What Happened To My Sister Could Happen To Yours - Or To Someone Else You Love
By Constance Luciano Bryceland
I was raised in upstate New York in the sixties and seventies. My dad
sold life insurance and my mom was a teacher; I was the fifth of eight
children, and although we seemed to have everything we needed, I only
recognized many years later how hard my parents worked and planned to
provide for so large a family.
In a big family such as ours, sometimes "cliques" emerge within the
siblings. I spent most of my family time with my sister Betsy, two years my
senior, even when we were "bitter enemies". My two older brothers could not have been closer, or more different from one another. My two younger brothers have always been extremely close. My oldest sister Cathy bore the responsibility of being the oldest child and she did the family proud, going on to become an award-winning journalist in the very competitive, male-dominated field of sports writing. And Julie, the baby of the family, displayed talents and charm at an early age, matched only by her beautiful face, gentle demeanor and an inherited love for animals.
By the time Julie was a pre-teen, as the seventies were winding down, she
played and excelled in tennis tournaments all over the state; she worked hard at her chosen sport and battled on the courts with an enviable fiery
spirit. But even at this tender age, Julie was already battling more than
just her opponents across the net. She was harboring a terrible secret. She had already developed an eating disorder, thanks in part, as we learned much too late, to casual remarks made by her grade school gym teacher, in front of her friends, regarding the size of her breasts.
When my mother, ever sensitive and intuitive toward her children's health and well-being, noticed that Julie was "slimming down" and eating less at meals, Julie, already adept at hiding her secret illness, simply altered her routine to include bulimia. Due to her vigorous athletic activities, a worried mother could not always tell if Julie simply continued to lose weight from her near-constant exercise, or from a more serious version of mere "dieting."
Karen Carpenter, the renowned singer of a famous family duo, died suddenly in 1983, the year my sister turned eighteen. The superstar's death brought the deadly truth of eating disorders onto the front page for the first time. But the story faded away quickly, and worse, now that my sister was "of age", my parents could not force Julie into treatment, although by now they knew she was in trouble.
In this new century, more research has been released on eating disorders,
and the relationship between anorexia and bulimia to other addictive
behaviors has been established; often the illness leads to alcohol, drug dependency, or both. Julie turned to alcohol to numb her thoughts; she felt "fat" no matter how perfectly proportioned and beautiful she appeared to others. The mirror became her enemy and any compliments were brushed off as false.
Throughout her twenties and into her early thirties, Julie somehow maintained a fašade of a normal life; nothing was more important to her than the good opinion of others. My parents tried countless times to intervene, and because Julie never turned away from their outstretched arms no matter how difficult or out of control her life had become, she did in fact respond. She entered various rehabilitation facilities for short periods of time, but was unable to remain in any one facility long enough to help manage her illnesses. And for Julie, too many years of near-starvation, combined with an excess of alcohol used in an effort to muffle the pain and chase away the fears-she knew just how ill she was-it was too late. She died of massive organ failure on February 27, 2003, at the age of thirty-seven, after nearly six weeks in hospice care, surrounded by her family. One of my younger brothers seldom left her room, sleeping nearby in a chair. My parents, my Dad over eighty at the time, spent their days at Julie's bedside, once even having to call for a snowplow to drive them to their daughter's side in her final days
Far more information is available now about the dangers of eating disorders, yet the numbers of very young girls and even adult women suffering from this disease are ever on the rise. The "pro-ana" groups and websites popping up almost daily, touting anorexia or bulimia as a "lifestyle, not a disease" are sickening and gut-wrenching to me. They even
use nicknames, depending on their "choice" of "lifestyle"; the anorectics
are called "Ana" and those who "opt" to binge and purge, "Mia".
We did not have this vast amount of information, studies and research data regarding eating disorders when my sister was catapulted into this horrifying and ultimately fatal cycle. Teachers, guidance counselors, school nurses, as well as parents, must be made aware of the signs of anorexia and bulimia, although the secrecy often makes it difficult to detect. But they also must be willing to speak up if they even suspect that a young girl is already suffering from an eating disorder, is dieting without obvious necessity, or just losing weight for no apparent reason.
My parents were aware and alert even before the medical community spent
any time or money studying this disease, yet they could not save Julie, in part because of the laws that prevented them to admit her into a rehab facility at age eighteen or nineteen, or even twenty-one, when her body was still young and strong and possibly capable of healing and rejuvenating. Even during Julie's final year of life, my mother begged physicians to rule Julie
incapable of making her own decisions about her care, but her heartbreaking letters were ignored.
And while far less frequent, boys too, are falling prey to eating disorders or "exercise "bulimia", a version of the disease that actress Jaime-Lynn Sigler, star of "The Sopranos," brought to the forefront when she admitted her long battle with the illness, as physical appearance continue to become increasingly more important in our culture, instead of less so. Although I do not intend to imply that eating disorders have, for many years, been overlooked by the medical and legal communities (often HMO's do not cover the lengthy treatment needed for possible recovery) because the disease primarily affects women, but perhaps if more boys and men were afflicted steps might have been taken sooner and my sister might still be alive.
In 2004, Eliot Spitzer spoke about eating disorders, with regards to the inadequate coverage provided by health plans and the denial of extended treatment to allow for the possibility of successful treatment plans.
Hilary Clinton was quoted by the Eating Disorder Coalition (eatingdisorderscoalition.org) as stating that eating disorders are "among the most lethal of all mental illnesses". May 1st is Eating Disorders Coalition Day; the group is lobbying for the "Eating Disorder Dream Bill". Their website offers invaluable information for anyone concerned with the disease, as we all should be.
But whatever it takes, eating disorders and the often accompanying alcohol and drug addictions are very real diseases, and I for one, would be overwhelmed with a sense of relief, if more attention from the media is forthcoming, if new legislation calls for greater coverage for sufferers, and if one young girl is saved from the terrible fate my sister Julie, and my family, have suffered. But one thing Julie did have going for her that many young girls may not; she always knew that her parents loved her and she always returned that love. I hope this is a comfort to my Mom and Dad.
As Hilary Clinton is famous for saying, it truly does take a village; we can all work to help curb the growth and severity of this illness just by opening our eyes and taking action.
Author's note: My oldest brother Dan died last August following a brain biopsy; his stunning death is a huge loss to animals everywhere and to the environment, as well as to his beloved wife, his family and dozens of close friends. My parents have suffered greatly and with a quiet dignity; they deserve comfort from any source possible. If word of Julie's death can save even one life, maybe, just maybe, they could gain some sense of peace.