Shattering Illusions

In a society obsessed with image and beauty, it is not surprising that an estimated eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders, 95 percent of whom are between the ages of 12 and 25 according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

The 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey found that 12.3 percent of high school students have gone without eating for 24 hours to avoid gaining weight.

First-year College student Meredith Dyer realized she had a problem during her senior year of high school.

"It started with heavy exercise and the illusion that I was being healthy, but as my exercise was increasing, my eating was decreasing," she said.

Dyer explained that for her, losing weight became a goal to achieve and said dieting was no longer about her body's appearance.

Aimee Liu, author of "Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders," explained that eating disorders are often about much more than just food and a desire to be thin.

"An eating disorder, like other disorders, is a distress signal. You can't resolve the distress by fixing the signal," Liu said.

Liu noted that there are certain personality traits --such as perfectionism and the "tendency for people to fixate on one ideal for perfection" as well as hypersensitivity to criticism and judgment -- that predict the development of an eating disorder.

"Eating disorders are like the explosion of a gun. Genes form the gun and our culture, society, media and family values load it. Experience of unbearable distress and emotions pulls the trigger," Liu said.

First-year College student Lyndsey Lawrence said she suffered from anorexia during her sophomore and junior years of high school.

"It's not really about food at all. For me, I wanted attention," she said.

Anorexia can also be a way to feel in control when everything else seems uncontrollable. This was the case for one first-year College student when she had anorexia a year ago.

"My mother is a very controlling person, and the only thing that I could control that she didn't have control over was my food," she said.

Getting beyond an eating disorder can last longer than the disorder itself.

"Eating disorders change your mind and the way you think," Liu said. "You can never come back to looking at food normally, but this does not mean you cannot eat healthily."

Liu also said she does not believe that someone with an eating disorder will always suffer from the disease, but said he or she will always struggle with the temptation.

"You always have that vulnerability, and you need to know you have the risk," Liu said.

Lawrence agreed that, though one can return to healthy eating, her own disorder will continue to affect her.

"I am not afraid of food anymore, but it will always be in the back of my mind," Lawrence said.

Lawrence said sometimes there are periods when she becomes thinner again, but noted that she now has a healthier mental and physical approach when she finds herself relapsing.

Denise Lawrence, Lyndsey Lawrence's mother, agreed that the disease "will continue to haunt her [daughter for] her whole life."

As a parent, Lawrence said one of the difficulties she has faced since confronting her daughter's disorder is the question of whether she should ever tell her daughter how she looks.

"It is always walking on eggshells," Lawrence said.

Getting well is a difficult and slow process because it involves changing basic thought processes. This was the case for Dyer. She said even now she cannot trust herself when she looks in the mirror.

Dyer said one the greatest difficulties was healing herself mentally before becoming better physically

"I realized something was the matter, but it was literally my hands shaking to put food in my mouth," Dyer said.

Dyer said she did not realize how long it would take for her body to recover. "Since coming to college, I am in a healthier weight range, but my body still has a ways to go," she said.

"It's always difficult when I go home, because I will want to weigh myself or avoid eating," she said. "It's easier now than it used to be, but you have to be mentally prepared to get over it."

Liu said addressing the underlying anxiety causing the disorder is necessary for recovery.

"People fixate on one idealistic principle and when they get anxious, they go back to [grabbing] onto this one trait and drive to achieve this perfection," she said.

Liu encouraged finding a constructive way to channel this anxiety.

"Pay attention to how you are feeling and try to find things to do that make you feel good. Be conscious of making more choices that give you joy, make you feel creative, and that are rewarding at a deeper level," Liu said.

Denise Lawrence noted that society does not make it easy for women to maintain healthy body images.

"Everybody is different, and no one is supposed to have a perfect body," Denise Lawrence said. "Girls need to take a look on what is inside and not what's outside. Beauty only lasts for so long."

Lyndsey Lawrence said, despite the difficulties, she would not take back a day of her battle with anorexia.

"I learned a lot about myself," she said. "Without it I would not be where I am today."

Lyndsey Lawrence said one of the lessons she learned was about finding happiness.

"Confidence in yourself is one of the most attractive and admirable qualities, and if you can learn to do that regardless of what you see in the mirror, you will be happy," she said.

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