By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Four years ago, Lauryn Lee of Tupelo nearly turned herself inside out as she tried to cope with becoming a teenager.
During the transition from middle to high school, the 5-foot, 6-inch girl went from a healthy 115 pounds to 95 pounds in November 2007. To her thinking, distorted by anorexia, being skinny equalized acceptance and control.
“If I was going to be judged on how I looked, I was going to be so thin they would look past my faults,” Lauryn said she remembers thinking.
Fast forward four years, Lee represented Tupelo at the Miss Mississippi pageant earlier this month, she went with a more grounded view of how she would be judged in the Miss America-affiliated scholarship program.
“These judges are not looking for the thinnest girl,” Lauryn said. “They’re looking for the healthiest lifestyle.”
Lee has spent much of the year talking about her struggle with anorexia. Distorted body images were the focus of her Tupelo High School senior project and eating disorders became her pageant platform.
“It’s very important to raise awareness,” said Lee, who will study nutrition at Itawamba Community College this fall. Her ultimate goal is to work with those battling nutrition disorders.
Anorexia is a serious mental health issue with significant, potentially life-threatening complications.
“It’s so multi-faceted,” said Tupelo licensed professional counselor Dr. Sandra Holmes of NMMC Behavioral Health Center.
Eating disorders, which affect an estimated five million Americans, are more than skin deep. They are rooted in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“They feel a loss of control,” said Joy Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and outreach manager at NMMC Behavioral Health. “This is the one thing they feel they have control over.”
Anorexia, with its severe calorie restriction, can quickly devastate the body. People struggling with anorexia risk damaging their hearts, digestive system, kidneys, fertility and immune system. By some estimates, 20 percent of people with anorexia die prematurely.
Bulimia, with its chronic vomiting, includes risks to the heart, digestive system and dental decay.
“Early identification is key,” Holmes said.
Teen girls and young women are most commonly associated with eating disorders, but it can affect boys, men and older women.
“The majority may start in their teens, but some start in adulthood,” Holmes said. “Two of my most serious cases were women in their 50s.”
Because eating disorders are such multi-faceted problems, combating them requires a team of mental health professionals, medical doctors and dietitians, Holmes said.
“When you get help, you need a team,” she said. “Depending on the severity, some need almost immediate inpatient hospitalization.”
Recovery from an eating disorder requires long-term care.
Medically, those suffering from eating disorders need to be monitored for any complications including heart problems, osteoporosis and hormonal imbalances.
They need to work with dietitians to make sure they are meeting their nutritional needs and rebuilding their sense of what a healthy diet looks like.
With mental health professionals, they need to work on developing and strengthening healthy coping habits, identifying triggers
“It’s not a quick fix,” Johnson said.
Between eighth and ninth grade, Lauryn began a secret life driven by her anorexia.
At meals she would sneak food into her pockets and then stuff it into water bottles in her room to dispose.
She would tell her parents she was going out for a walk with a friend and she would sneak in a three-mile run. When the rest of the family slept, she would do 500 crunches in her room at night.
At her most extreme, Lauryn limited herself to a minuscule amount of calories, skipping breakfast, eating an apple for lunch and vegetables for dinner.
Ironically, as she strove to be thin with the distorted aim of being accepted, she would hide her body with layered clothing, so people would just see thin, not abnormally bony arms and shoulders.
Her parents, Jeff and Robin Lee, noticed her mood changes almost immediately. Mom started finding bacon and sausage in the laundry.
“I knew something was wrong,” Robin Lee said.
Her parents began looking for answers, but, initially, it was dismissed as a teenage phase.
Lauryn’s own attitude didn’t help.
“I didn’t think it was affecting anyone but me,” Lauryn said.
It was a very scary, frustrating time, Robin Lee said.
“You’re child is killing herself and you can’t do anything,” her mom said.
At a second medical appointment where it was impossible to draw Lauryn’s blood, there were no answers, but a nurse recognized there was a mental health issue at play.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, but something is,” she told the family and suggested a Tupelo psychiatrist.
That psychiatrist was the first to diagnose Lauryn with anorexia, and he got her attention.
“When he told me 1 in 5 die from the symptoms of anorexia, it made it a real disease,” Lauryn said.
Around Thanksgiving that year, her godmother gave her a hug and then burst into tears because she could feel every bone in Lauryn’s body. It tipped the balance of Lauryn’s perception.
“I realized it wasn’t only affecting me, it was affecting my whole family,” Lauryn said. “At the lowest point, I was doubting my parents, family and God. Then I realized my parents and my God were trying to help me.”
Slowly, Lauryn began the steady climb back to health; it took about three months to get back to 110 pounds. But it wasn’t as simple as just starting to eat again. She had to work so her desire to eat was stronger than her driving need to see a decreasing number on the scale.
“It’s like you’re fighting with yourself,” Lauryn said.
Her parents closely monitored her progress for any signs of backsliding. In addition, to making sure she ate all of her meals, the family had to monitor Lauryn in the bathroom to make sure she didn’t start purging. They weighed Lauryn every day without letting her see the number on the scale.
“You learn all the tricks,” Robin said. “I watch her continuously, even now.”
Ironically, in the first months of her recovery, Lauryn started suffering from the effects of her anorexia. Her hair started falling out. A stomach virus that was a nuisance to the rest of the family, was a serious medical episode for her.
“That’s when I was the most sick,” Lauryn said.
But her parents saw something that encouraged them.
“You could tell that something had changed in her spirit,” said Jeff Lee.
By the fall of her junior year, Lauryn really felt better physically and mentally. That’s when she entered the Miss Teen Tupelo pageant and won.
Her participation in the Miss America scholarship system has been very empowering because it gave her a platform to talk about eating disorders and a very public check against becoming too thin.
“I still have my battles,” but she wasn’t ever tempted during the pageant preparations to cut corners on her meals, Lauryn said. “But I’ve been there, and I’m never going back.”
Eating disorder warning signs
Eating disorders, especially anorexia, can develop rapidly and become life-threatening, and families should seek out medical and mental health assistance quickly.
• Interruptions in menstrual cycle
• Irregular heartbeat
• Anxious at mealtimes or seeking to eat alone
• Baby-fine hair on body
• Brittle hair and nails
• Frequent, long trips to bathroom during or after meals
• Swollen cheeks or glands
• Tooth decay
• Reddened fingers from inducing vomiting
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org