Speaking out on eating disorders

By Johanna Shreve

I was happy to hear that Macalester would be hosting a number of events during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, including a showing and discussion of the documentary “Thin.” I saw the documentary this summer during a three-month stay at the treatment center where it was filmed, the Renfrew Center in Florida.Being a product of the entertainment industry, the movie focuses on the drama of a few struggling patients, more often than not casting Renfrew and its staff as the bad guy. Although I don’t really have a problem with a little sensationalism in service of awareness, I wanted to offer a more balanced view of Renfrew. Renfrew has earned a reputation as one of the top treatment centers in the world for good reason.

Although some people are able to hold onto an eating disorder for years without getting treatment, mine worsened dramatically over only a few months. As I waited to get into an outpatient program in Minnesota, I quickly lost almost all ability to function mentally and physically.

I discovered the root of my disorder, which involves repressed childhood memories, while I was at my sickest. The only way I knew how to deal with such horrifying issues was to starve more. Since, as a study by Alan Keyes has shown, prolonged starvation alone can lead to anxiety disorders in previously healthy individuals, things only got worse for me.

The result was something like living in a horror movie. I really wanted to eat, because I knew it would relieve some of the anxiety, but eating caused as much anxiety as starving did. At that point, I decided I could only do inpatient treatment. Only there would some of the triggers for post-traumatic stress (such as being near men) be eliminated, and be forced to eat and digest food.

The only inpatient facility in Minnesota at the time was Methodist Eating Disorder Institute, a self-proclaimed “medical” floor that accepts and releases patients based solely on physical status. Since I was physically stable (meaning not about to die at any moment), I was not eligible for inpatient treatment.

That’s when I heard about Renfrew Florida. Because Renfrew has the balls to call eating disorders what they are-mental illness-the medical necessity of my stay was determined by the actual severity of my disorder, not whether I could be classified as among the walking dead.

Since my insurance had no limits or deductibles, that meant three full months of 24-hour supervision, with almost every hour of every day not taken up by sleeping, eating, or taking meds, spent in therapy: individual therapy, group therapy, art therapy, movement therapy, abuse survivor therapy, substance abuse therapy, dialectical-behavioral therapy and of course meal-time support therapy.

After three months, I was finally able to consider living in the real world again without my eating disorder to protect me, to make me think I wasn’t female or even human, but some kind of weird ghost-skeleton that no one could hurt.

Since I got back, I’ve spent five weeks in a full-day program and about four months in an intensive outpatient (half-day) program. I still have a lot of work to do before I can live like a normal person again, but I can’t even imagine myself alive today without Renfrew.

I hope my story helps to offset some of the sensationalistic tendencies of an otherwise well-made documentary, but if not, the book of the same name by Lois Greenfield, which is more balanced, informative, and profound than the movie, will do a much better job than I have. Finally, I know that at least one of the film’s main characters, Alisa, is doing much better today than she was when the movie was released; she was the featured speaker at the Renfrew alumni reunion this summer.

Johanna Shreve ’05 can be reached at

[email protected]