Monday, November 17, 2014

A Story About Eating Disorders


I am super excited about this post. The main thing I want to do as a journalist is write stories like this one- stories about people who have beat incredible odds and overcome immense difficulties. Real stories about real people that will inspire those who hear them. 

I have always been really passionate about the topic of body image, and every other issue that falls under it. Anorexia is definitely one of those issues, so for a recent class assignment I decided to write a personal profile story about someone recovering from anorexia. Thanks to Instagram, I found Mackenzie Janssen, and amazing girl who has inspired me so much in these past couple of weeks. We've been emailing back and forth almost every day while I've been writing this, talking about her story, swapping ideas, and getting her approval on everything. Her descent into anorexia is unusual and much different than I would have thought, but that makes this story even more interesting and real. 

I know it's long, but I seriously encourage everyone to read it- especially anyone struggling with body image or an eating disorder. Mackenzie tells what it's really like to struggle, how society often views eating disorders wrong, and how you can help loved ones (or yourself) through the difficult but absolutely worth it recovery process.



The Fight with Anorexia: Losing Some Battles but Winning the War

           Laying in her bed in the middle of the night, Mackenzie Janssen wondered how her life had come to this. She was weak and tired, cold all the time, and always, always hungry. She wasn't ill in the way you might have thought though- Janssen had an eating disorder. Anorexia, to be exact, and it had stolen her life right out of her hands.
           When Janssen was seventeen, she developed Mononucleosis, a fairly common but draining illness that leaves its victims feeling weak for long periods of time. It was the summer before her senior year of high school, and it stopped her life in its tracks—even more than she could imagine right then. Janssen’s sickness eventually resulted in her developing anorexia, leading her down a path that she hopes never to return.
            At the end of her junior year of high school, Janssen was your typical teenager. She was involved in track and diving, slept in on the weekends, and chatted with her friends during classes while the teacher wasn’t looking. She was dating the boy of her dreams, was very close to her mother, and had a passion for rock climbing. Life was going really well. But that summer, everything changed.
            After contracting mono, Janssen had to put on the brakes and stop her busy schedule. She desperately wanted to at least continue rock climbing, but her spleen had become enlarged and she was ordered by doctors not to participate in physical activity. “I couldn’t do anything fun,” Janssen said. “I slept a good 13-15 hours a day, and eating kind of ceased. Everything just tasted really bad- like I couldn’t even drink water. I became dehydrated and lost a bit of weight. My body was just in lots of pain and I was very tired all of the time.”
            School started up again in the fall, but instead of being excited for her senior year, Janssen had to put what little energy she had into simply making it through the day. She still had mono, and couldn’t participate in almost any activities that she had once enjoyed. Initially, she did gain back some of the weight she had lost over the summer, but soon found that her body wasn’t processing food correctly. In December, she went on a trip to Venezuela and began to really notice changes. She remembers her body being in severe discomfort most of the time, and after returning home, she was taken to a doctor to see what was wrong. She had begun losing weight again, and was in a lot of pain. “Several weeks of not eating properly really made things change. I stopped hanging out with friends, I was tired all the time, and was really isolated,” she recalled.
            After several weeks of tests, Janssen was told that her gallbladder was not working properly, and on February 14th it was removed. At this time, she weighed about 100 pounds, much lower than her normal 125. “The number on the scale kept dropping, and part of me knew it was bad, but part really liked it,” she admitted. Once she got out of the hospital, Janssen assumed she would begin gaining her weight back, but that didn’t happen. “The food that I was taking in was minimal and very low calorie,” Janssen revealed. “I was thinking about food constantly. Looking for recipes, cooking high calorie foods for friends and family- but I wouldn’t dare eat them myself. I enjoyed food through other people.” She remembers not being able to sleep at night because thoughts of food and calories consumed her mind.
            Everyday life became increasingly difficult. “With absolutely no energy walking to class was miserable and sitting in class was even worse,” Janssen said. “Not having any cushion under your butt to sit on- that sucks.” Bruises on her tailbone and hips became a daily occurrence. Things most girls look forward to in high school were depressing for Janssen. One day she went shopping for a prom dress and found a beautiful, expensive gown she fell in love with. It was a little big, so she made it her goal to grow into it. Every once in a while she would try it on, only to find that she was shrinking and it was getting bigger and bigger around her.
            Janssen began lying about her food intake to her mom so that she didn’t worry. “My mind was not working correctly,” Janssen sighed. “It is so sad to say that I don’t remember any of my senior year. It was wasted.” She remembers feeling like she didn’t have any friends, spending most of her time in hot showers because she was so cold, and going to bed early every night so she would have less time to eat. “I cried all the time and didn’t know why,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was and nothing really made sense.”
