By Kathy Hanson, Special to The Tribune Published: Friday, February 27, 2009 1:21 PM CST Editor’s note: Riley Worthington’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Riley Worthington, a junior at Iowa State University, is looking forward to graduating, getting a job and meeting someone special to spend the rest of her life with. In the meantime, she said, she needs to heal from a bad relationship that’s dogged her since her senior year of high school.
Worthington’s bad relationship is an eating disorder, and she’s on the road to recovery.
“It’s like that boyfriend who keeps hurting you, but you go back to him again and again,” she said. “And I feel like his name is stamped on my forehead.”
Ten percent of all college-age students nationwide, including men, have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to Michelle Roling, counselor and eating disorders coordinator at ISU’s Student Counseling Services. And about 30 percent of college students suffer from an unhealthy relationship with food and body image, she added.
To raise awareness, Student Counseling Services has been presenting a weeklong series of events, “Be Comfortable in Your Genes, Rock Your Body,” during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is Feb. 22 to 28.
Roling works with five other senior counselors who provide eating disorder treatment through individual counseling and group therapy. At any given time, about 40 students are being treated for eating disorders at ISU. There’s no simple way to describe the types, causes or treatment of eating disorders, Roling said. They can affect children as young as age 7 or adults through retirement age, and they occur across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
Genetic predisposition plays a part, Roling said. There can be correlation with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or a history of disruptions to healthy relational attachments in early childhood.
‘Making the weight’
Roling said studies have documented a direct correlation between self-esteem and body image with the portrait of ideal beauty promoted on TV for both men and women. For example, “the Fiji study,” conducted before and after introduction of Western TV, found a “drastic shift in women’s self-esteem,” she said.
“It’s important to realize only 2 percent of people are genetically predisposed to look like the models we see on TV,” Roling said.
Sometimes, “making the weight” and keeping up with the rigorous training for a sport can change a person’s relationship with food, Roling said.
Worthington first noticed symptoms after her high school volleyball training program produced some weight loss.
“People started complimenting me,” she said. “That affirmation drove me to keep going.”
Support is key to recovery
Like many people struggling with eating disorders, Worthington’s symptoms didn’t fall into just one category. At first, exhibiting behaviors associated with anorexia nervosa, including severely restricting her food intake and exercising compulsively, Worthington showed bulimic behavior after introducing certain “forbidden foods” during treatment.
Roling said Worthington’s experience is common, and there’s even a diagnostic category called “eating disorders not otherwise specified,” for people who may have a combination of behaviors.
“It’s important to recognize that some people may feel like they don’t fit into a category, and they won’t seek help,” Roling said.
Worthington said her recovery took a turn for the better when she experienced support from staff and relationships with girls her own age at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, Neb.
“It was like we all shared the same brain,” she said. “For the first time, I felt like I am worth what it takes to get better.”
Worthington meets weekly with her ISU eating disorder group, stays active through playing intramural sports and asks her roommate to keep her accountable.
She also credits support from her parents as key to her recovery.
“They’re my rock,” she said. “They tell me they’re proud of me. I just love hearing that. The most important thing is to realize you don’t have to do it on your own.”