Eating Disorders Awareness Week highlights the fear of food

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COLUMBIA - Shanda Weathers is a small, quiet woman who hails from Salem, Arkansas. She grew up in a well-to-do family and could be seen at church virtually whenever the doors were open.

At first glance, Weathers does not appear to be suffering from any illnesses. Her faint smile and kind eyes show no sign of distress or issue, but what hides behind them is significant. It is what you cannot see that has altered her life dramatically.

Weathers is a Columbia resident and middle-aged woman who, from her early adolescent years on, has battled the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

“I felt so alone and isolated for so much of my life,” Weathers said. “My goal is to make people understand what a serious and deadly illness this can be.”

Weathers has been in recovery for anorexia since 2015 after completing an in-patient program at Shades of Hope, a Texas treatment center.

Throughout her life Weathers said people have made incredibly harmful comments about her disorder, saying she was not skinny enough to be anorexic or that she was only putting on an act for attention.  

“It’s very damaging psychologically,” Weathers said. “It gives you a sense that maybe you’re not really sick so you continue the behavior even though you know you feel bad.”

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 21 through February 27 and aims to put a spotlight on eating disorders and improve public understanding of them. Another key reason for the week is to explain their various dangers and treatments.

McCallum Place opened in January and is Columbia’s first and only eating disorder treatment center. Previously, patients seeking treatment would be referred to centers in Kansas City or St. Louis, which made it difficult for students in school or for those who wanted to be close to their home and families.

The center offers intensive treatment programs for males and females from pre-teen ages and up. Treatment focuses heavily around meal therapy along with comprehensive evidence-based psychological, nutritional and medical care. McCallum Place accepts patients with disorders ranging from bulimia to avoidant or restrictive food intake and has a diverse set of therapies to fit individual needs.

Although a person may appear to be normal weight, a large part of the disorders are psychological so it is important not to make assumptions based on physical appearance. Ginger Meyer, a nutrition specialist at McCallum Place, said it is vital for a patient’s recovery for others to refrain from passing judgment or making negative comments.

“Many times there are things going on with eating disorder behaviors but you wouldn’t know it unless you were around these people,” Meyer said. “It’s hard to tell unless they say something or you see something.”

Meyers said one of the most important actions a person can take if they notice a loved one suffering from an eating disorder or have a disorder themselves, is to seek treatment early. 

In cases like Weathers’ that go untreated for years or decades, the long-term effects can be high in consequence.

“My teeth, they just fall out,” Weathers said. “I’ve had four come out in the last two years during meals. No pain, they’re not loose, they just fall out. And it’s very traumatic to deal with.”

Weathers also has developed osteopenia, which is a precursor to osteoperosis. Deteriorating bone health and mental distortion are just some of the risk factors for patients with prolonged malnourishment. Meyers said when a person is emaciated, a psychological phenomenon can occur that some doctors call “hungry brain.”

“When people are malnourished and not feeding themselves they have changes in their brain and there are a number of things that happen,” Meyer said. “More anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed, but there’s also a lot of distortion that happens too. They may feel overweight or see themselves very differently and body image issues are a significant part of eating disorders.”

Positive body image is a vital component in recovery but for survivors who dealt with a disorder long-term, there can be prolonged or irreversible effects.

“I see obesity every time I look in the mirror and probably will for the rest of my life,” Weathers said. “I [have] to fight reality basically every day, [my own] reality and actual realities.”

Poor self-image is among the biggest difficulties regarding eating disorders but can be combatted with early identification.

“If we can diagnose and identify the behaviors and get treatment for it, they’re going to recover much more quickly,” Meyer said.

Weathers said although the road to recovery can be frightening, expensive and draining, it is a very real possibility.

“I want to spread this message of awareness and hope that you can recover,” Weathers said. “Look at me, I’m recovering and it’s been 30 years and it’s very difficult, but it’s doable with the right support and help.”

The National Eating Disorders Association offers a three-minute confidential online screening for eating disorders. The tool is not diagnostic, but can help decide whether it is time for an individual to seek professional help. 

“I almost gave up, and when I almost gave up, my chance came,” Weathers said. “So don’t give up, you can get help.”