, and I didn't want to take care of something I didn't love. Part of me really wanted to be better and didn't really understand why I was doing this to myself. Why I couldn't stop. And the other part of me, the drill sergeant, was just, "Shut up, healthy body part! You're doing this and that's it!"

TI: So what happened then?

Vanessa: It got to the point when I felt physically worse and worse. Now my parents were on my back. They were always watching what I ate. And people knew. They could put a name to what I was dealing with. "She's anorexic. She needs help." I got all these pressures from the outside that I needed to start working on this and also from the inside. The healthier part of me started getting a little bit stronger. I realized that recovery was something I needed to get in.

TI: Did you start eating more?

Vanessa: No, but I stopped exercising because I couldn't without sneaking it. My emotional state of mind got a little bit better because I realized that it was okay to eat a little bit more. And I was eating a little bit more. Maybe, instead of eating plain bread I would eat bread with tomatoes. Which to me was a big deal! And then I got hospitalized and that really scared me.

Maybe, instead of eating plain bread I would eat bread with tomatoes. Which to me was a big deal!

TI: What caused that?

Vanessa: I went to the doctor one time and my heart rate was too low. Because school had started up again and I needed a lot of energy and I wasn't eating it but I was sure burning it. My heart rate got so low because I didn't have enough food to support my heart pumping the blood around. It got so low that the doctor was afraid that I was going to die if I wasn't hospitalized and put on a heart monitor. She said, "You know, this time your heart rate is too low. You were already unsafe where you were, but now you've crossed the line. You are really in a dangerous zone." She put me in the hospital. I think that's what scared me into really wanting help. I got hospitalized two times after that and I had to miss Thanksgiving, because I was hospitalized for two weeks. And I missed New Year's again and I had to have surgery. I don't know if this had anything to do with my eating disorder but I had to have my gall bladder out and I missed out on all these really fun things because I was in the hospital. Meanwhile I started seeing another therapist whose idea of recovery was to start exercising!

TI: What?!!

Vanessa: According to him you didn't have to not eat, you could eat and exercise and stay thin. He's really popular in this county and it's really sad.

TI: So you were hospitalized once and you said that really scared you. Then you said, "And I was hospitalized two times after that." So it didn't scare you enough to get into therapy with someone who could really help you.

Vanessa: And I wasn't at the point where I really knew what that was. Also the anorexic voice in me was still so strong. Because I hadn't explored the other issues that were going on in my life.

TI: Which are really what it's all about.

Vanessa: Yeah.

TI: Okay, so the third time you were hospitalized, this was the final time?

Vanessa: Uh, huh.

TI: What happened?

Vanessa: They told me that "You're going to have surgery and you need to start eating because you're going to die if you have surgery and you are totally emaciated."

TI: And how old were you at this time?

Vanessa: I was still 12. [laughing] It was a very long year!

TI: They actually told you if you don't change what you are doing you are going to die?

Vanessa: Yeah. And it scared me, but still there was a voice in me that said, "No. They're lying. There's a conspiracy against you to make you fat. You're not going to die." That's the mentality I had then. Also, a part of me didn't care if I died. I was so unhappy, why not just end the pain. I couldn't see the other option - of getting better, being happy, and loving myself.

"They're lying. There's a conspiracy against you to make you fat. You are not going to die."

TI: So you had your surgery.

Vanessa: Yeah. And I can't put my finger on exactly what it was that changed my mentality a little bit, but during the course of that 5 or 6 months that I was hospitalized three times, really sick... all of sudden my anorexic voice started getting weaker. I started remembering what it was like to be able to eat something and enjoy it. And then go out and have fun. It was like my desire to be able to do that again got so great that it lessened the mentality that I needed to diet and stay thin. And maybe it was just time to realize that this was not how I wanted to spend my life. I also had a really scary experience the second or third time I was in the hospital where they had a tube in me that goes up your nose and down your throat and into your stomach, because I wouldn't eat. And they upped the calories I was getting through that, by about 200 a day. And I tried to jump out the window in the hospital. I thought," They are trying to make me fat! They are bad people!" I couldn't deal with it and I just wanted to die. I would rather be dead than having to live my life like that. That really pushed me into wanting to have my old life back! To be happy again.

