Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Inner turmoil

Russian Doll

Darah Echevarría battled an eating disorder all through secondary school. She shares her story and looks back at what could have been done differently to help her beat the problem.

The one emotion that dominated my life during my nine-year battle against eating disorders was loneliness. From the age of nine to 18, I lived a lie in which my main objective was to hide my purging from the rest of the world.

In these nine years, I read a lot of information on both bulimia and anorexia - statistics, consequences and numbers - but nothing really was the wake up call I needed to get out of my personal hell.

The only result that followed from my 'studies' was that I became a better liar and actress. I knew what the signs were that tipped others off and so knew how to hide them better each time.

It was not easy. Several years of malnutrition start paying their toll both physically and emotionally. Normal little blemishes all teenagers have to deal with became wounds on my face, not to forget the anxiety attacks, heart palpitations and almost constant feeling of being out of breath. I felt like a fake and a failure but nobody was really able to tell, as I had become so good at hiding it.

Contrary to primary school, I was quite popular in secondary school. I always appeared happy, talkative, knew how to express my opinion and according to many peers "so confident". Needless to say, it was all a charade and people around me believed it.

Specialists in the field of eating disorders often claim that there is an underlying reason why people suffer from eating disorders and that the reason is often less evident than the desire to lose weight.

I am still not sure whether this was the case for me. In primary school, I was the chubby girl, also known as 'the last one picked during PE'. Of course my sadness only made me eat more and did little for my weight loss, so when I found out that I could 'spill my cake and eat it too' I thought I had hit the jackpot.

The truth is that there really is nothing funny about it. Words fail to express how liberated I feel now, but those nine years left me broken.

Road to recovery

Halfway through secondary school, I attempted going to a few sessions with the student psychologist. To make a long story short, she told me that an eating disorder was a problem that did not really have a solution and that the odds of me being struck by lightning were higher than getting over this problem completely.

She repeatedly told me how hard the road to recovery would be and how big the chances were of me falling of the wagon. Instead of boosting my self-confidence, after every session I remember going off to the school's canteen and stuffing my face with just about anything that was available, because I felt that there really was no way out of my problem.

Eventually I did beat bulimia and anorexia, but I did it on my own. By no means do I want to tell others not to seek professional help - this is merely what happened in my case. I would encourage everyone going through this problem to seek out someone whom they trust and feel comfortable speaking to.

I am convinced that the first step of the recovery process is empowering the person who is trying to fight the eating disorder. This is also the reason that I refuse to refer to an eating disorder as a 'sickness'. By calling it a sickness you place the person in the role of a victim, taking away any power that the person will need when he or she is ready to take on the battle against this problem.

Despite all I read about eating disorders during the nine years I dealt with both anorexia and bulimia, the clinical and cold facts did not give me the push I needed. These are personal problems and they need a personal approach if you want to fight them.

I firmly believe that it would have made a difference if my secondary school had held seminars about eating disorders or had someone appointed to visit classes to talk to the students about this problem.

If every school had at least one person who could dedicate him or herself to this problem I am sure that more students with an eating disorder would open up. I never had that option, because the only person I trusted and felt comfortable talking to was my mother and did not want to hurt or worry her.

A teacher or mentor who is well informed about the issue can offer support and a listening ear to a student without that student feeling that he or she is disappointing someone they care for in their personal life. This person needs to be a familiar face that students can turn to without fear of being judged, and who will be able to give emotional support or encourage the student to seek further professional help once trust has been established.

More than anything, I truly believe it is essential that the topic of eating disorders should be kept alive from primary school to university. Just because there are no young people in a school who weigh 80 pounds and have pale skin does not necessarily mean that no student is suffering from an eating disorder.

As I look back at the time that I was fighting this awful problem, it seems I am looking back at a different life, moreover someone else's. At the moment I am graduating from college, I am happy, enjoying being a mother and more importantly I am in control of my life.

If I could give only one piece of advice to young people fighting an eating disorder right now, it would be to never forget that they are the ones in control and that beating this problem is 100 per cent in their hands.

You can beat an eating disorder completely, you can get your life back and you can be happy again. Just look at me, I am living proof.

Darah Echevarría is the author of So Now You Know published by Athena Press, 2004.

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