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Living With Bulimia: Kathy Benn

A mother describes her daughter's struggle with an eating disorder that finally ended in death.

WebMD Feature

By Kathy Benn
Anorexia Crossing the Thin Line

Two years ago, on a summer Sunday night at about 10 p.m., I found my daughter's body in her bedroom. She had gone up to her room to read and I was sitting at the kitchen table when I heard a strange sigh from Shel's bedroom. I thought she was on the phone and someone had just told her something painfully sad. It continued in this strange way that I can never explain, except that it trailed off to be almost vapor-like. I said, "Oh my God, that's Shel." I ran to her room and tried to do CPR, while my husband called 911.

Her eyes were fixed upward and her hands were curled in toward her body and her feet were strangely curled. She looked as if she'd had a seizure, and she was turning blue. The EMTs injected her with adrenaline and used the paddles on her heart, but she was completely unresponsive. At the hospital, they worked on her for almost two hours before they told us there was nothing they could do.

The autopsy found that she had brain swelling that caused something like a stroke. The doctors said she died due to an electrolyte imbalance as the result of bulimia. People at the National Eating Disorders Association have told me that she's the first person they've seen whose autopsy directly attributes the death to an eating disorder, instead of just saying something like heart failure and not even mentioning anorexia or bulimia.

Shelby's death was the result of things that had been happening to my little girl since she was in fifth grade. But I had never had anybody to help me see where things were going until she was already terribly, terribly sick.

By fifth grade, Shel had pretty much fully developed, and she was horribly uncomfortable with that. She'd look at pictures and tell me "I look like an ogre." I'd catch her showering in her bathing suit and not realize that this was a little girl who was so ill at ease with her body that she couldn't look at herself naked.

In her early teens, Shel was "discovered" by Warner Brothers Records. She had a beautiful singing voice, and what started out as playing around with a karaoke machine turned into recording sessions and demo tapes and then a multialbum contract at the age of 14.

She traveled all over the world, and I went with her, but I worried about how she almost seemed compelled to perform. I later learned that pleasing others is a big part of the picture for people who develop eating disorders. In fact, after her death I found that she'd been marking up a book of mine, the Eating Disorders Sourcebook, underlining things like "desire for respect and admiration," "need for escape and a safe place to go," and "lack of trust in self and in others."

As Shelby got more involved with music, she started to wear only flannel shirts and baggy pants. We interpreted it as Shel dressing "grunge," because the Seattle sound was big in the music industry then. We didn't make the connection that she was hiding under her clothes.

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