Turning the Tables on Anorexia

At the age of 53, Judith Shaw finally realized that she had been suffering from an eating disorder for most of her adult life.  How she she got help — and found her calling

I was living what many consider a charmed life.  The suburban wife of a partner in a prominent New York law firm, I lived in a house overlooking Long Island Sound and sent my kids to private schools. Today — 58 years old and single — I live in a condo in St. Louis, Missouri where I am an  artist and yoga teacher — feeling joyful, sane and filled with purpose.

Itʼs a transformation that even I have a hard time getting my head around. What led to the about-face? The unexpected disintegration of my 33-year marriage and my admission that I was severely anorexic.

Having an eating disorder didn’t cause my divorce, but had to have played a part. For years, I rose at the crack of dawn to swim miles of laps. My mania interfered with everything — socializing, family vacations, meals and holidays. I was moody unless I got in several hours of exercise daily. Finding something I would eat was always an issue, whether we were at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Europe or the kidsʼ favorite pizza joint. Would there be something Mom would eat? became everyoneʼs concern. Yet no one said a word.

“Thatʼs just the way my mom was,” is what the elder of my two sons once said. Neither of the boys, now young men aged 25 and 30, are willing to share much about what it was like to put up with my eating disorder. It had to have been as toxic as it was for me.

After getting myself to treatment several years ago at age 53, while still in the throes of the divorce, I asked my husband if my anorexia contributed to his leaving me. “I donʼt know,” he said. “I donʼt know that much about eating disorders.”

Heʼs not the only one. Doctors in a position to recognize the tell-tale signs often miss them. My own case went unnoticed despite my suffering from anemia, low bone density, multiple bone fractures and a steady weight loss over a span of about 15 years. Not considered a disease of middle age, eating disorders are baffling. It takes specialists in the field to understand what goes on in the mind of someone with anorexia, bulimia or a binge-eating disorder and to know how to treat these illnesses effectively.

I myself was in denial for years. Always a healthy eater, I did all the things the myriad of lifestyle magazines, fitness gurus and health nuts advised. Skimping on food gradually became an obsession and, when coupled with excessive exercise, put my life at risk. Diet and exercise became my life. I lost interest in everything else and everyone else. Jokingly, I said my tombstone would read, “She died fit.”

It started in my late thirties as a desire to get in shape after having children. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom but found it challenging and at times unfulfilling, having left a position as senior vice president at a successful Madison Avenue PR firm. On the partnership track, my husband was preoccupied at work, leaving little time for me and the kids. Tacitly, I bought into this arrangement.

Grappling with inner angst and bouts of depression, I clung desperately to the attention and admiration I got from losing weight and reshaping my body. It provided a purpose, something I could master with the drive and dedication I put behind most things I tackle. In this way, the eating disorder disguised a deep-rooted sense of worthlessness and the fear, pain and shame associated with it. I have found no words to capture its vise-like grip.

Everything changed when I entered McCallum Place, an eating disorder treatment center in St. Louis. That was five years ago.  I was in residential treatment for two months and step-down levels of care for several weeks.  The program not only saved my life, it brought me back to life. Fully engaged in recovery and the infinite rewards of living.

To track my healing journey, I created a sculpture series called “Body of Work: The Art of Eating Disorder Recovery.” It began in treatment with a life-size paper tracing of my body that I made to explain the issues that contributed to my anorexia and the battle raging inside me. I never made art before, but today consider myself every bit an artist –  full of creativity and a passion to reshape not my body, but the way eating disorders are diagnosed and treated.

The fact that Columbia University Medical Center is exhibiting the work in March is a dream come true. Originally I wanted to crack the art world, but now I now see my workʼs value as a teaching tool for doctors. Washington University Medical School in St. Louis first approached it this way. Med students there were hungry for information about eating disorders. The sculptures present a case study in a way not accessible in the classroom, clinic or from textbooks.

My work also creates a space where important messages from the medical community can be heard: that millions of Americans suffer from eating disorders; that eating disorders are associated with high medical and psychiatric risks, including a high mortality rate. And, most importantly, that eating disorders can be successfully treated.

