Sara Feavearyear of Irondequoit said she felt like she was out of options after suffering from an eating disorder for 28 years. She had done everything: Restricting her eating, bingeing and purging, compulsively exercising.
And she kept her eating disorder secret for many of those years. Eventually she tried treatment, but didn’t find success as doctors treated her disorder solely as a mental-health problem.
But several years ago, she saw a newspaper article talking about the adult eating-disorder treatment program at Unity Health in Rochester. She decided to give it a try, and the program worked.
“Now, there are so many groups out there, that it really is sad if people can’t get the help they need,” said Feavearyear, who leads a support group at Nazareth College in Pittsford from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday for adults over 18 who are trying to recover from an eating disorder.
Mary Tantillo, director of the Eating Disorders Recover Center of Western New York and director of Unity Health System’s eating-disorders program, which is based at Unity’s St. Mary’s Campus, agreed. No matter how young or old a person is, there are many resources throughout the state available for people to turn to if they or someone they know has an eating disorder, she said.
Tantillo suggests that a friend broach the topic by making nonjudgemental observations about a person’s behavior and dramatic weight loss.
“I have noticed that every time I eat dinner with you, you get up after the meal and go to the bathroom,” Tantillo said, modeling the conversation.
She said the person should then express their love and concern for the other person, and offer to help him or her get help. If a person is angry or denies it in a way that is obvious he or she is not telling the truth, Tantillo said the friend should first offer to go with the person to tell an adult and get help. If the person refuses, then the friend must still tell an adult, Tantillo said.
“If you feel like you are betraying someone, tell your parents and/or school personnel,” Tantillo said. “A kid has to tell another adult, because if anything bad happens to the other person (with the eating disorder), the friend is devastated.”
Tantillo said there are a variety of resources available to help people of all ages who have eating disorders. In addition to Unity’s program, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong has a child and adolescent eating-disorder program. Sage House, which is run by DePaul, offers supported housing for people in recovery. Tantillo said she is working to develop an independent residential-treatment program at St. Joseph’s Villa in Greece, which was formerly affiliated with the Sisters of St. Joseph. St. Joseph’s Villa has been offering residential treatment combined with other hospital-based day treatment programs.
Throughout the diocese there are many programs available for treatment and support. Lists of contact information for people who are closer to Binghamton, Ithaca or Syracuse are available at www.nyeatingdisorders.org. The site also has information and links about eating disorders and their warning signs.
Tantillo said eating disorders may manifest themselves in certain obsessive or compulsive patterns of behavior, such as avoiding eating with others; using the bathroom immediately after eating; cutting out entire food groups such as all desserts; carrying around diet pills or laxatives; finding large, empty containers of food; expressing a body image that is very different from how others view the person; or excessive exercising.
Eating disorders also can manifest themselves in other physical ways, such as knuckles with calloused scars that are made by teeth and are a sign of frequent vomiting, having dry skin or having hair that falls out in clumps. Tantillo acknowledges some symptoms may have an innocent explanation, so she stressed that people should look for obsessive or compulsive patterns of behavior rather than occasional behavior. She said people with eating disorders may deny the seriousness of low weight or may express an aversion to being fat.
However, one of the problems with diagnosing and treating eating disorders is the culture, Feavearyear said.
“It’s socially acceptable to eat or not eat or be on a diet,” she said.
Feavearyear said her support group talks not only about food, but about relationships and the week ahead. She said the group meets on Sundays in part because weekends can be especially lonely for people with eating disorders and because group members encourage each other to plan nutritious meals for the coming week.
“We focus on taking care of ourselves,” she said, noting that people with an eating disorder may need to be reminded that it is OK to eat.
Feavearyear noted that treatment for eating disorders can be very successful, saying that treatment has made her feel happy and free from the disorder.
“I’m able to participate fully in the things I enjoy, whereas before I had a wall around me that blocked everything more than the disorder,” Feavearyear said. “I was in my own little nightmare.”
Help for people with eating disorders is not just limited to mental health or nutritional issues. Cindy Nappa Bitter of Fairport, who spent nine years recovering from a 25-year battle with an eating disorder, runs free life-coaching sessions for people with eating disorders. The idea evolved out of Bitter’s own experience.
“When I got through treatment, there was no other treatment than outpatient therapy,” Bitter said. “There was no road map or guide.”
Bitter, who had worked as a vocational and career coach who later learned to be a life coach, realized the life coaching might help people in recovery from eating disorders. She said she found she was so focused on her eating disorder that it was hard to know how to live without one after completing her treatment.
“We deal with a lot of relationship issues: how to be in a healthy relationship,” said Bitter, who used a grant to start the program in 2005. “The group we just finished up was all about setting goals.”
Bitter said her outlook and her life have improved dramatically because of treatment.
“I have the life I always dreamed about,” she said. “I don’t have enough time to do all the things I want to do in life.”