Eating disorders know no age

July 7, 2008

Jen and Erin Tormanen of Dassel talk about their struggles with an eating disorder

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Jen Tormanen of Dassel knows just how difficult it is to fight a life-threatening disease, and how important a support system is to provide strength in order to conquer it.

Jen never had issues with eating or body weight. It wasn’t until she felt her life spinning out of control that things started to change.

The family of six, which includes husband, Erin, Jen, and their four girls, moved from Cokato to their new home in Dassel in August of 2005.

Paying two mortgage payments every month over 10 months, Jen was feeling the financial stress. This, combined with family issues, triggered Jen’s need for control in her life.

She turned to food – or lack there-of – and excessive exercising, which were the two things in her life she knew she could control.

“[Anorexia] is not about food, it’s about control,” she said.

Tormanen began restricting her food intake and exercising whenever she could, which took her mind off of the other areas in her life.

“My goal wasn’t to become super skinny. My goal was to become supremely healthy and fit,” Jen said.

Jen found herself over-exercising, mainly going on several walks and jogs every day. She would also wear ankle and wrist weights throughout the day.

“I was always looking for a reason to exercise – something to distract me from the eating process and the money issues,” she said.

With the financial restraints, Jen limited herself from any type of “treats.” For example, she would no longer purchase that Coke from the gas station she would normally buy.

Then it became, “Do I deserve to have that Coke?” Jen said.

“Eating disorders are very sly about taking care of others before yourself,” she said.

Erin, recalls her cooking delicious meals for the family, but she, herself, wouldn’t eat them.

“She knew what to feed her family to keep us healthy and fit, but she chose different food items for herself,” Erin said.

In the midst of her eating disorder, Jen was diagnosed with a hyperthyroid.

She was convinced by a health professional to go on a cleansing diet while continuing her exercise regimen.

Her limited food intake consisted of a meal replacement shake, fruits, vegetables, and on occasion, fish.

Erin says that’s when the eating disorder really kicked in, as she was reinforced by the information she was receiving through her hyperthyroid diet plan.

Since the brain wasn’t being nourished because of the diet and over-exercising, Jen was unable to comprehend the orders being given by the health professional and the effects they were having on her body and mind.

“She wasn’t able to ask the right questions,” Erin said, making her more susceptible to the eating disorder.

As a swimming coach, Erin knew his wife’s calorie intake didn’t match the amount of calories she was burning through her exercise plan.

He knew Jen was losing too much weight, but he would second guess himself because the health professionals approved.

Continuing recovery

Finally, in September, Erin saw her walking across the yard. At 5’5’’ and weighing somewhere between 91 and 92 pounds, Jen was nothing but skin and bones.

Erin told her he was planning his life without her because she was killing herself.

“I didn’t know how else to tell her,” he said.

Those words struck Jen like a lead balloon and she took it upon herself to begin looking for treatment programs.

She admitted herself in to Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital’s outpatient treatment program for eating disorders in October. In January, she began going to outpatient treatment every day.

It was a long and intense program for her, but she and her family learned a lot about eating disorders.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” Jen said.

She found that her support group was made up of women and men of all ages.

This is not just a teenage disease. In her group was a woman in her 60s, a school teacher in her 50s, and even a 22-year-old male.

Not only has the eating disorder program helped with the food aspect, but getting down to the root causes of the disorder as well, Jen said.

“Much of it comes down to honoring yourself,” she said.

After being a wife for 17 years and a mother for nearly 16, Jen began to realize she was more than just a wife and mother.

The program at Methodist Hospital teaches those suffering from eating disorders to concentrate on moderation without restricting themselves which can lead to binge eating. Portion sizing is also taught.

“They want us to be able to eat moderate amounts of what we want . . . and take back some of those forbidden foods,” she said, though admitting this is still hard for her.

A meal plan is set up with the goal of following it 100 percent, she said. The plan includes eating a certain amount of each food group every day.

“I’m not to that point yet,” she said, explaining the importance of a support group.

She continues her outpatient treatment two to three times a month, and receives the rest of her support from home.

Jen says without the support of her husband and four girls, it would be tough for her to recover.

Emotionally Jen says she has cleared many cobwebs and is focused on today and her future.

There are still those days when she struggles with not wanting to eat, or knowing what she is hungry for.

“Recovering has been the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she said.

Jen’s dietician is positive of her recovery, but tells her she still has a little ways to go.

“I’m not exactly sure what that means, but they will let me know when I get there,” she said.

In need of support

Being on the other side of the disease can be almost as difficult, especially when it is a spouse.

“For one, you are watching a loved one going through something you don’t really understand. Once you do realize what’s going on, it becomes very clear that the help she needs is out of your control,” Erin said.

From the perspective of a support person, eating disorders are very common and there are stereotypes and misleading information on what causes them and who gets them, Erin said.

With each story different, it takes a lot of work on both sides to determine what’s wrong and what loved ones can do to help.

“The one thing I’ve learned as a support person, there is nothing we can physically do to make her eat or make her want to eat, she has to do that on her own. All we can do is be there for her, encourage her, and be patient,” Erin said.

Recovery is a long process, but the ultimate goal is to have Jen be able to see food the way she used to see food, he said.

A support person also has to realize the triggers for a person with an eating disorder.

