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Tweens and Anorexia

Brian Hagiwara

Coming back to life

We can't protect children from unhealthy cultural messages or prevent the inevitable changes of puberty, but we can teach them how to respond in healthy ways.

For Sheila Walter, getting back on track wasn't easy. Three hospitalizations in Nashville during a single two-week period—which her mother calls "the worst two weeks of my life"—only identified how sick she really was.

During one visit, she actually lost more weight and told a doctor she wanted to die. "I felt so helpless," says Walker. "It's an awful feeling being a mother and just watching your child waste away."

Desperate, Walter finally checked Sheila out of the hospital and flew her to Remuda Ranch, a residential treatment program in Arizona. By then, Sheila was so weak that she has no memory of leaving the hospital in Nashville, no memory of the flight itself, no memory of the hour-long drive across the desert.

When she got to Remuda, she was assigned to the same cottage as an 8 year old, and roomed with a 12 and 13 year old. Just meeting the other kids was a big help to Sheila: "At home I didn't know anybody else who had the same problems, and I felt like nobody understood, but when I went there, I realized I wasn't alone," she says.

For the next 75 days, Sheila participated in intense therapy programs—both one-on-one and in groups—designed to help her challenge the voices in her head telling her she was fat, she was ugly, she would never fit in.

It's important for kids with eating disorders to learn to feel connected to their own bodies, as well as to identify their particular stressors and find ways to cope with them in ways that don't involve food. In therapy, the kids at Remuda also learned to be critical of media messages, and through art, journaling, horseback riding or yoga, they worked to break the cycle of negative thoughts and develop the kind of self-esteem and overall wellness that will be a buffer against recurrence of the disease. "It was really hard work to get better," says Sheila.

After 10 weeks, Sheila finally went home, where she was carefully monitored by a team of specialists—her pediatrician, but also a family therapist, a child psychiatrist, a psychologist and a nutritionist.

Sheila's diagnosis included underlying components of OCD and anxiety, and at Remuda she was treated with medication—Risperdal and Prozac—for those conditions, although her doctors successfully weaned her from both drugs. She also kept a detailed food log so her team could be sure she was getting enough calories.

There were a few setbacks at first—episodes of anxiety, brief periods when her calorie intake dropped off a bit—but nothing debilitating, and today she feels completely normal.

"When I was sick, I knew I wasn't eating right, and I tried real hard to fix it, but I kept hearing a voice inside telling me that I wasn't good enough," remembers Sheila. "I feel a lot better now. I'm happy with the way I am."

For her mother, it's taking a little longer to feel that life has returned to normal, but she's getting there.

"For a long time, I was braced for something to happen. But each year that goes by, I feel more and more comfortable," says Walter. "I'm so grateful for our happy ending. I'm so grateful to have my daughter back."

*Some names and locations have been changed.