WASHINGTON — Laura Porter was a high school senior when she developed an eating disorder.
“I had trouble fitting in and I thought there was something inherently wrong with me,” she remembers.
“I thought if I just fixed my weight, that I could fit in and find a group of friends.”
By the time she got to college at George Washington University, she was binging and purging – a disorder known as bulimia nervosa.
“I kept going. I couldn’t stop the purging,” Porter says.
Then one day she woke up shaking, unable to go to class or function.
“I knew I was killing myself,” she admits.
She entered a residential treatment program for eating disorders. The road to normalcy was bumpy, filled with twists and turns and multiple hospitalizations. Now a junior, Porter is speaking out, hoping awareness of eating disorders will save other students from a similar fate.
She reinvigorated an organization called Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge, or SPEAK. And this week she told her story as the campus marked National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Melissa Napolitano, an assistant professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services, says sharing these stories is crucial. It helps empower young men and women “to get the help and resources that they need to live healthier lives.”
Napolitano says anywhere from 5 percent to 17 percent of U.S. college students may have disordered eating patterns. She also notes that almost 80 percent report they are dieting, even though they may be of normal weight.
The National Institute of Mental Health says it is hard to say exactly how many Americans suffer from eating disorders, although they are most likely to crop up during the teen years or young adulthood.
Napolitano says a number of factors contribute including cultural, social and academic pressures. The college years are especially significant because students are on their own for the first time, figuring out “their relationships to food and their relationship to their bodies.”
Porter says many who have eating disorders suffer in silence.
“My disease wanted me to be alone.”
Napolitano says conversation is one great way to attack the stigma associated with eating disorders, but adds knowledge is a potent weapon.
Parents need to arm themselves with good information, particularly about the warning signs and symptoms.
The National Institute of Health is a good source, as is the National Eating Disorders Association, which Napolitano suggests as a great resource for both parents and peers.
She says the signals of trouble vary for the three major types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.
But for all three, the key word is “change.”
“Changes in terms of eating patterns, in terms of the way the person talks about their body or themselves,” Napolitano explains.
More specifically, look for changed behavior around meal times, hiding food or rapid weight loss or gain.
While most people think of eating disorders as involving extreme thinness, binge eating can lead to extreme obesity and is a major concern on U.S. campuses, where 50 percent of students report binge behaviors from time to time.
Binge eating involves taking in large amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling out of control. Napolitano says those who engage in binge eating often feel ashamed or guilty, and those feelings can affect their ability to handle school.
Porter knows those feelings only too well, and even though she battled bulimia, she feels a certain connection to those dealing with binge eating.
“We have the same feelings of loneliness and isolation,” she says.
She pauses for a minute, thinking of her past and then adds: “I don’t see someone else’s struggle in terms of their weight. I see someone else’s struggle in terms of their feelings.”