After growing up with high levels of anxiety and low self-esteem, alumna Karin Lewis said life felt unmanageable.
“You know that saying, ‘genetics raises the gun and environment pulls the trigger?’ Well, it applied to me,” said Lewis. “Food was the only thing that I felt I could control in terms of when and how much.”
Lewis, a 1992 graduate, talked about her experience with anorexia nervosa with the Emerson community Tuesday evening in the Little Building Beard Room.
Her talk was part of the second annual Eating Disorder Awareness Week, hosted by Emerson’s chapter of Active Minds. The mental health advocacy club aimed to shed light on different types of eating disorders from Feb. 23 to 28 through a range of activities designed to educate the college community and encourage those suffering to seek help.
In the U.S., about 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from eating disorders, according to the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association—statistics that Lewis said she recognized personally.
“Eating disorders can happen to anyone – not just women – and I’ll take my story and tell it honestly,” Lewis, who also spoke at last year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, said in an interview. “I can only share what I know and can’t be anyone other than me.”
Lewis is the current clinical director at Monte Nido Laurel Hill, an eating and exercise disorder treatment center in Medford. Having recovered from the disorder 17 years ago, Lewis said she was keen on coming back to the school to discuss how the condition affected her.
“I was dealing with maturity and intimacy fears, low self-esteem, all these stressors, and at 19, I finally went on a diet,” Lewis said. “Suddenly people were impressed and were telling me how good I looked and I thought, ‘Wow, people actually want my advice and opinion?’”
The idea of fitting in was another source of internal conflict for Lewis. On the off-chance a person did seem to show interest in starting a friendship with her, she said she never felt it was genuine, because she was convinced that she wasn’t worth the person’s time.
“I would fake a smile and do what I thought college kids were supposed to do, but I hated it,” she said. “I didn’t like attending fraternity and sorority parties, going to bars and clubs, staying out late and drinking, but I would think, ‘Well, this is my life, and this is what I’m supposed to do.’ I wanted to belong because I didn’t feel connected to people.”
The reason why eating disorders often take so long to treat, Lewis said, is because they have been used as coping mechanisms to deal with internal stresses for so long that they feel normal. By stripping people of such a coping strategy, they often are left feeling exposed and vulnerable, which they hope anorexia or binge eating will distract them from confronting.
“I was sick throughout my time at Emerson and I wasn’t functioning well by graduation,” she said. “My closest friends were worried but wouldn’t say anything, and my brutally honest family would call and ask me to come home for a weigh-in, but I’d make up excuses. I thought I, at least, had control over how many calories I ate, when and how much I exercised.”
Senior Ashley Cunningham, the founder and president of Active Minds at Emerson, said she was inspired to form the group three years ago after reflecting on the mental health issues she struggled with, and later received help for, in high school. She said she felt that others at Emerson would appreciate knowing there was an organization focused on spreading awareness and encouraging them to seek help.
Most eating disorders don’t stem from a desire to fit in and keep up with conventional beauty standards, Cunningham said.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” said Cunningham, a performing arts major said. “You can talk about the beauty aspect or the fashion industry, but at the end of the day, people would be dismissing the health and mental aspects underneath.”
Elise Harrison, director of counseling and psychological services at Emerson, said she has had patients whose problems manifested themselves into unhealthy eating habits.
Harrison said she has two main ways of treating people with eating disorders: teaching self-acceptance and better ways of listening to their internal body cues.
“They needed to learn that they can make mistakes and it’s OK because it’s part of the human condition,” said Harrison. “Also that it’s all right to feed themselves when they’re hungry if they’re, for instance, restricting themselves, and that they won’t be defined by the calories they consumed.”
Lewis said she hopes to continue aiding others in addressing their real fears underneath their relationships with food.
“It’s a cover for underlying issues,” Lewis said. “It’s a protective barrier that allows the person to work on eating more food and not working on the issues.”
For many, readjusting to life after an eating disorder is a long process, Harrison said. Lewis, post-recovery, said she has continued to use her story to help others with their battles.
“It doesn’t matter what eating disorder it was, it was just a distraction from real-life issues,” said Lewis. “It was just a creative way of discovering I was afraid to be in the world.”