            Anorexia affected more than just Janssen. Her mother, Gloria Janssen, recalls what a struggle it was for her as a parent. “This disease has challenged my parenting skills beyond measure. It has caused so much pain and anger - from watching my daughter in the fetal position crying that her stomach hurt so bad because she had just eaten, to watching her stand in front of a mirror in her princess prom dress upset that she was so ugly that she did not want to go to prom…An ED had stolen my daughter from me and had stolen her life from her.” Janssen’s boyfriend, Alejandro Arenas, remembers feeling confused and helpless. “I had no clue how to deal with this,” he said sadly. “I thought I could help her recover. I tried everything that I could think of to help but really nothing seemed to make any difference.”
            Spring break of that year was when Janssen first began to realize she had an eating disorder. Her daily intake of food never exceeded 300 calories. She wanted to gain weight, and remembers thinking about how ugly she was every time she looked in the mirror. It just wasn’t that easy. “I think society has a skewed perception on anorexia,” Janssen stated. “If you’re thin- oh you have anorexia. It’s so untrue. It is a mental illness, and it is not a choice. I feel like anorexia is an uncontrollable monster inside of you. We like to call him Ed…some people think that giving your eating disorder a name helps you disobey him. Ed tells me what to weight, what my shape should be, what to eat, how much, when to exercise, my happiness level, and most of all my body image. He really just takes control of your life.” Over break, Janssen, her mom, and her friend went on a cruise, but Janssen doesn’t remember having any fun. She was cold all the time, had to buy size 00 clothes that were still baggy on her, and had to deal with passengers on the ship whispering and staring as she walked by. At one point she ate a whole turkey wrap and didn’t sleep for a week because she felt like it was too many calories.
            On the first day back to school after spring break, Janssen skipped track practice and went home. When her mom asked why she wasn’t at her sport, Janssen curled up in her mother’s lap and told her she thought she had an eating disorder. Janssen’s mom, who had been suspecting this for a while but had never been able to convince Janssen, put her daughter in the psychiatric ward at a nearby university. At the time, Janssen weighed 75 pounds. After spending several weeks there and gaining 20 pounds, she was admitted to a program that specialized in eating disorders. She met a lot of people in similar situations, and made some really strong connections with them. During the program, she was eating over 4000 calories a day and steadily gaining back her weight. Janssen admitted though, that she wasn’t always happy about gaining. Her eating disorder was still a big part of her life.
            Janssen spent several months in the program. She missed most of the fun senior activities, but she was still able to go to prom. “I was still in the program, and finishing school was hard,” she recalled. “Going to prom and graduation was hard because people asked where I had gone and how different I looked.” When she finished the program, Janssen began seeing a therapist, but it didn’t go very well. She continued to count calories and think about food. “I was still being held by Ed, even though I didn’t want to believe it,” she reflected.
            Janssen wanted to go to college, so she decided on Grand Valley State University, two hours away from home. Unfortunately, it proved to be too much for her. “I spent two weeks there, and cried the majority of the time. Ed hadn’t been gone long enough. The last week I spent there I didn’t eat one thing. When I came home for the weekend, I came home for good.” She felt like a failure. Janssen started classes at a nearby community college the next semester, but still felt disappointed in herself. She continued to count calories every day, and her allotted amount got smaller and smaller. By December it was evident that she was in relapse.
In March her weight dropped below 100 pounds again, so she and her mother decided to go see a therapist and nutritionist. Janssen remembers not liking either women very much, which made the thought of recovery even harder. “Before I had major body issues, and they continued. I would go try clothes on and nothing fit. Ed told me they didn’t. Ed likes clothes to be baggy so that people couldn’t see my fat,” she said. That summer Janssen also became close to someone who, she later realized, had some problems that made her recovery even more difficult than it already was.
But in the beginning of October, things turned around. “It was really unusual,” Janssen recalled. “One day I woke up and said ‘I am so sick of Ed’. I said he was no longer going to control my life. I am so much more than a weight and I have a long road of success ahead of me to look forward to.” Her boyfriend and mother have seen this willpower inside Janssen. “It was her determination and energy that made me feel strong with her,” Arenas said fondly of his girlfriend. And as her mother stated proudly, “She is my hero, without a doubt.”
Janssen has stuck to this statement. It has been about five years since she first was diagnosed with anorexia, and although she is still technically in recovery, she feels like she is recovered. “Some days are hard- where I feel Ed really strong,” she admits. “But I have to remind myself that tomorrow will be better and it always is.”
What would Janssen say to someone who is struggling with body image or an eating disorder of their own? “Just stay strong, and never ever give up. You are worth so much more. In Ed’s eyes you will be failing, but in reality you will be living. Once you’re free, it will be much easier to see. I know it sounds cliché but every body is beautiful. Looking like the Victoria Secret model is so unrealistic. Real women don’t look like this- it is fake. You are beautiful, both inside and out. And what’s on the inside means so much more.”




