Eating disorders affect more than health

February 18, 2009

by Meredith Maines

Sunday afternoons were reserved for “Maw Maw’s” dining room table in Ashley Matthews’ household.

The junior photography major’s childhood was documented by these large weekly gatherings of extended family, which included her cousin of the same age.

But in the latter years of high school, Matthews noticed a change around the table. Her cousin would no longer eat in front of the family.

When obsessive exercise and minimal eating made her cousin’s struggle with an eating disorder obvious, Matthews said she was still in disbelief.

“My aunts and uncles were telling me, ‘Ashley, you need to talk to her; you need to talk to her’ because I was close to her,” she said. “I was in complete denial because I thought she didn’t have the willpower to do something that dramatic to her body.”

Matthews said her cousin, once an avid soccer player, lost all muscle mass and could only muster 97 lbs. on the scale after a year of worsening health.

“Her dad coached the [high school] soccer team,” she said. “She would make up the scrimmages and would make the girls run until they [were exhausted] so she could get in her exercise.”

The changes in her appearance were not met with approval.

“You could see the tendons in her arms; it didn’t look healthy,” Matthews said. “We were dumfounded at the thought that she looked that skinny.”

It was enough to send her cousin to a rehabilitation center in New Orleans that prohibited patients from flushing their own toilets, for fear of bulimic relapses, and censored visitors from any discussion of a patient’s appearance.

“We couldn’t say, ‘Oh, you look good,” Matthews said. “You couldn’t say anything about appearance, anything that would trigger an eating disorder relapse.”

During that strained few months while her cousin was recovering in the center, Matthews said she was at a loss for words in awkward silences.

“I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “I was frustrated with the fact that she let herself get that way… but I couldn’t get over thinking about her.”

Kristy Stokes, counselor and coordinator of behavioral health and wellness, said this reaction is normal when confronting a family member with an eating disorder.

“Family members feel very helpless,” Stokes said. “They have to stand back and watch their [loved one] slowly kill themselves.”

Stokes said this feeling of helplessness can sometimes morph into exasperation.

“I’ve seen parents and siblings get angry after a period of time,” she said. “They may interpret [a person’s refusal to improve] as not trying.”

To aid students in the process of developing healthy habits, Stokes initiated an eating disorder screening held in the Student Center, main floor, Monday, just in time for Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Feb. 22-28.

“Awareness is a purpose for any of our mental health screenings, [to give students] insight into their behavior,” she said.

Stokes also said the approximate 30 students who participated were queried about how often they count calories and check their weight, among other questions.

Sadly, Tech is not immune to the disease of eating disorders, Robert Burt, assistant director of counseling services, said.

“Maybe five years ago [an eating disorder victim] had been in and out of treatment, and she died in the dorm,” Burt said.

He roughly speculated five students have died from natural causes due to eating disorders during his tenure in the counseling department, although the numbers are hard to define without a coroner’s report.

“It’s an awful phycological [state] to be in,” he said. “It’s slow suicide. Thank goodness we’ve gotten a lot to the hospital.”

Stokes said the counseling center offers online, confidential health screenings year-round on its Web site, latech.edu/students/counseling.

Matthews offered hope through her cousin’s story. Although still under the direction of a nutritionist, Matthews said she is now surrounded by positive people who do not perpetuate the controlling nature of the disease.