As a teen, it wasn’t unusual for now 21-year-old Sophie Moon to be wide awake at 2 a.m. Sweating, her stomach burned with nausea so strong she’d spend entire nights tossing and turning in agony and depression, her body craving the one thing she wouldn’t give it: Nourishment.
After years as a gymnast in Sydney, Australia, Moon had succumbed to an eating disorder. The CSU exchange student abused laxatives after binge eating and then practically starved herself on the days she didn’t binge.
“I became consumed by it,” Moon said of her battle with what she considers bulimia.
With experts estimating that nearly one-third of women in the U.S. and two-fifths of the 550 people seen in the University Counseling Center at CSU in 2000 have suffered from some form of “disordered eating,” which includes both anorexia nervosa, bulimia, extreme dieting, restricting of foods, obsessive exercising and purging, this year’s upcoming National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is more relevant then ever. Without treatment, these disorders can ruin lives.
Moon knows this all too well.
Her confidence shines through her smile, healthy-looking figure and eagerness to succeed as a journalism major in a foreign country, all on her own.
But it wasn’t always like that.
“I was always angry and mad, and I couldn’t control myself. I wasn’t happy. It affected my mood, my studies and my relationships. I started doing drugs and partying- way too much.”
Her downward spiral started at age 15. Having been an elite gymnast on a national Australian team, she was used to the pressure to be thin from coaches and peers.
“Because there is a high rate of eating disorders among gymnasts, they never tell you directly to diet,” she said. “But they would strongly suggest when you shouldn’t be eating something.”
Moon managed to ignore most of the pushes to have the perfect body until a fellow gymnast’s comment sparked a reaction she couldn’t control.
“A 10-year-old I was training with innocently said, ‘Wow, you’re eating a lot of food,’ and that triggered something,” she said. “It first consumes you mentally and then it becomes a physical action.”
The problem worsened days later.
Stealing laxatives from her mother’s bathroom drawer, Moon would take up to six a day, three times the recommended amount, in an attempt to control her weight.
“I would wake up in sweats because of intense stomach pains,” she said. “I was nauseous 24/7.”
Her mother confronted her about the missing laxatives. She denied any serious problem and started buying her own. To this day, her mother remains unaware of Moon’s problems.
Experts say this lack of communication is common among women suffering from disordered eating.
“Once they get started, eating disorders can take on a life of their own,” said Chris Bachman, a registered dietician specializing in eating disorders at Hartshorn Health Services.
“They have disproportionate thoughts about food, weight and body. They isolate themselves and miss out on life.”
A combination of Moon’s abuse of laxatives, self-restrictions on food and binging caused her weight to fluctuate, but an overall loss of 12 pounds in two months was permanent. She received positive reinforcement from compliments on the lost weight and her improvements in gymnastics, a sport that requires both strength and a petite frame.
“I would eat toast for breakfast and maybe an apple for lunch,” she said. “Sometimes I would eat dinner but sometimes I would skip it.”
Moon would also binge on the weekends and occasionally during the week, leaving her constantly feeling guilty and depressed with disappointment in herself. These binges consisted of large portions and included foods like ice cream, chocolate or potato chips.
Moon’s sister said she noticed Sophie’s bad habits even though the disorder was never openly discussed in her family.
“She was really pedantic and obsessed saying things like ‘I can’t eat that’ or ‘No, I’ll just have this,'” said Aimee Moon, 19. “But then sometimes she’d eat a lot of really bad food and binge.”
Alternating between binging and restricting took its toll on Moon’s body and mind.
“My body was like a seesaw,” she said. “I didn’t like who I was and what I saw in the mirror.”
Adding to the pressures she said she felt of attending a prestigious private school, Moon’s habits soon became a serious disorder after gaining weight after quitting gymnastics at age 16.
“I went to a wealthy, private school with wealthy, beautiful girls who could afford personal trainers, and everyone had the perfect body,” she said. “I was obsessed with my yo-yo diet. I was always cranky because of my low blood sugar, I was always hungry and I was constantly defensive about eating.”
To cope with her growing problem and physical discomfort, Moon found an escape in drugs. Experimenting with speed, marijuana, ecstasy, numerous painkillers and alcohol became the norm. And the more she used them to cope, the more isolated she became.
“It was a stage in my life that was very secretive, and led to bad communication with my friends and family,” she said. “I knew what I was doing was wrong and destructive, but I didn’t care.”
The secrecy distanced her from friends and family, and took a toll on Moon’s relationship with her sister.
“I got angry at her without telling her,” Aimee said. “I felt like she was trying to take the easy road out.”
Despite Moon’s effort to conceal her disorder, she said friends could tell she was in trouble. After being confronted about her eating habits and moodiness at a party, Moon took the first steps toward recovery.
A gym teacher she confided in recommended she see a school counselor.
“I turned my denial into acceptance, knowing that what I was doing was not making my life any better,” she said. “Through the talking, I was able to get the guts to admit that I was putting too much energy into something I couldn’t control.”
The understanding of a healthy weight and ways to maintain it has also been key to Moon’s recovery.
“Eating disorders are multifaceted and very complex,” Bachman said. “Recovery can require physician, a therapist, a dietician and sometimes a psychologist. Each has their own expertise, and offer ways to let go of old, rigid thinking characteristic of an eating disorder.”
Moon is not alone in her struggles. Experts at CSU believe disordered eating is widely prevalent today, especially on campus. Statistics from the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD) Web site, www.anad.org, show that 86 percent of these disorders begin before age 20.
“The college setting exposes people to pressures to look a certain way,” said Steve Ross, a senior staff psychologist at the University Counseling Center. “It’s the right time in a person’s life for eating disorders to manifest.”
Ross recommends contacting either the UCC, Hartshorn Health Services or telling a close friend if struggling with any kind of eating issues.
The programs and activities offered throughout National Eating Disorder Awareness Week can also help.
“Recovery is real,” Bachman said. “I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t believe in recovery, but you need treatment for that to happen.”
According to Moon, America’s emphasis on appearance makes girls more susceptible here than they are in Australia. She first became aware of their popularity at CSU when she was asked by a couple girls if she wanted to learn how to make herself vomit.
“I was startled by the size of many of the girls here,” she said. “Some of the girls’ bodies at the gym make them look like they’re 12. You can see it in their eyes that they’re totally consumed with a disorder.”
Staff writer Margaret Canty can be reached at email@example.com.
Possible Graphic Suggestion: A profile shot of Moon now, looking normal and healthy. Also, a side bar of the upcoming week’s events.