When we think of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, many of us continue to think of adolescent girls on the cusp of womanhood, getting their first period, with buds for breasts and their bodies developing hints of curves. Or the picture may come to mind of young women off to college on their own for the first time, experiencing a new kind of exhilarating freedom that they are unprepared to handle. This is all true; eating disorders still affect these girls and young women, but anorexia, bulimia and now, binge eating disorder are also on the rise among another age group.
Those who study eating disorders tell us that there are between one and three million women who are living with one or more forms of this illness today in America. Of those, ten percent are currently women who are age forty or over. Between 2001 and 2010, there was a forty-two percent rise in this group which reflects an astonishing development in this relatively older population.
These numbers are remarkable and telling, given that up until not long ago, the trend for this illness had leaned almost exclusively toward the young. As women in this age group, we need to ask ourselves why? What is it that is driving our family members, our friends and our neighbors to such drastic behaviors? There are three main scenarios that seem to be taking place. The first is that Susan* may have been dealing with an eating disorder since she was a teenager but has been able to keep it hidden. We normally think of women with eating disorders such as anorexia as emaciated and hard to miss, but the truth is that someone with bulimia can be of normal weight and a woman with anorexia can appear as simply slender and be malnourished at the same time.
We may admire how thin Susan is and compliment her, which provides her with the internal fuel to keep her restricting behavior (curtailing her calories) going. Carolyn* may have recovered from an eating disorder in her teens or twenties, but for some reason she is experiencing a relapse in her fifties. The reason may be varied and range from a substantial weight gain due to menopause, to a divorce, to her youngest child leaving for college. Her parents may be aging; perhaps one or both have passed away. She may have lost her job and/or is experiencing financial stressors. The media puts a great deal of pressure on us to age beautifully and gracefully. Who can live up to the portraits of the women that we see in the pages of Vogue and Bazaar? Although less likely, Olivia* can be experiencing a first-time onset of her eating disorder. One of the above situations may have presented itself and she reacted by restricting her intake or by binging and purging. She, or any of the other women could be over-exercising as well, to the point where she has injured herself. We receive praise for going to the gym regularly, even excessively and we want to look great and fit in our stretch pants and tank tops.
I suffered from anorexia for twenty-seven years, from the time I was twenty-six years-old until I was fifty-three. I was hospitalized seven times on various eating disorder units, once even having a naso-gastric tube inserted in my nose down into my stomach when I outright refused to eat. I was fed through the liquid nutrition that ran through that tube into my stomach. It kept me alive. My onset of anorexia was relatively late in those days — in my mid-twenties, when a psychiatrist prescribed me a medication that was supposed to be for depression, but what it did was suppress my appetite. I lost forty-three pounds in six months. At 5’6” tall I weighed under one hundred pounds. For the next twenty-seven years, I lost and gained and lost and gained in the game of chasing the perfect body. I eventually came to realize that what I was chasing was simply an illusion. I caressed the bones that jutted out from my shrunken body and I stroked my concave stomach.
My last relapse, two months before my fifty-third birthday occurred when I gained twenty pounds during menopause. I drastically cut my calories and I lost the weight in six weeks. I had a new primary care physician and she told me I would end up in the hospital. I didn’t.
I am now over a year into solid recovery. I swim laps, do aquatic exercises and practice yoga, activities which are gentle to the body I once abused. I have suffered the consequences of severe anorexia; osteopenia, degenerative disc disease in my lower back along with spinal stenosis, arthritis and a herniated disc. I’ve lost all my teeth due to the extensive bone loss and I wear dentures, something that was extremely difficult for me to accept. I’m learning to eat a wider variety of foods as well as foods of a healthier nature. Everything in moderation, I have come to realize. I can also eat a cookie or some ice cream once in a while and not have an anxiety attack.
For the first time in my life, I can finally respect myself and my body. As we say in yoga practice, “Namaste,” which loosely translated means respect. Yoga makes me feel strong and connected to my body, the opposite way that starving myself made me feel. The relationship I have with my yoga mat is a good fit.
Keep an eye out for your sister, your mother, your cousin or your aunt. Educate yourself with the warning signs of an eating disorder. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are no longer exclusively adolescent illnesses. Shed your expectations and embrace the position of being informed.
*All women’s names and stories are fictional.
Here are some resources with which you might want to familiarize yourself:
“Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recovery” by Cynthia M. Bulik, Director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) 111 Deer Lake Road, Suite 100 Deerfield, IL 60015 847-498-4272 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) www.nationaleatingdisorders.org 165 West 46th Street New York, N.Y. 10036 1-800-931-2237 (toll free) or 212-575-6200 e-mail: email@example.com
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