February 26, 2009
Death brings eating disorder to life
College hosts parents who share story of daughter’s struggle with bulimia
Andrea Smeltzer pleaded with a friend to defeat anorexia, to stop worrying about being thin, to listen to her doctor.
She wrote that her friend was strong and had her support. She did not acknowledge her own growing obsession with exercise and diet until four weeks later, when she made herself throw up for the first time.
“I feel clean now, pure,” she wrote in a journal. “I feel thinner. I know it’s sick and compulsive but I also know an eating disorder is the only thing that will work for me.”
The 19-year-old college sophomore would eventually die from the effects of bulimia, unable to fight her hatred against her own body, her parents told an audience Wednesday evening at SUNY Cortland’s Corey Union Function Room.
“That purging was a step over the line,” Doris Smeltzer said.
Doris and Tom Smeltzer travel the nation from their home in Napa, Calif., speaking about the complexity of eating disorders and the denial and obsession that ended their daughter’s life.
Their talk, titled “Andrea’s Voice: Silenced by Bulimia,” was part of Body Awareness Week at the college, which is focused on educating women about being healthy. The sponsors include Delta Phi Epsilon and Alpha Sigma Alpha sororities, Residence Life, athletics and the Office of Health Promotion.
The events will continue today with a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil at Corey Union’s Exhibition Lounge, organized by Delta Phi Epsilon.
“This campus does more than any other to help students with this,” Tom Smeltzer told the crowd of about 180, mostly students.
Eating disorders are “prevalent on this campus,” said Billie Jean Goff, a counselor in the SUNY Cortland counseling center. “I think people have become almost desensitized to it. It seems normal, which is sad, because this is deadly.”
Some audience members were men. Doris Smeltzer said between 10 and 30 percent of people with eating disorders are male.
The Smeltzers, who manage a nonprofit called Andrea’s Voice Foundation (www.andreasvoice.org), began by showing a montage of images from their daughter’s life, then showing how her bulimia developed and what can be done to help people with eating disorders.
They alternated between Doris exploring the psychology and health side and Tom reading passages from Andrea’s journals and letters.
An eating disorder has many symptoms and goes far beyond just how little or how much a person eats, the Smeltzers said. They did not see the signs of bulimia in Andrea, the younger of their two daughters, until the final months.
Even then, they denied it almost as much as she did.
As a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., Andrea wrote journal entries about feeling undesired by men. She began to work out and diet obsessively, seeking a slender body that her mother says exists only in advertising and magazine covers — a body that is unrealistic.
The Smeltzers think they played a role, as they both dieted and exercised. People with eating disorders often take their cue from those around them, including people who comment about how their bodies look.
They also did not see Andrea’s black-and-white view of the world, her perfectionism. Her goal-driven personality hid that.
She finished her bachelor’s degree in two years and wanted to change the world.
“Andrea did not see that she also had a disease,” Doris said. “She thought she was just (physically) sick.”
Later, when they realized Andrea was ill, the family tried to help her. Doris said she was ashamed for her daughter.
A resident advisor in her residence hall, Andrea told her resident director about her illness. But the director thought she would defeat it, because she herself had defeated an eating disorder.
“We do not blame ourselves,” Doris said. “We made mistakes. We do know we are wiser because of what Andrea taught us.”
Toward the end, Andrea said her body was aching as if in protest, yet she did not consider it part of her.
Her mother noticed that she was constantly cold, constipated and had long, feathery eyelashes — all signs that her body was struggling.
She told her sister that dieting was her only vice. Three days later, she was dead.
She died in her sleep on June 16, 1999, from an electrolyte imbalance.
“Andrea looked the picture of health,” Doris said. “She had lustrous red hair, green eyes. She had reached her target weight.”
The Smeltzers told the audience to watch for any symptom of an eating disorder, because a person does not always show all of them. Friends should intervene, they said.
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