Robin Murray was in her 40s when the eating disorder she battled as a teenager and young adult came roaring back.
Suddenly, she returned to the destructive behaviors of her youth — restricting, bingeing on and purging food, plus overexercising to compensate for any calories she managed to keep down.
During her earlier battle, which lasted 15 years, Murray went through several different treatment facilities and once came close to death because she had become so thin.
"I got a lot of positive attention for losing weight, even though I wasn't overweight," she recalled. "Ironically, my major (in college) was psychology. I understood my disorder, I just couldn't change it."
Then someone suggested she try a Tampa counseling center that helped people establish a healthy relationship with food and slowly transition back into everyday life. While there, she was introduced to a 12-step program similar to the one used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups that help people with addictions.
"That's when it clicked," she said. "I was able to apply those principles to food and realized it was something I couldn't control. I went to meetings for years."
Murray was 30 before she finally found a path to recovery.
But then her support group lost its meeting place, so the members lost touch. Serious medical problems struck her family — she was now in her 40s and the mother of two young children — and the stress and anxiety became too much. Murray coped by returning to the familiar cycle of restricting, bingeing on and purging food.
A couple of years before the relapse, Murray, now 48 and living with her family in Safety Harbor, had become active in groups dedicated to increasing awareness of eating disorders. She befriended Cherie Monarch, a volunteer and board member with the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. Murray called on Monarch to help her find a treatment facility as close to home as possible.
Monarch, a Tarpon Springs mother and business owner, has been heavily involved in advocacy for those affected by eating disorders. One of her daughters was diagnosed with anorexia at age 15; it continued into her college years. Getting her into life-saving treatment and eventually into recovery was a long, difficult process. She turned the experience into a crusade to help others.
To help Murray, Monarch consulted the Florida Eating Disorders Treatment Referral Guide, published by the alliance since 2010. Alliance founder and CEO Johanna Kandel wanted to create a resource that did all the legwork and research for people seeking treatment.
"For our first guide, it took over two years to whittle down a list of 1,000 practitioners in Florida to 160 who specialized in treating eating disorders," said Kandel, who suffered from an eating disorder for 10 years, starting at age 11.
"Now," she said, "we have 290 practitioners in the guide, and last year sent out 15,000 copies to hospitals, mental health agencies, doctor's offices, legislative offices, schools and colleges." The guide accepts no paid advertising, and clinicians do not pay a fee to be included.
The alliance plans to launch a digital version of the guide on a new interactive website (findedhelp.com) this month. It will contain all the Florida practitioners as well as a comprehensive list of treatment centers nationwide. It also will include critical information such as the types of health insurance each practitioner accepts and if they offer a sliding fee scale for those without insurance.
"On the new website we'll also have a video explaining how to advocate for yourself to get insurance coverage for treatment," said Kandel. That's because most insurance companies don't cover in-patient treatment for eating disorders or don't cover it for more than a few days or weeks. Effective treatment often takes several months.
According to the alliance, about 25 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. The most common are anorexia (starving), bulimia (eating large amounts of food and purging, vomiting or using laxatives) and binge eating disorder (eating large amounts of food without purging).
While women make up the majority of those with eating disorders, about 25 percent are men. Eating disorders tend to run in families and in many cases are thought to be genetic.
Once Robin Murray completed treatment and returned home, she again turned to the Florida treatment guide to find doctors, counselors and nutritionists in the Tampa Bay area who could support her through recovery.
On March 5, the alliance is hosting an awareness and fundraising walk in Tampa to help cover the costs of the 2017 treatment guide, due out in April. Any additional funds raised will be used to start support groups in the Tampa Bay area for people with eating disorders, their families and friends.
The groups will be fashioned after those held at the alliance's headquarters in West Palm Beach, which are free and led by trained clinicians who receive a stipend for their time. There are groups for adolescents, teens, young adults, men and women, as well as for family members and friends.
Murray, Monarch and Kandel say having such support is key to a lasting recovery.
"I now know that in times of transition and trauma, you need extra support," said Murray, who now has a network of friends she checks in with regularly to stay healthy.
"Recovery doesn't mean you're cured; there is no cure. But recovery is absolutely possible."
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]