“She can be having a great day and then something will trigger her to second-guess her treatment and her progress,” Erin said.

“It makes it hard to anticipate how her day is going to go,” he added, explaining people with eating disorders go through a lot of ups and downs.

Erin even noted there was one woman in Jen’s group who was there for her second time after living a normal life post-treatment.

All it took was a trigger, he said. Someone told the woman, “Boy, are you looking good.” To some, this may have been a compliment, but hearing this caused the woman to think she was gaining weight in a negative way, bringing her back to where she was before treatment.

In treatment, they call this the ED Voice.

This is how Jen explains the ED Voice: “The ED voice is very hard to explain. It’s a thought that is in my mind that is convincing enough to make me look at food, activity, and relaxation in an unhealthy way.

It also tries to isolate me from those that support me. ED tells me that recreational foods such as desserts and snacks are ‘not necessary’ and I don’t deserve to eat them. ED is very ‘pushy’ with exercise and high activity levels.

The urge to be active is so great that all I want to do is go out for a run. Every time I sit down to relax, the ED thoughts tell me that I need to be up and moving or else I am unproductive, lazy, and letting down my family.”

In a way, eating disorders are analogous to an alcoholic, except that an alcoholic can live without alcohol, but a person with an eating disorder can’t live without food, Erin explained.

“They have to look at food the way they used to look at food, and that’s the challenge,” he said.

‘Don’t be afraid to ask’

There are several contributing factors to what brings about the onset of eating disorders, and for each person, they are different, according to Erin.

One factor Erin attributes is the media and its conflicting messages.

For example, the media reports America having an obesity problem and advises people what they should and shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the other extreme with the idea that in order to be beautiful, one has to be skinny.

Jen advises people to be confident in who they are and their body image. That includes their body’s shape, size, and weight, she said.

“And not trying to be someone you’re not,” she added.

When it comes to food, Jen advises eating in moderation and listening to one’s body.

“Your body will tell you what you want. It knows what you need,” Jen said.

“And don’t be scared of food,” she added.

A person can lead a healthy live if they eat food in moderation and exercise in moderation. So many foods are labeled “bad” and that one shouldn’t eat them, Erin explained.

“There is no junk food, it’s recreational food,” Erin said. “Some things we eat are not necessarily a nutritional food, but we eat them for enjoyment,” he said.

From the support end, Erin suggests not being afraid to ask the question if you see someone losing weight.

“The problem is, people avoid saying something,” he said.

Erin also wishes he would’ve paid more attention to make sure his wife didn’t lose her identity.

He explained that when a woman becomes a wife and a mother, many times, life becomes routine for them.

“It’s the woman in the relationship who becomes the family servant, rather than a participant in that family,” he said.

Now, the couple spend more time going on dates.

“Just because we’re 40 doesn’t mean we can’t date,” he said.

“Spending more time as a family is one of the best ways to keep the eating disorder voice at bay,” Erin said.

Sharing her story

The day of June 24, was a bit of a “whirlwind” for Jen and Erin.

Jen received a phone call from the director of the Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute.

He informed her of a call he received from the Fox morning show, Mike and Juliet. The show’s producer was looking for someone who would talk about their eating disorder story.

Since she had communicated so well in her support groups, he recommended Jen.

With a family and other obligations, Jen thought there was no way she could just pick up and go to New York for a show the next morning.

She was given 45 minutes to decide and to “get her ducks in a row,” she said.

Then, “I told myself, ‘Of course you’re going to go,’” Jen said.

The show also invited her husband, Erin, to come along to sit in the audience. But after a 20-minute phone interview, the producer realized the importance of a support person’s story as well, and invited Erin to come on the set.

The couple flew out that evening at 8:30 p.m. and the following morning, Jen and Erin were sharing their story live on national television.

On air, Jen and Erin told both sides of the story and of the struggles they both encountered.

They both talked very matter-of factly, and when their segment was done, Erin and Jen both said to each other how right it felt.

For Jen, the show was a chance to help people who have an eating disorder, or those who don’t know they have one yet.

“It was also a huge step in my own recovery – to be so frank to everyone who was watching,” she said.

Jen is not ashamed of her disease. She sees it as part of her life journey.

Through her recovery from her eating disorder, Jen has uncovered a whole new spiritual side of herself and a whole new spiritual world.

Though she’s always been a Christian, she’s never explored the “depths” of it.

“So this is a blessing in disguise,” she said. “There is more to faith and spirituality than I had thought.”

Together, the couple is writing a book about their story. Through the treatment and recovery process, Erin and Jen found little resources regarding eating disorders for the support side of it.

They hope through their book, they will fill that void.

How to get help

Jen started looking online and researching about eating disorders to see if she even had one.

She found she fit every criteria. After trying to correct the disorder through her main doctor, Jen found her brain was not willing to cooperate with her desire to get better.

Then, she began looking at other treatment options when her sister, Renee, gave her information about the Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute.

Jen spoke with her doctor, who said, “If my daughter had an eating disorder, this is exactly where I would send her.”

The nationally well-known program has a variety of treatment options with customized programs for each individual, Jen said.

“My support team is awesome,” she said.

Her outpatient support team consists of a medical doctor, dietician, therapist, and occasionally a physical therapist.

To learn more about Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital Eating Disorders Institute, visit www.parknicollet.com/Methodist/edi.

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