Bailey Monarch tries to downplay the story of her battle with anorexia. The way she tells it, she was 15, dealing with a lot of stress at school. Food seemed like the one thing she could control. But before long, she couldn't. e_SsnS After a few months of struggle, she and her parents got help at a treatment program. Back at home in Tarpon Springs, they continued following the protocol they had been taught. It was tough, but Bailey, now 17, returned to a healthy body weight with a new attitude toward food. e_SsnS That's how Bailey tells the story of how she nearly died.
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Cherie Monarch, Bailey's mother, can't tell the story without weeping.
"It was a nightmare," she says.
Bailey, a hard-working, college-bound student, lost 35 percent of her body weight in five months, and she was petite to start with.
Her fingers and toes turned blue from lack of circulation. Her hair fell out. She became paralyzed on her right side.
The longtime ballet student couldn't even walk.
"I knew I needed to stop it and I didn't know what to do," Monarch says. "I was desperate to save her life."
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Bailey says it all began in the spring of 2009. At first she just wanted to eat a more healthy diet. Then she just wanted to lose a little weight. Her mom remembers, "It was just 5 pounds at first; okay, no problem. But before I knew it, she was down 20 pounds."
At school, Bailey threw her lunches away. She ate only tiny amounts in front of her family. She became obsessed with counting calories. It was, she says, almost like another person was inside her body, "telling you, no, don't eat. You're so fat. You need to lose weight."
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In late July, Bailey and her college-age sister went to visit their grandmother. Big sister began texting Mom that Bailey was hardly eating. She lost 7 more pounds during that nine-day visit.
Monarch consulted with Dr. Pauline Powers, a psychiatrist and director of the USF Center for Eating and Weight Disorders in Tampa. Powers told Monarch to line up several specialists, including a counselor for Bailey, one for Monarch and her husband, and a nutritionist. Monarch put terror aside and got busy. "I threw everything at it that I could think of, but it was like a snowball rolling down the hill. Once it started there was no way to stop it.''
Bailey continued to lose weight. By early December, her doctor said her condition was so bad she would have to be hospitalized.
Facing the prospect of a long in-patient program that had Bailey fearing she wouldn't graduate on time, Monarch looked for another way. She scoured the Internet, talked to more experts and eventually found an intensive, one-week program in California that uses the Maudsley Approach to focus on both patients and their families.
Three days later, Bailey, her mom and dad were on their way to San Diego.
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Powers says almost 2 million people in the United States will develop anorexia at some point in their lives, defined by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. She estimates that in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, a staggering 29,000 females and more than 10,000 males will be affected.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 11 million Americans of all ages suffer from anorexia and bulimia, the dangerous cycle of secretly overeating then purging, most commonly through vomiting, laxative abuse or over-exercising. NEDA estimates that eating disorders take nearly half a million lives each year.
Powers says Bailey fit the anorexia profile perfectly: a white female, around 15 years old, who has obsessive behaviors — for example, getting perfect grades at school or winning competitions.
Bulimia tends to strike women in their late teens to early 20s. But men and boys are increasingly affected, too, and eating disorders also are getting more frequent among women in their 40s and 50s. The exact cause of eating disorders remains elusive, but experts think there is often a genetic connection. A girl with a sibling or parent who had or has anorexia is 12 times more likely to develop an eating disorder herself.
High achievers of all kinds, and athletes in sports where weight is a big deal, may be particularly prone to anorexia. Powers can't hide her outrage when she remembers visiting a Kentucky Derby museum that displayed the pictures of jockeys who had died because of eating disorders.
Bailey had no family history of the disease. Her mother thinks it was triggered by stresses such as switching from a small private school to a much larger public high school. Plus, Bailey took a number of advanced placement and honors classes and participated in several extracurricular activities, including dance classes, for several hours almost every evening.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel academically, to do everything that I did very well," says Bailey.
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It took about a year and a half for Bailey to get from diagnosis to recovery. Her mother says the program in California saved her daughter's life, but adds that Bailey's own determination to get well was the key.
Now Bailey is focused on reaching others who may not know where to turn for help. She speaks publicly about her experience and has organized the bay area's first National Eating Disorders Association awareness walk and fundraiser (see sidebar for details).
She's still college-bound, but has a new career goal in mind: to become a psychiatrist specializing in eating disorders.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.