 
Question and Answer with Mackenzie Janssen: The World and Anorexia

AT: How do you think society views anorexia, as a whole? Do you think that view should be different?

MJ: I think that society has a skewed perception on it. If you’re thin- oh you have anorexia, it’s so untrue. Everybody’s body knows what it should be at and the important thing is to remember that your body will be where it wants to be.  The other thing is some people think that it is for attention and is a choice. It is absolutely not. It is a mental illness, which has the highest mortality rate- IT IS NOT A CHOICE.

AT: How do you think the media (or society in general) is playing a part in anorexia? Do you think Photoshopped models and skinny celebrities being labeled as "the most beautiful women" are possibly some of the reasons girls develop eating disorders?

MJ: I think that the media plays a huge role in this. Ads are always stick thin models that have been photo shopped. What you can’t see also is that most of those models have disordered eating themselves. I truly think that the media plays a really big role in EDs.  From such a young age we see ads, and hear radio commercials about being thin, and beautiful. Part of the problem that I believe is happening is that the media is over compensating for the “obesity epidemic.” It is really pushing people to eat right and exercise. More than that have surgery to get the body you want…. It really is wrong.

AT: What do you think society could be doing differently to help people understand more about eating disorders?

MJ: I think that just being more educated and stop putting such pressure on what a body should look like and what we should be eating. I know that exercise and eating right is important. I like to tell myself that everything in moderation is good. Too much of one thing- anything- is bad.  By education and spreading the word about EDs is crucial and important. Instead we talk about it like it’s a secret.

AT: Are there things people shouldn't say to someone with an eating disorder, or someone recovering from one? If so, what are some of those things?

MJ: When dealing with someone with an ED it is important to remain nonjudgmental and let them talk about it. It always really helps me just to talk. When I help others with their EDs I feel great. Some bad things to say are things that hurt them, even though it may not be intentional. Ed will hear these comments and take them the wrong way. Some examples include-
           “Wow- you look good, or healthy.”
           “You look so much better.”
           “Just eat, it’s not that hard.”
           “Think about how much I eat, I eat way more than you.”
           “You look so different from the last time I saw you.”
           “Oh, you’ve gained weight.”

Everyone's eating disorder is different. Things that may trigger one person may not for another. For example I met one girl who had a hard time doing math homework cause it dealt with numbers. Some EDs are sensitive to numbers, clothing sizes, and weight. If you know someone with an ED- try to avoid these topics.

AT: How can your friends and peers help you while you recover?

MJ: My friends and family have been though all of this with me. When I was at my worse, when I didn’t believe I had a problem. To the many, many meals it took me four hours to get down because it simply felt to hard. Just being there has really helped. By them not giving up on me has given me the strength not to give up on myself. Visiting me in the hospital, and eating difficult meals with me has been a big help as well. They have been so supportive, and are always there to help. My mom and boyfriend have helped me more than you could ever imagine. My mom helps me realize when I say something that Ed really is saying, by explaining it to me. My boyfriend has eaten many meals and snacks matching the same calories, which happened to be a lot of food at times. Both my mom and boyfriend constantly reassure me that I am strong and beautiful, and that I can get through anything.