Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition and 1% of American females suffer from this life-threatening disorder.
Dr. Laura Hill, president of The Center for Balanced Living, presented her research at TEDxColumbus in 2012. In her TED talk she spoke about what it’s like to eat if you have an eating disorder. For those who don’t, they feel calm, pleasure and satisfaction from the food, but for those who do feel the complete opposite.
“But a person with an eating disorder - such as anorexia - when they eat, they experience high anxiety, extreme thought disturbance, and noise," Hill said. "I want to give you an idea of what that noise sounds like."
*plays white noise mixed with talking and yelling*
"And so the person who has an eating disorder and has had her breakfast," Hill continues with the noise in the background, "she’s now trying to go to work. She’s trying to go to class and the noise and the disturbance is acute. She’s trying to hear her professor - through the noise. She’s trying to hear her employer talk to her and have an interaction with her. And she’s trying to focus through the noise. So, how in the world if she’s going to have her breakfast and then she’s supposed to have a lunch and dinner too and the noise continues to be acute? 'How can I function? How can I work? How can I have a decent interaction and a clear focused interaction and get this project done? How?'
"Simply by not eating.”
This is a very real scenario for McKenna.
“I can’t say for everyone, but it’s a coping mechanism," McKenna said. "That’s the way I would describe it. That’s the way it functions - that’s the function of the eating disorder. For me, it’s if I’m stressed, if I have anxiety, that’s how I take care of it. To say that it’s a coping mechanism, like the opposite of that would be that it’s a choice, and I’m just like, ‘Oh I decide that this day to just eat differently, and eat weird’. And that would imply that it’s a choice, but it’s not for me at all. I don’t have the ability, at least not right now or in the past, haven’t been able to, like, turn it on and off, just at free will. It’s, I would say like an alcoholic grabs a drink when they’re stressed out.”
McKenna Andersen grew up in Cache Valley. She’s 22 and is sandwiched between two older sisters and two younger brothers. She was diagnosed with anorexia a few years ago and she’ll tell you that her mom Mary Kay has been there with her as they to try and make sense of this deadly mental disease.
“I didn’t even learn until less than two years ago that eating disorders are biologically driven," Mary Kay said. "There’s kind of three factors. The first one is - there’s a gene, just like an alcoholic has a gene. You know, somebody with that gene can be predisposed to begin with. And then what happens is there’s the personality type. The personality type is, like, strong-willed, perfectionism and prone to anxiety. And then you have a trigger in life.”
McKenna’s trigger happened when she was a teenager. Her parents got a divorce when she was about three years old and had lived with mom until she was 15. At this time, her parents changed living situations and McKenna was now living with her dad full time. It was at this point, her “picky eating habits,” as she called it, became a bigger problem.
“Beyond devastating thing for me because I couldn’t go back to it," Mary Kay said. "It was already a done deal. And yet I watched the effects it had on her and - Oh, if I could go back, I would do it in a heartbeat. But you can’t.”
To cope with the anxiety, depression and stress caused by this big life change, McKenna ate very rarely and began to lose weight drastically. She’s 5’5” and at her lowest weight McKenna was 52 pounds. She’s been hospitalized multiple times with liver and kidney failure and constant episodes of passing out.
“She couldn’t hold her cat anymore, she had to downsize her purse," Mary Kay said. "She was carrying in groceries little tiny bags at a time, because she could only carry one because she had to hold onto the railing to get up to her second floor."
"I would like prioritize what groceries," McKenna said. "I would bring in the milk, the yogurt - refrigerated stuff first. And then I’d be like, ‘Okay tomorrow I can bring in the cans. The third day I would bring in the cat food. Because I couldn’t bring it all in at once, I didn’t have enough energy."
"So, it got to the point where it was so debilitating, she couldn’t even function in life,” Mary Kay said.
When McKenna was hospitalized at her most critical point, her Body Mass Index was at an 8, and most hospitals couldn’t admit her – most hospitals have a minimum BMI requirement of 15. But they found a hospital in Denver that took patients with severe anorexia. This saved her life. McKenna was treated for malnutrition and had to be fed in small increments because large amounts could fatally overrun her system.
At McKenna’s current state, her doctors would recommend her to live in a residential treatment facility. She’s lived in these facilities before but whenever she is discharged, she says she relapses. For her, being in a treatment center is the last thing she wants to do. So, she and her doctors put together a contingency plan that, if she sticks with it, she would be able to live on her own.
“I see my doctor," she said. "I do blood draws twice a week. I go to my doctor and psychiatrist and dietitian twice a week. And we have this agreement that if I slip this much within two weeks, then they warn me. Then I get a certain amount of warnings, and then at that point I’ll have to go back to residential again.”
The end goal gets a little complex between mother and daughter. Being McKenna’s mom, Mary Kay wants to see her daughter completely recovered. But McKenna doesn’t believe that will happen for her. Her motivation to stay healthy is to do just enough to stay out of treatment.
“It’s worth it to me to do at least the minimum, if I can have some freedoms," McKenna said. "Because in treatment, all of your freedoms are taken away."
"And so that concerns us, her family," Mary Kay said, "because we don’t want her to do just the minimum, but that’s the best we’ve got right now."
"Take it or leave it," McKenna said.
"Well it’s her alive," Mary Kay continues, "doing her very minimum to stay out of treatment, or in treatment and being suicidal and hating every minute of it, or dead. And so we are just thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll take her at her minimum, alive.’ You know? We’ll take what we can get.
"She told me last spring when she was in treatment, she was like, ‘Mom? I cannot do this any longer. I feel like if you try to make me live without this eating disorder, it’s like cutting off my arms and my legs, and slashing my body with paper cuts. And making me just live. That’s what I feel. That’s how painful it is for me to live in recovery. So I need to keep the eating disorder and function with it.’”
Both McKenna and Mary Kay would like to see a change in how people talk about eating disorders. McKenna wants to see people talk about the illness openly and sensitively to the person with the disorder. She wants people to know that this is OK to do.
If you or anyone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, you can find more resources and information here.
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.