Anorexia in boys
Dan did well in school and in sports, and his sense of humor attracted friends. His dad Pat describes him as "a super-achiever, always determined." He was six feet tall and weighed 160 pounds.
But by Dan's 16th birthday, his parents noticed a change: he was losing weight. What they didn't know was that Dan had developed a distorted view of his body. An inner war told him at once to eat for health and to starve in order to win approval, especially from his peers.
When Dan was going in for a routine physical, his mother Mary Kay phoned ahead. She asked the doctor to take special note of Dan's weight.
The doctor noticed that it had dropped to 125 pounds. He diagnosed Dan with anorexia and admitted him to the hospital.
Anorexia was the last thing Pat and Mary Kay had suspected was the problem. They thought anorexia was a disease that afflicted only girls.
Tests showed that Dan had an irregular heartbeat - a serious side effect of anorexia, caused by an imbalance of minerals in the body. For months, Dan was in and out of the hospital. But he didn't believe he was sick. He remembers thinking, "Everyone's pushing the panic button."
Each time he was discharged, Dan would return to his old ways - starving himself and exercising compulsively. "I thought he would get better," Pat says. "Instead, he got worse."
Parents of anorexic children often feel torn. If they try to force the issue, it can backfire.
"I had a parent who tried to get their child to eat by saying, 'Do you know how much the treatment for this eating disorder is costing us?' " says Dr. Leslie Sim, Clinical Director of the Mayo Inpatient Eating Disorders Program at the Mayo Clinic. "A person with an eating disorder already feels a tremendous amount of guilt. Comments like that just makes it worse."
Dan and his parents could chat about sports or the weather, but no one could mention anorexia. "In every other aspect of life," Pat says, "if you deal with Dan, you would say, oh, this kid is normal. But when you talk about this one topic, it's like a mental block and it's totally irrational."
Even though Dan says that not talking about anorexia made things worse, he couldn't face the issue.
"Anorexia is so damaging because it takes away their soul," Dr. Sims says of victims. "They aren't the same person. It's all encompassing. It ruins relationships with peers, and family members."
"Really, all you can do is offer emotional support," Mary Kay says, "and get the medical care they need."
Which Dr. Sims confirms. "It's too large of a problem to deal with on your own," he says. "There are a lot of people who've studied this and have the tools that can help you cope with such huge challenge as anorexia."
Dan is now in college. He had reached a point where he decided he wanted to recover. "I don't know what finally made the difference," Dan says. "I just wasn't making progress, and I knew things had to change if I wanted to accomplish things in my life."
Dan knows that lots of people with anorexia never get well and many die. He knows he has to overcome the voice that tells him not to eat. And that this challenge could last forever.
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