Ulster County puts spotlight on eating disorders
Diana Golub was just 14 when the episodes began.
The Saugerties girl, a self-described perfectionist, would mostly restrict her food intake, almost starving herself. Her mother, Judith Golub, took her to a therapist, but 24 years ago, the condition known as anorexia wasn’t exactly understood by those in the mental health field. “He said it was just a phase,” said Golub. “So what happened is she started covering it up better.”
Not much has changed since Diana got married and moved to Virginia Beach, Va., where she works as a teacher in the culinary arts. At the age of 38, she still struggles with an eating disorder.
“It’s an addiction,” she said. “It’s something I have to cope with every day.” The disorder has moved from anorexia to observing a strict vegetarian diet to something her mother calls “exercising anorexia.” “Stress triggers it,” her mother said. “At one point, she was exercising two to three hours a day and was eating mostly salad. She was getting deathly sick. She looked like she was using drugs, and she was losing her hair.”
By the time Diana turned 33, she had lost almost two inches in height and was diagnosed with osteoporosis. As a parent, Golub had experienced frustration over the years by her daughter’s extreme eating patterns. Even more frustrating was the way insurance companies handled the condition—only adding to her pain. “Most won’t cover free-standing residential facilities,” she said. “They only want ones that are attached to hospitals. “They aren’t really looking at how this problem arises and how long it takes to do the repairs. They’re only looking for quick fixes,” Golub added.
It’s precisely people like Diana Golub that Ulster County Legislator Carl Belfiglio had in mind when he brought the issue of eating disorders before his fellow lawmakers in recent weeks.
For him, it was even more personal.
His daughter, Olivia Rose, a Saugerties High School student, suffered from bulimia and at one time, weighed as little as 107 pounds.
Though he lost her to a fatal accident on June 4, 2010, after she fell 100 feet from a cliff near Platte Clove Road, Belfiglio is now taking on the issue publicly.
He aims to shine the spotlight on eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating.. Continued...
They can cause serious physical problems and even be life-threatening, he said.
“We basically want Ulster County residents to know that the eating disorder problem affects over 10 million women in this country and 1 million men,” Belfiglio said.
“Once you get into the eating-disorder routine, it’s hard to stop. The victim usually feels the need to purge their meals just to feel better about themselves.”
The idea to bring greater awareness to the condition came together after his daughter’s friends reached out to him.
They had raised $2,000 selling bracelets in her memory and wondered what to do with the money.
Belfiglio recommended that the money go toward the Ulster County Eating Disorder Coalition, and the unexpected donation fired him up.
At his urging, Terry Bernardo, the chairwoman of the Ulster County Legislature, declared Feb. 26 through March 3 as Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
At the Feb. 21 monthly meeting of the legislature, Belfiglio recognized the Mental Health Association in Ulster County and the coalition for their work helping those affected by eating disorders.
It also opened a door for him to point out the lack of specialized outpatient treatment facilities in the county.
“Hopefully, the $2,000 raised…will be used to entice some health-related facility to come in for eating disorders,” he said. Continued...
Belfiglio’s story is a lot like Golub’s.
Olivia began binge eating at the age of 14. She came forward with her problem in a letter to her mother, he said.
“I attributed it to just the pressure that high school girls have to look good. I didn’t know that it was actually bulimia,” he said.
“By the time we found out, she was transported by ambulance to a treatment facility in Albany that was mainly for those with drug and alcohol problems. The insurance companies really thwarted our efforts to get her into a medical hospital,” he said.
Belfiglio had to travel as far away as Pennsylvania to get Olivia the treatment she needed.
She spent two stints at the noted Renfrew Center, the first residential eating disorder facility in the nation.
“She was in recovery and was actually doing much better,” Belfiglio said.
“Between the counseling and nutritionists, she made a decision that she was going to break the cycle. I was very proud of her,” he said.
Those who regularly look into the faces of people suffering from eating disorders know how difficult that can be.
“They’re complex physical, emotional and psychological conditions,” said Michele Bertelle, the community resource coordinator at the Ulster County Eating Disorder Coalition. Continued...
“They’re characterized by attitudes and behaviors that reflect a disordered relationship with food and eating and body image,” she said.
Those behaviors include self-starving, binging and purging.
“The body image piece is really significant, and I think that’s where we’re seeing some attitudes that are problematic,” Bertelle said.
“We are bombarded with media messages around beauty and thinness equating to success, and so, one of the startling facts that we spread is that American models are thinner than 98 percent of American women. So we’re looking at images that reflect a distorted ideal.”
Belfiglio agreed that the slick media images of women with tiny waists, firm butts and shapely legs put pressure on women, most of whom aren’t able to achieve the look.
“Less than 1 percent of women who try look like a model actually do. The models are digitally retouched to look more beautiful and thinner,” he said.
“It’s really out-of-whack. It’s kind of digitally engineering what the perfect person would look like.”
Bertelle said it’s important for parents to recognize the signs that their child may be harboring unhealthy feelings toward food.
Things like depression, anxiety, irritability or having a distorted body image might be clues, she said.
Other red flags include excessive exercising or constantly checking weight or caloric intake, she said.
“If you’re noticing laxatives in the trash, swollen glands, an end to menstruation after weight loss or sores or scars on knuckles or hands, that could be a sign,” Bertelle said.
Her advice to parents is to pay attention.
“A family member can best help their loved one by communicating their feelings. Help is possible and resources are out there,” she said.
One avenue is the weekly support group offered by the Mental Health Association in Ulster County.
Rita Sherry is the facilitator of the group that meets at 7 p.m. every Wednesday at Aaron Court in Kingston.
A large part of it is devoted to the family members and caregivers of those with eating disorders, she said.
“They are the ones dealing all the time with doctors or psychiatrists or nutritionists, so the focus of the group is how they’re coping with it, and the frustration they feel to not make their children better,” Sherry said.
Golub knows that all too well.
“You don’t ever get cured,” she said of people like her daughter, Diana.
“You are recovering, and as a parent, you do feel immensely powerless. It’s like you become a co-dependent when you watch your child go through this.”
For more information on the Ulster County Eating Disorder Coalition, call (845) 339-9090 or go to www.eatingdisordersny.com.
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