Editor’s Note: Megan Bollinger is a native-born Emporian, 26, who graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in biology. She returns to KU this fall to pursue her Master’s of Social Work, with an ultimate goal of becoming an LCSW and therapist specializing in those with eating disorders and other mental illnesses. Bollinger shares her story of eating disorder with The Gazette in the second of a two-part series. Megan is the daughter of Tim and Lynnette Bollinger of Emporia.
After a month in VITA, the eating disorder unit of Research Medical Hospital, the next leg of my journey consisted of months of inpatient treatment at Laureate’s eating disorder unit in Tulsa. During my stay at Laureate, I completed my weight restoration and became stable. I sat through hours of groups and individual therapy, digging deeper into myself than I thought possible. I grieved, I fought, and I eventually accepted that I would not be released until I gave up control of my life to my team of doctors, therapists, and dietitians.
During my inpatient stay, I had no freedom. I followed a rigid schedule of eating, group therapy, eating, individual therapy, eating, more groups, eating and bed.
Wake up, repeat.
I was told when I could use the bathroom, shower, make telephone calls, sleep and wake, have my vitals taken, and whether I had permission to walk or must use my wheelchair — even when distance was no more than a few steps.
I was told what to eat, when to eat, and exactly how much to eat. I “donated” more blood than I ever thought a single human could offer. I was not trusted to simple privacies; rather, I was watched during the day, during the night, in the cafeteria and especially in the restroom. I never purged through vomiting, but eating disorders are notorious for morphing and developing other means of control when they are cornered, and other women did resort to alternative measures.
Finally, after months upon months, I was discharged, free to come home.
Unlike most, I was very fortunate to have a family who educated themselves, and were able to afford the expensive medical bills that insurance refused to cover, with their staunch claims that anorexia wasn’t a true or deadly “illness.”
My family never gave up on me, holding me up when I cut them deep with my words or lied straight to their faces. They let me move home when I was discharged from the hospital, and acted as my structural team, keeping me on track so that I did not have to fight my battles alone.
To this day they support me, allowing me to have weekly sessions with my personal treatment team composed of a dietician, therapist and a physician, all specializing in eating disorders.
Eating disorders are not a choice, a practice in vanity, or as glamorous as they are sometimes portrayed. They are psychological illnesses with physical implications.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and anorexia nervosa, specifically, kills 12 times more females between the ages of 15 and 24 than all other causes of death combined.
Scientists have found, and continue to research, the genetic basis behind these afflictions. Of course the perfect set of circumstances must occur for its onset, but as my doctor once told me, “Genetics load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.”
With other addictions, one may remove themselves from certain environments. However, you cannot avoid food. You will have to face the things that scare you the most multiple times a day, every single day.
I still have to be diligent in my fight each minute of every day. I am engaged in combat with an enemy in my own trenches, not one on the other side of the battlefield.
I cannot get away from my mind, even during sleep, and so I fight. I wage war because I refuse to let this disease steal more from me than it already has. I refuse to give up. I refuse to accept that I will barely eke by over the course of my life because that is not a life.
The eating disorder will always be with me, but I have learned, and will continue to learn, how to control it, how to muffle its abusive voice, and how to lead a fulfilling life. I refuse to inflict the pain of allowing it to physically take me from any of my loved ones because I know what that feels like.
I have lost more friends and fellow patients to eating disorders than I can count on one hand, and I am certain that I will lose more over the next few years.
So please, be aware.
If you suspect a loved one is suffering from one of these illnesses, approach them from a place of compassion and understanding. Approach them with an attitude free of accusation and judgment, assuring them that you are coming from a place of love and concern and that you will support them in getting help.
Know that eating disorders speak through their victims and that you may be the target of angry, hurtful words. Know that these words are out of fear and protection of the set of rules that dictate the lives of the ill.
Know that it’s better to have a loved one temporarily angry at you, than to have this horrible disease take them permanently away.
Apologies may come many times over, but death only comes once.
For information about eating disorders:
The website contains tool kits designed for parents, educators and coaches and trainers.
NEDA maintains a toll free, confidential Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
The Mental Health Center of East Central Kansas, 1000 Lincoln Street; 343-2211 or 800-279-3645. www.mhceck.org.
MHCECK serves Chase, Coffey, Greenwood, Lyon, Morris, Osage, and Wabaunsee counties.
The Flint Hills Community Health Center/Lyon County Health Department, 420 W. 15th Ave., 342-4864, www.flinthillshealth.org.
The Project TEEN Coordinator discusses some eating disorder topics in area school presentations; anyone who wants help can make an appointment with a medical provider or behavioral health provider.