From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be a doctor. It is one thing I never followed through. It tickles me, though, that I found a way to get into medical school after all — as a teacher, if not as a student. I’m honored and overjoyed.

Editor’s Note: Judith Shaw is an artist and yoga teacher. Her exhibit: Body of Work: The Art of Eating Disorder Recovery has been featured at Washington University and will show at Columbia University Medical Center from March 16 through April 6, 2011. A former New Yorker, she currently resides in St. Louis, MO.

5 comments so far.

  1. avatar D C says:

    I worked for a woman who is anorexic.  I was on the other end of the spectrum — we made quite a pair.  She always talked about how healthy she was, how much exercise she got, always with the hint of how much “better” she was than everyone else if food was served at a meeting — “Oh, I never eat THAT kind of thing.” 

    She got colon cancer.

    So much for being so much healthier than everyone else. 

    She came through it  with flying colors — the kind of chemo she was on didn’t even take her hair, but she did have the very inconvenient ostomy surgery (which was reversed a year later when all had healed inside.) 

    Did I mention she was a mean-spirited woman as well? Well she was.  And we thought this might mellow her out.  But it didn’t.  I don’t believe her eating disorder caused her cancer, but would have thought that having been through that, one might decide that life IS short, and we should take time to enjoy it.  That doesn’t mean we binge.  And she was a self described gourmet cook who put on “fabulous dinner parties” by her own accounts.  I wonder how an anorexic can do that without losing their mind.  Putting on a table of lucious food, unable to stomach a bite (no pun intended). 

    • avatar Elza says:

      Clearly, you do not understand anorexia, or eating disorders, at all. An eating disordered individual cannot CHOOSE to enjoy luscious food – the eating disorder does not allow it.
      As the parent of an anorexic teen in recovery, I cannot begin to tell you what a misunderstood and heartbreaking disease this is. There are few communities with the resources required to treat this deadly and complicated disease, and even fewer general practitioners who recognize the symptoms. I was blessed to recognize my daughter’s situation very early on, and even more blessed to live in a part of the country where excellent resources are available.
      I suspect that your co-worker’s mean-spirited nature was a direct result of her eating disorder. Perhaps some compassion and education on your part, and less judgment, is in order here.

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I think our behavior towards food is motivated by several factors the attitude of food in our families, our own body image and our reaction to what happens around us. My father was military so we moved a lot and learned to eat what was local. We looked forward to ethnic specialties. None of us were overweight because food was a meal not a reward system or a token of love. We were active people so we didn’t have a chance to build up excess weight until adulthood. I knew people who exercised to the point of exhaustion never knowing it was a sign of anorexia or that that not eating was a disorder. Looking back I can see it was a way of controlling their circumstances. I often think that both anorexia and over eating can be a reaction to what is going on around us. I never had a weight problem until I became a caregiver for my father-in-law. Caring for him was exhausting. When I sat down to rest it was usually with a cup of tea. I’d add something to go with it thinking I needed to keep up my strength.  What I ended up doing was adding pounds from stress. I have come to think that the loss of control or freedom in our lives trigger food anxieties.

  3. avatar Anne Whitacre says:

    I would profer a guess that its caring about the loss of control  not the actual control.  There are many times when you can only “control” a portion of your life — when you’re unemployed, (for example) you can do only what you can do — but you can’t make someone hire you.  When you are living with an unhappy person, you can’t make them happy, but you can control how much their unhappiness influences you.  If you are caring for an ill parent, you can control your reaction to the distress, even as you can’t control the course of their illness.
    Learning to let go isn’t easy, and (for me) its not always successful, but one can slowly learn to discern where its important — and life giving — to just give up and allow some portions of your life swirl around you. 

  4. avatar Rho says:

    Not sure you will believe this, but I had this condition at the age of nine.  Wound up in the hospital, almost died.  I absolutely refused to eat or drink.  I finally came around, like a normal person, now I eat all I want, but do not gain weight.  I am very small and petite.