Dying to be Thin
With field hockey season just six weeks away, 13-year-old Hannah Bernhard wanted to get into shape. So the Connecticut teen made a vow to exercise more and eat less. But what started out as a simple diet-and-workout routine quickly escalated into a dangerous eating disorder.
“I wasn’t eating enough to keep me healthy, and I was exercising every day,” Hannah tells Choices. “If it was raining, I would run up and down the stairs at home. I never went a day without it. I began to lose weight rapidly.”
Like Hannah, as many as 10 million American females and 1 million males struggle with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Teens are especially vulnerable. More than half of teenage girls and almost one third of boys admit to skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, or taking laxatives.
“Adolescence is a period of transition,” says Leslie Toomer, manager of admissions at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, a facility that treats eating disorders. “It can be very stressful. Teens don’t always have the ability to deal with the many emotions they are feeling. Instead of managing them appropriately, they may turn to alternative coping skills, like an eating disorder.”
By the time field hockey season began, Hannah’s eating disorder was worsening. Her daily diet of dry toast, salad without dressing, and soup had taken its toll.
“I was constantly tired,” Hannah says. “It was hard to get out of bed. Shampooing my hair was a workout. Going up and down the stairs at school was exhausting. I was so weak.”
Practicing two-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week became increasingly difficult. One day, after watching Hannah struggle to keep up with her teammates during warm-up exercises, her coach sent her home. Deeply concerned, Hannah’s mother took her to her pediatrician, who was stunned by her weight loss. The doctor told Hannah she couldn’t play field hockey because her body was simply too weak.
When Hannah returned for a follow-up visit a week later, she had lost another seven pounds. This time, her pediatrician sent her straight to the emergency room. Hannah was diagnosed with anorexia. During her two-week stay, a team of doctors and nutritionists helped her gain back some of the weight she had lost. After being discharged, Hannah participated in a six-week outpatient program. Slowly, Hannah started eating more and returned to school.
But it wasn’t long before she relapsed. Despite her dangerously low weight, Hannah was not satisfied. “I would constantly wrap my hands around my thighs and see if my fingers would touch. I didn’t think 90 pounds was thin enough on me. I would try to convince myself to lose 5 more pounds.”
Hannah’s hair was falling out, her stomach ached, and she had developed fluid around her heart. Still, nothing seemed to help—not seeing a therapist, not a second stay in the hospital, and not another outpatient program. Even worse, Hannah began to purge. But instead of shedding pounds, she started to gain weight.
“My body was in survival mode, so it was holding on to everything I ate,” she says. “My weight started increasing, and I began having panic attacks. I found it more and more difficult to function in my everyday life.”
Hannah’s parents sent her to Center for Change, a residential treatment center in Utah. When Hannah got there, she was angry and struggled to follow the rules. Much to her horror, she was no longer considered anorexic because of her weight gain. “They diagnosed me with EDNOS, which stands for Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” she says. “I had clung to the title of anorexia for two years. That was my identity. To be told I wasn’t skinny enough to be anorexic really tore me apart.”
Despite the rocky start, Hannah slowly began to come around. Through individual and group therapy, she came to understand the issues that triggered her eating disorder. Her anorexia was a cry for help.
“I had a very rough childhood,” says Hannah, now 19. “My parents divorced when I was 8, and my mother became an alcoholic. By restricting what I ate and maintaining low weight, I was going back to a time when people had to take care of me. I got the love and affection I missed out on in childhood.”
During her recovery, Hannah made an important discovery—genes play a big role in determining body size, shape, and weight. “Everybody has a different genetic makeup, so every body is truly different,” she says. “You cannot compare yourself with your best friend, or the girl walking down the street, or a model in a magazine. A higher weight might be healthier for you.”
As she reflects on her battle with anorexia, Hannah thinks about the years she lost to the disorder. “Not only did I lose a lot of time with friends because I was in treatment, I didn’t know how to be a normal teen,” she says. “I missed those crucial years.”
In addition, Hannah’s relationship with her sister is strained. Her sister often felt neglected because her parents were forced to devote so much of their time and energy to helping Hannah.
Though she has regrets, Hannah is determined to make the most of the years ahead. Today, she is a freshman studying English at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. And although she has days when she still isn’t happy with her body, she is proud to have maintained a healthy, stable weight for the past two years.
“Recovery is possible for everyone suffering from an eating disorder,” Hannah says. “With the right help and motivation, you can overcome your eating disorder and go as far as you like in life.”