By AXEL KEICHER
In recent years, the number of people suffering from eating disorders has been on the rise in the western world. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders.
A study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services discovered that 90 percent of the people suffering from eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25.
One of the people in that 90 percent was Samantha Abear, 21, a degree-seeking student at John Cabot University who struggled with Bulimia Nervosa throughout her adoles- cence.
“There are a lot of taboos about disorders. If there’s something that I learned about my struggles, I’m going to talk about it. If we all keep quiet about the issue then we are essentially hindering each other instead of helping each other,” said Abear.
For Abear, it all started at a young age.
“The first time I actually experienced bulimia was in 7th grade. A friend of mine had told me that she tried to make herself throw up, so I figured I should try as well. I only did it a couple of times then, before my mother found out and confronted me about it. I swore I would never do it again.”
Six months later, Abear was doing it after dinner every day. She had gained a lot of weight and was experiencing an identity crisis. One of her concerned friends stepped in and alerted the school therapist. She saw him three or four times, after which she got better.
Abear kept a good track record during her freshman year of high school as well. She lost 15 pounds in three months, through healthy diet and exercise. She was happier than ever, spending a great deal of time with friends and her new boyfriend.
Disorders of any kind, however, are sneaky.
“They are like an addiction. You can escape them for a while, but eventually you relapse. And that is what happened to me in my sophomore year of high school,” said Abear.
She relapsed, heavily. The eating disorder took full con- trol of her life. She chewed gum all day, drank a lot of coffee, anything that could make her forget how hungry she was. All the while, she barely ate.
The effects of eating disorders are heavy not only mentally, but also physically.
“I remember that I would stare at myself in the mirror until I burst into tears. My eyesight started to worsen, my hair thinned, and I always had marks on my knuckles from sticking my hands down my throat,” Abear said.
At this point her parents took action and sought profes- sional help. Abear said her parents’ decision was hurtful — and left her feeling that they could not, or did not want to help her themselves.
Now, however, Abear under- stands that finding a treatment center was the correct decision.
“For my Sweet 16, I checked into the Alexian Brothers Health Clinic intensive outpatient program in Hoffman Estates, IL. I ended up staying there for a month. They basically just fed me there, I had to eat everything on my meal plan — otherwise I couldn’t go home. We had breakfast all together, men and women of all ages and weight groups. The philosophy is that regardless of what the type of eating disorder is, they all come from the same place.”
Being in the clinic wasn’t easy for Abear. She was scared and angry about the entire situation, and especially about missing a month of school. At the time, she felt school was the only thing going for her. She also feared that her classmates would speak badly about her if word spread that she was in a treatment center.
“I told only my two closest friends. Not even my teachers knew why I missed a month of school. I told them I had [mononucleosis],” she said.
Abear says that the eating disorders, however peculiar, are not about weight. At their deepest level, they are a way of creating an illusion of control over one aspect of life, when everything else seems to be spiraling out of control.
It wasn’t until her junior year in high school that Abear decided to share her story, via a feature story she wrote for her school’s newspaper. The response to her article was positive. Abear said that no one bullied her, or spoke badly about what she had been through. She felt that describing her struggles was liberating, especially because she liked the idea of being able to help others by sharing her experience.
Researchers are trying to dis- cover why there are such a high num- ber of people suffering from eating disorders. One of the possible reasons mentioned most often is that of the image of people portrayed in the media. Abear agrees with this theory.
“Almost all images in the media are photo-shopped – even the photos in John Cabot University’s brochures. In a society where images of role models are being airbrushed, how can we have realistic aspirations? I sincerely believe that the point of this strategy is to create a sort of destruction within the human, so that, because we feel bad about our image, [advertisers] are able to sell us their products, whether they are beauty products, clothing or anything else,” she said.
Back when she was struggling heavily with her eating disorder, Abear could barely leave the house. One of the most important pieces of her recovery process was participating in a Rotary Youth Exchange in Germany before finishing high school. It forced her to move past her disorder. She was able to “disconnect” from the eating disorder and build confidence again.
“Getting better is a process. It sometimes happens to take one step forward and two steps back. Samantha is still affected by her past from time to time, but she doesn’t let it dictate her life anymore. She is a really strong per- son, tolerant and empathetic towards other people’s struggles, considering she went through a struggle herself,” said Chiara Di Maio, 20, a degree-seeker at JCU and Abear’s longtime friend and roommate.
Abear is now majoring in com- munications at JCU. She is healthy, outgoing and has a great group of friends. She is a Dean-List student and president of the Theater Society. Abear sometimes amazes herself, thinking about how far she has come from five years ago.
“Although it was a struggle I think that everyone has something they struggle with. Having been in a state of grief makes you more ample in being able to sympathize with others. You must never lose hope. As long as you hold on to that tiny glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, things will be OK, someday,” Abear said.