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Alumna discusses struggle with eating disorder

| Thursday, March 2, 2017

As part of Love Your Body Week, alumna Lisa Clarkson spoke about her struggle with the eating disorder she had during her time as a student at Saint Mary’s.

Clarkson said she was diagnosed with anorexia, accompanied by occasional bulimic symptoms.

“About eight years ago, a medical professional first diagnosed me with an eating disorder,” she said. “I was 17 then and I truly believed everyone was overreacting. I thought my restrictive diet and significant weight loss meant I was in control, but my eating disorder controlled me for much of my teenage and early adult life.”

Clarkson said her eating disorder controlled her life and she found her condition worsening, even when she convinced herself that she was getting better and managing.

“To me, an eating disorder is the daily anxiety of breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “It is struggle of being recovered in body and not in mind. I was slowly killing myself, but I continued to lose weight until I found myself in an eating disorder treatment center.”

Clarkson said according to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly 10 million women suffer from eating disorders.

“As many as 10 percent of college women suffer from a clinical eating disorder,” Clarkson said. “Studies indicate by their first year of college, 4.5 percent to 18 percent of women have a history of bulimia. Any one of us can be affected by this disorder, regardless of labels, gender, age, race, ethnicity, culture, weight, socio-economic status or sexual orientation. Eating disorders do not discriminate.”

Clarkson said as a little girl, she was ashamed of her body and afraid to talk about her body sensitivity.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been ashamed of my body and my weight,” she said. “I recall family vacations in Florida as a young girl, laying by the pool in a swimsuit, gym shorts and a t-shirt, sweating under the hot sun because I was so ashamed of my body. I had a sensitive temperament, and was unable to talk about my feelings easily, or anything I perceived to be negative or weak. That, combined with a culture that idealizes thinness, built my insecurities into an obvious habit: eating.”

Clarkson said eating disorders are incredibly isolating and that she and her family and friends often neglected to realize the gravity of her disorder. Clarkson said this disorder would follow her as she graduated high school and began her freshman year at Saint Mary’s.

“When I went off to college in the fall of 2010, my eating disorder packed itself in my suitcase and moved in with me,” she said.

“At the beginning of my junior year at Saint Mary’s, I decided to seek help from a local therapist to heal from a painful break-up,” she said. “One of the most clinically sound professionals I have ever encountered, my therapist quickly caught on to my unhealthy relationship with food and body image. She began to address it during each session with me, but I was convinced I was completely fine, and truly not in any serious danger.”

Clarkson said that her therapist pleaded with her to seek residential treatment for her disorder; Clarkson obliged and said she began seeing a nutritionist and psychiatrist, but still her disorder worsened.

“The more I sunk into the disorder, the more I lost myself — my smile, my infectious laugh and my deep desire to love those around me,” she said.

Clarkson said her eating disorder became so bad, she was admitted to a clinic outside of Chicago where she was treated for her disorder over the summer before her senior year at Saint Mary’s.

“Being a patient in an eating disorder treatment center woke me up to all the simple pleasures of life I had deprived myself of when I was sick,” she said. “I was confident I was ready and refused to put my senior year at Saint Mary’s on hold.”

Clarkson said while although physically she had become healthier, she still suffered from a severe mental illness that quickly caused to her relapse back into her eating disorder.

“My physical recovery was only the first step,” she said. “It takes time at a healthy weight for the brain to heal and the disease to recede and disappear. After two weeks of being free of eating disorder behaviors, I quickly returned to the lifestyle I was leading before treatment.”

Clarkson said after her relapse, she was sent to visit an eating disorder specialist.

“I then found myself commuting to Chicago up to twice a week to meet with an eating disorder specialist and returning at a very late hour to complete my studies, while my friends were getting ready to enjoy senior year at Club Fever,” she said. “I don’t regret it because I needed the help, but I missed out on a lot of my life because of this illness.”

In 2013, Clarkson said she began her long awaited journey into recovery.

“I chose to recover in 2013,” she said. “Since then, I have graduated with a degree, made new friends, worked a full time job, become a mom to the most adorable pug and lived a life independent from my eating disorder. Everyday I chose to recover again.”

Clarkson said while she has recovered from her eating disorder, she still struggles with body image and the doubt that eating disorders leave in their wake.  

“For the past four years, I have not owned a scale, and when I go to the doctor’s office, I simply ask the doctor to keep my weight to himself,” she said. “I did this as a means of putting my own mental health first. I have not stepped on a scale since 2013, until last month. Today, I weigh nearly twice as much as I did in 2013. I wake up each day and choose to live my life free of my eating disorder. I constantly remind myself that each pound is a memory for me — it is my Sunday morning brunch, Friday night dinner with my best friend and occasional ice cream just because.”

“I don’t look sick anymore, but there are days when I still feel it,” Clarkson said. “It is with patience and love from those around me that I continue to move in a positive direction.”

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