Triticum Turgidum

Lying Dormant and Waiting to Bloom Since 2005

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Location: The Prairie, Illinois, United States

I am a beauty-loving ambidextrous higher-order primate who learned transcendental meditation at 7, statistical analysis at 23, tap dancing at 30, and piano at 35. I tolerate gluten, lactose, and differences of opinion, but not abuse. Or beets.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Worse Than Death

Several years ago my academic department employed a student to help the old technofarts like me manage our computers. Her name was Dani. She was a senior and smart as a whip. She was also extremely skinny. I'm not clairvoyant and don't possess x-ray vision, so I didn't "know" she had an eating disorder, but I sure as hell suspected it. We interacted quite a bit, always in a jovial way, so when she seemed less than jovial I'd stop her and ask if she was okay. I never said, "Gee, you look like you could be eating more," I just asked if she was okay. This happened two or three times. Each time she looked extremely uncomfortable and escaped from me as quickly as she could. She was well aware that I did research on disordered eating.

A month before she was due to graduate from college at the ripe old age of 21, she went on a trip with her boyfriend. The story I was told is that they were going deep-sea fishing and stopped at WalMart to get some fishing gear. She had her heart attack right there in the store. Good thing WalMart has defibrillators. (Please resist the totally understandable temptation to laugh at that sentence.) Fortunately, someone got her heart going again, but not soon enough. She was in a coma for a long time, and couldn't be transported from the West Coast back to the East Coast, where her family lives, for fear that she would not survive the trip.

Her parents were ready to pull the plug, but her uncle fought them, and eventually Dani woke up. She now lives with her uncle, who takes care of her as one would care for a child. Her brain damage was so great that she's basically starting over. Her family has been torn apart by the whole experience; it's hard to understand why she is with her uncle and not her parents. You can actually read about it at the website her uncle set up to publicize the situation. He hasn't posted for almost a year, though. It makes me wonder what's happened since early 2006.

When I went to the site I nearly cried when I read the post reporting Dani's last email to her uncle, four days before her heart attack. She was asking her uncle what she should do about her "crazy roommate" who was throwing up after every meal. And the pictures on the site: gone is the wry sparkle in her eye and the knowing smile. It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.*

The electrolyte imbalance caused by purging can make even normal-weight bulimics die from heart failure. And anorexia causes muscle wasting. Since the heart is a muscle, it shrinks too. Electrolyte imbalance plus a wasted heart is a recipe for disaster. Girls who refuse to eat think death is the only monster lurking on the horizon, but I know one far worse.

If you know someone who is purging or restricting, you might want to share Dani's story with them. And if you hear some fashion victim or Karl Lagerfeld fan bitching about recent initiatives to institute minimim age and BMI requirements for fashion models, send them to her website too.

*Even more chilling, to me, is a picture of Dani at Christmas, smiling and holding up a picture bible that her uncle gave to her. Prior to her accident, she was an atheist fascinated with Nietzsche. Now she's a smiling, unprotesting Christian. I'm not writing this to blast Christians; if she were a devoted Christian before and the picture featured her holding up the Atheist's Manifesto, I'd be just as chilled. It's the complete turnaround of identity and lack of memory that shake me to the core.


Blogger violetnoir said...

K, this is very tragic, and yes I fear even worse than death.


4:35 PM, January 11, 2007  
Blogger PFG said...

Oh god how horrible. I wish that severely underweight was portrayed as being as unhealthy as severely overweight.

I know from experience that people are shockingly, overtly ignorant about the dangers of being too skinny. The shocking part is not the ignorance, it's the, god what to call it...the adherence, the pride in that ignorant belief. E.g., The other day I stopped to chat with a woman I work. Catching up on break and holidays. She has AVM which, along with causing an aneurysm in her brain stem, affected bloodflow to her intestine and nearly killed her. She asked me "are you losing weight again?" The answer was a quite unhappy yes, which led us into a conversation roughly about how scary it is to be uncontrollably losing weight, eating and diet strategies to help keep weight on, etc. Another coworker who had drifted by just when this woman was saying how much she hated seeing herself in the mirror back when she was so thin (85 lbs and she's about 5'3") stopped and said what I am discovering is the apparently inevitable comment - "Ha! I wish I could lose weight like that" I nearly lost it. Here are two women who are SICK talking about being SICK and this fool jumps in and reinforces all the dangerous bullshit about skinny being great at any cost.

It's the casual remarks, the little things like this that I sometimes think are more effective than any fashion mag or starved runway waif in normalizing what should be an obvious and clear indication of poor health. It doesn't take too many after dinner conversations between female relatives in the kitchen for a girl to have the unstated impression that even the people who are supposed to model what is good and healthy believe in "skinny at any cost".

I could go on. And on. I won't. I am sorry this woman was damaged like that, and I am so sad to hear it took so much away from her.

1:06 AM, January 16, 2007  
Blogger WinterWheat said...

PFG -- I totally agree. I know you and I both have autoimmune diseases, and I don't know if yours is what's causing you to lose weight, but mine (Graves Disease) did. I went for TWO YEARS seeking medical help and not getting it because I was really skinny and my cholesterol was low (both symptoms of GD). I got the typical "Are you restricting or purging?" question, to which I'd answer, "NO. Like I said, I don't have an eating disorder, I am losing weight and having heart palpitations and shaky hands and sweating like crazy for no discernible reason. Please help me." Their reasoning was that a young skinny women either has (a) no problem at all -- she's skinny, she should be happy!; (b) an eating disorder, regardless of what she says; or (c) an anxiety disorder, which was my ultimate diagnosis. After FOUR different meds that didn't do a thing for my weight loss or heart palpitations, I finally switched to a new PCP, who took one look at me and ordered up a thyroid test. Thank goodness.

People don't realize that being a little underweight is much worse for you than being a little overweight. But here's a sad one for you: a friend's elderly mother, upon hearing that an old friend of hers finally succumbed to cancer, said, "Well, at least she died skinny."


7:42 PM, January 17, 2007  
Blogger red-queen said...

Way back when I was in high school, my older cousin suffered seizures and then a week-long coma as a result of severe purging/restricting. The terms 'anorexia' and 'bulimia' were not part of the national consciousness as they are now, and no one in the family seemed concerned because Leonore had a "good reason" for wanting to lose weight - she wanted to look her best as matron of honor in her sister's wedding. Never mind that she was already slender as a sylph after bearing two children - a woman can never be too thin, right? She underwent a drastic personality change, too, and required months of occupational therapy just to manage the routines of being a stay-at-home mom. The personality changes have persisted these 30 years - she has never been the same person.

I'm also sorry to report that having this happen to my cousin in no way lessened the pressure I felt to diet. Even though I was well within the normal weight range for my height, I was constantly made to feel big/heavy. I count as one the chief accomplishments of my life to have raised a daughter with a healthy image of and appreciation for her own body. You are so right in naming our obsession with thinness as a social disease.

9:46 PM, January 24, 2007  

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