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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.

Changes in Behavior

Then she started spending much more time by herself, and we noticed that she would leave the dinner table a lot. It became apparent that she was very uncomfortable staying at the table, and when we tried to keep her from leaving, she took to mincing her food, cutting and cutting and cutting it, and her posture became peculiar. She was almost acting like a squirrel at the table.

Then at Easter time in 2001, I noticed bright red splatters all over the toilet bowl in her bathroom. I recognized the color of the Swedish fish she'd gotten in her Easter basket. I spoke to her about it, and she got so angry that she didn't speak to me for a few days. Then she came to me in the kitchen in tears, and said, "Mom, I didn't want to admit that this was going on. I thought when you pointed the finger at me about the throwing up that I would just stop, and I can't and I don't know what to do." And she just sobbed. We found out that Shelby had gotten down to 100 pounds and was throwing up as much as 14 times a day.

We went to therapists, nutritionists, medical doctors, everything. I stayed at home with Shelby, who regularly had to eat seven times a day just to make sure she got a quarter cup of something that she wouldn't throw up. My life revolved around trying to make food she approved of, and sit with her while she ate it and for the next half hour so she couldn't escape to purge.

About 10 months into her treatment, I found bottles of old, rotting vomit in her room and discovered that she'd perfected throwing up into Snapple bottles. She'd grown afraid that we'd hear her flushing the toilet when she vomited, and she'd plugged up bathtub and sink drains when she threw up there.

But when I showed her the containers, she said, "I don't know where that came from." At the time I yelled at her, "Don't lie to me!" But now I believe she really didn't know what had happened, that her "real" self didn't understand what she was doing.

There's a rug in the basement that has a permanent mold stain from vomit. All these things were building up, I think, from the time she was about 11 years old, and I didn't understand what I was seeing enough to get her help until it was vomit splatters and dangerous weight loss. There has to be a way to do this better, for other girls.

Over those two years, we did everything we could to get treatment for Shelby, and we found out just how hard it is to recover from an eating disorder. In July of 2001, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it became startlingly clear to our family that if you have an understood, and accepted, and government-funded illness, you'll go into a treatment system where there are standards, protocols, staging -- a network of how you need to be handled to have the most effective outcomes. Shel did not have that opportunity.

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