TI: It's like you didn't think that you deserved to be happy.,

Vanessa: That's exactly what I thought! All my life I never felt as good as anybody else. I knew that that was one of the big issues I was dealing with as a person. I didn't feel like I was good enough to be somebody's friend and I was never smart enough. I was never pretty enough. I was never perfect enough. And I wanted to be perfect so bad I thought that starving myself would be the way to do it. That was the culture's part. I mean, if it was really "in" to be big, maybe I would have eaten a whole lot.

All my life I never felt as good as anybody else.
I knew that that was one of the big issues
I was dealing with as a person.

TI: This is an awful lot for a 12 year old to be going through! How old are you now?

Vanessa: I'm 14. And since then I've gotten involved in Beyond Hunger in an adolescent support group for girls with eating disorders. When I did that I saw all these people who were in recovery and I thought, "Ohmigod! There's hope!" And I realized I didn't have to be in this unhappy, awful life for the rest of my life. All these people were working through it and they were still working through it, and there was support here. There were people who would be my friends. That's when I wanted to be in recovery and it was there for me.

TI: How long were you in that group?

Vanessa: 12 weeks.

TI: Then you were on your own?

Vanessa: Yes.

TI: How was that?

Vanessa: I think I became minorly bulimic that summer. I went in the other direction. From one extreme to the other. But I was still so afraid of being fat. Because I hadn't yet faced all the other issues, the underlying real issues. I was starting to test the waters of what it was like but I still wasn't all the way in the pool. So that summer I started eating and I said, "This is great!" And I gained weight and I was happy with the way I looked. I was starting to become a little bit more confident, but that whole side of it really wasn't being worked on yet. So I decided to exercise a whole lot. I decided I was going to be a runner and a weight lifter. I could be the perfect girl. I wasn't going to be skinny but I was going to be buff. And that summer I did all that exercise and in 8th grade I was ... I don't know. I just didn't feel happy anymore. Physically I didn't feel as sick, but I felt emotionally as sick again. Just like my life was starting to shrink again into that little, awful place of only thinking of food, and diet and exercise. But I didn't want it to be like that again. I started realizing that this is a problem... so for a while I stopped exercising, and then I started binging, but that's another story. I was seeing the therapist at Beyond Hunger and for a while I was denying I had that problem... that instead of dieting I was exercising.

And I gained weight and I was happy with the way I looked. I was starting to become a little bit more confident.

TI: Denying to the therapist or to yourself?

Vanessa: Both! [laughing] Then I started realizing "This isn't good. At all." That really happened at the beginning of this year in high school and I'm still dealing with that issue right now. But last summer wasn't as bad as the summer before 8th grade.

TI: Is there something that happens for you in the summer?

Vanessa: I guess so! Because I don't have a schedule I have to follow. The summer's like New Year's time... when you always make all these resolutions for yourself. At least that's what it was for me.

TI: What are you doing this summer?

Vanessa: I'm hanging out with my friends. That's what I decided.

TI: Is that a good, positive thing?

Vanessa: It's a very good thing. I know that summers are a dangerous time for me and that I need to be aware of that. Now I know that.

TI: When you were in the middle of all of this, and feeling really isolated and in denial and all the things you described, is there anything anyone could have said to you that would have made you get the help you needed?

Vanessa: I think if somebody who had gone through it themselves, and was okay, had somehow said, "I've been where you are. And now I'm okay. Look at me." That would have helped so much.

TI: What have you learn about yourself from all of this?

Vanessa: I think the biggest thing I've gotten is to love and accept who I am. And I've learned about my interests, my personality. Who I like as friends. And that I'm just as good as anybody else. That's the biggest gift that I could have gotten. To love myself. I learned about human nature, too. Some of us are so afraid of taking a risk that we'd rather be miserable than have to change something, like our ego or our self-image. But everyone has the power to decide to take that risk of loving yourself. It is definitely worth the risk.

I think the biggest thing I've gotten is to love and accept who I am... And that I'm just as good as anybody else.


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