A Conversation with Ed: Eating Disorders at Kennesaw State University

Kerri McCue never thought of herself as a perfectionist. She knew she was sick, but far from a perfectionist. However, McCue says, “Once you think you’re not a perfectionist, that’s when you realize that you are a perfectionist.” 

When she was first diagnosed with an eating disorder at a young age, McCue was in a constant battle with her body and food. She hated what she saw in the mirror, but it was not until she was an adult that she sought help. “Addicts have a compulsion. That’s what an addiction is. Only my substance was food,” McCue says.

When McCue finally decided that she wanted to begin recovery from her eating disorder, she turned to Kennesaw State University’s Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) within the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery (CYAAR). The center is tucked away behind University Village dorms but remains key for recovering students.

Executive director and assistant dean of the program Teresa Wren Johnston founded the program in 2007, but it was not until 2010 that the first young woman walked in and wanted to begin her recovery from her eating disorder with the CYAAR. Until that moment, CYAAR had not dealt with eating disorders. Now eating disorder treatment has become a crucial aspect of CYAAR.

“We look at eating disorders as process addictions,” Johnston says. “So people are dependent on behaviors and they do things a different way- restricting food, binge eating, and excessive exercising.”

According to Johnston, CYAAR typically helps about 70 students each academic year. However, this semester alone, the center is helping 72 students through recovery. Aside from its own recovery program, CYAAR also offers weekly group therapy sessions for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Eating Disorder Anonymous. These sessions are open to students and the public. Through these group sessions, CYAAR helps hundreds of students each year.

Bethany Wheeler acts as the registered dietician for Kennesaw State, and a member of the eating disorder treatment team at CYAAR. Wheeler and her team at CYAAR work with students to “determine if they need a higher level of care depending on the severity [of their eating disorder], and provide treatment by the team.”

Kerri McCue credits CYAAR for her recovery. When she first heard of CRC program, she knew she had to be a part of it, but to join the attendee must be at least six months into recovery. Now an alumnus of both Kennesaw State and the CRC, McCue promises to do “anything I can to raise awareness” for eating disorders.

“Food is not the issue,” says McCue. “Thinking is the issue!”

People with eating disorders become fixated on minor issues, especially anything about food and their body. They tend to stick to consistent patterns and schedules. For example, Eating Disorders Victoria states that some people may insist on eating meals at a certain time, only using a certain utensil or only drinking out of a certain cup. Hence the perfectionism McCue experienced.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, according to ANAD, where
 every 62 minutes, someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, an estimated 30 million American men and women will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders says it has “heard time and time again that people have been told that they did not have an eating disorder because their weight was not low enough or because they were not a young, white female. ANAD wants you to listen to your own feelings and body. If you think you have an eating disorder, you most likely do.”

 “Eating disorders don’t discriminate,” McCue stresses. “Eating disorders are about the illusion of control– controlling food, body and pain.”

The two most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Anorexia is characterized by restrictive eating and the need to lose impossible amounts of weight. A person with anorexia will often show an overwhelming fear of gaining weight, of body shape, or of the body changing. Bulimia consists of binge eating and purging, and can present itself in two forms- bulimia nervosa and binge eating. According to Wheeler, purging can consist of the misuse of laxatives or over-exercising to overcompensate for the calories consumed.

“The eating disorder rationalizes it [purging] as, if you’re compensating, you won’t gain weight,” says Wheeler.

With bulimia nervosa, the person binge eats, but feelings of guilt and disgust cause him or her to fast or induce vomiting after the binge. According to ANAD, an “episode of binge eating includes eating an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat within a two hour time period, with a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode.” 

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder, according to ANAD, where every 62 minutes, someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. ANAD also says that 33-50 percent of people with anorexia also suffer from a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety. About one in five people with anorexia dies by suicide, according to ANAD and NEDA. Patients with an eating disorder often do not want to give up their eating disorder, because it would surrender their sense of control.

This is where CYAAR comes in. Its Collegiate Recovery Program involves 12-steps individualized to the patient. Students in the CRP receive early access to class registration, group sessions, personal counseling and retreats. The students in the program are required to attend all 12 seminars to complete the program.

According to Johnston, about 10-12 percent of the Kennesaw community is in recovery from eating disorders. Alumnus McCue stresses that recovery is not a linear process. Everyone’s recovery looks different, and relapses are normal. She recalls a time she thought she had relapsed when she did not have the chance to eat for an entire day. “Relapses are intentional,” McCue says.

“The brain is the only organ in the body that prevents itself from getting help,” said Johnston. To prevent relapses, NEDA encourages people to “communicate thoughts and feelings, address and resolve problems as they arise, and live a healthful and balanced life.”

“We live in a disordered society, so disorder eating has become normalized,” Wheeler says. “A lot of behaviors that people engage in actually are disordered. We live in very weight-biased culture.”

McCue and Johnston urge students with eating disorders to believe that recovery is possible. McCue remembers the surrealism when she returned to her CRP to lead others through recovery. She admitted to perfectionism and committed herself to recovering from her eating disorder.

“Recovery is a messy, but beautiful process,” she says.  

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