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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2005

Teen chronicles her fight against anorexia

BY RHONDA B. SEWELL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

I keep trying to remind myself that a number on a scale doesn t make up who I am. My weight shouldn t control my mind, but it does. I wish everything about this eating disorder would just end, but I fear that in many ways it never will.

From My Rory: A Personal Journey Through Teenage Anorexia by Alyssa Biederman

To the outside world, Alyssa Biederman s life might have appeared almost picture-perfect. She lived in a surburban home with an in-ground pool; she had a supportive and loving family, she was pretty and good-natured, and earned a varsity letter in tennis for four years. She was on the honor roll.

But during her junior year of high school, the now 18-year-old 2005 Perrysburg High School graduate s world was turned inside out as she hid a potentially destructive secret.

The 5-foot, 5-inch tall blond with striking blue eyes was silently suffering from a condition from which more than 1,000 women and young girls die each year in the United States. Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening psychological eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

The U.S. Department of Mental Health reports that an estimated 1 percent of adolescent girls and women are anorexic; the figure is much lower for men.

More than a year after her diagnosis, Miss Biederman is unclear about why she was anorexic. I knew the whole time that what I was doing was unhealthy. I d say things to myself like, maybe I should just get in shape, or maybe I need to lose a few pounds.

I started with eating smaller amounts to eating nothing, says Miss Biederman, who admits she still struggles daily with her perception of herself.

I was like a prisoner trying to hide this from everyone. Even to this day, I go to extremes to hide things, says Miss Biederman, who will attend Ohio University in the fall as a freshman majoring in psychology, with concentration on eating disorders. She has already affiliated with an eating disorder support group on campus.

Writing down her thoughts on life and the battle with her disorder in a journal led Miss Biederman to self-publish a book, My Rory: A Personal Journey Through Teenage Anorexia (iUniverse, 2005).

Janet Biederman, Alyssa s mother, says for the past two years she and her husband, Jerry, have watched their daughter deny she had a problem even as her size 0 jeans looked baggy and she exercised obsessively. She was almost admitted to an eating disorder clinic for life-saving treatment. Now they watch, although still concerned, as she is on the path to recovery.

I couldn t even look at her without crying. I could see her bones sticking out, recalls Mrs. Biederman, who finds some moments in her daughter s journey painful to talk about.

At one point, Alyssa says she weighed about 97 pounds.

Mrs. Biederman, who wrote an emotional contribution to her daughter s book, says she and her husband spent the night before her 39th birthday crying over what to do for their daughter. Their son and Alyssa s brother Tyler, 15, was also very concerned about his sister s health. The couple contacted a health crisis hotline and after much searching, found a local eating disorders counselor.

She went to school like normal, and when she got home she usually comes to the [kitchen] counter to chat. But this time I told her, Alyssa, this is what I ve done [called a counselor]. She told me, I don t want to go [to see a counselor], but I will.

That s when I knew that deep down she was aware she had a problem. But she was still in the denial stage, recalls Mrs. Biederman, who is a part-time budget and purchase order secretary for the Perrysburg schools.

After visits to several counselors (including one who revealed that she too had suffered from anorexia as a young woman); numerous visits to doctors; anxiety medication, and a strict family intervention that included monitoring Alyssa s behavior and bringing her attention to it, Miss Biederman slowly began gaining weight.

Alyssa s best friend since sixth grade, Hayley Munson, 18, says some of their peers were mean-spirited about her friend s plight and even thought that she was losing weight to draw attention to herself.

Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (www.nationaleating-disorders.org), says such beliefs are common; there are many misconceptions surrounding anorexia. Genetic studies are being done, Ms. Grefe says, exploring if people who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating might be predisposed to their conditions.

You won t believe how many times I hear [someone say], Just tell them to eat, and many parents will say, It s just a phase, says Ms. Grefe in an interview from her New York office.

Another myth is that eating disorders only happen to the white, waspy, blond girl, she says. All races are affected by eating disorders.

It s not a fad, says Ms. Grefe.

For parents, if they begin to notice mood swings, weight loss, their children playing with their food, suddenly becoming a vegetarian, constantly excusing themselves from the dinner table, and obsessive exercise, these are signs. With anorexia, they are starving themselves, she adds.

Miss Munson, who also plans to major in psychology at OU, where she will be Alyssa s roommate, said that in high school, Weight was such a big issue; many girls our age are obsessed with weight. I thought she [Alyssa] just wanted to be smaller at first, and then she started lying about eating. When we d go out to eat, she d say, I ve already eaten. People really close to her knew it was a real problem.

Miss Biederman s condition was taking a physical toll: she stopped menstruating, a common result of anorexia, and her skin and hair showed changes in color, limpness, and thinning because of malnutrition. On a good day during the worst of her battle, Miss Biederman would eat only dry cereal and carrots. Celery was a frequent meal.

Her mother recalls that when the family traveled to California, Alyssa became so winded and weak on the walk through the airport that they had to take frequent breaks to allow her to catch her breath.

Mrs. Beiderman says Miss Munson, although a close friend of her daughter, was not afraid to alert Alyssa s family to potentially harmful signs in Alyssa s behavior.

While Miss Munson says she does not want to baby-sit Alyssa this fall in college, she is ready to protect her friend by alerting her parents to any harmful signs or behavior.

Donna Fish, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in New York City, says the pressure to be perfect and thin is a reality for many girls and women, even those who do not suffer from anorexia or bulimia.

It s more disorder eating, that s what I call it. On television and in the magazines they are showing us that s what it [means] to be beautiful, and beauty equals power. These celebrity icons are absolutely so far off the average in their weight, she says.

It would take an extreme amount of control and a really rigid adherence to a certain type of diet to look like them, says Ms. Fish, author of Take the Fight Out of Food: How to Prevent and Solve Your Child s Eating Problems (Atria, 2005).

Ms. Fish, an expert for National Public Radio s series on body image, The Infinite Mind, says dieting in young girls can be deadly. More eating disorders start with a diet even the thought of restricting food can cause more binge eating.

Miss Biederman says as a result of her battle with anorexia, she now knows who her true friends are, how supportive her family remained even through the toughest times, and how strong she s able to be.

They can t be helped until they want to, says Miss Biederman of others with her condition.

I would get frustrated, mad, and impatient when my family tried to help, but I m glad they did. It s a long journey, but I m on the road to recovery.

I have to take baby steps every day, she adds.

Contact Rhonda B. Sewell at: rsewell@theblade.com or 419-724-6101.



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