Photo courtesy of Daniela Buvat.
BY KATHERINE BAUER
Most 7-year-olds worry about learning how to add and subtract or sitting by their friends at lunch. For Olivia Orichiella, at 7 years old she was thinking about being an athlete in the best shape possible.
However, excessive training and comments about her weight turned her drive into an eating disorder.
“I’ve suffered with anorexia since I was 7-years-old,” the senior elementary education major said. “It’s always been that pressure of not being good enough.”
Orichiella explained that there were dreams of being a collegiate athlete in her future, specifically in soccer. She was also training as a triathlete by 7. Tennis, basketball, track and cross country were all added when she turned 11.
“(I was told), ‘You need to lose more weight so you can be the best’,” Orichiella said. “‘If you looked like that girl, you would be better.’”
The hard hours of training at 8 a.m. soon turned into unhealthy habits. Orichiella said she used laxatives to keep her weight down and avoided eating.
Orichiella pinpoints her eating disorder to this environment. Fourteen years later and she is still fighting to be in control.
“There’s that voice in my head,” Orichiella said. “She’s always there. She gets quieter, but she’s always there in the back of your head.”
Melissa Nord, who is a counselor at Drake’s health center, explained how eating disorders affect people’s mentality.
“The mind totally plays tricks on the individual with an eating disorder,” Nord said. “The individual might look into the mirror and see someone with curves and ‘extra weight’ when they’re really so sickly thin that their bones are poking through their skin and they are barely strong enough to stand. They truly do not see the true them.”
Orichiella explained that an eating disorder is not about losing weight. The desire to lose weight is a result of a mentality.
“The whole idea of food in general is terrifying,” Orichiella said. “Losing weight comes from a side effect of having that mindset and having those voices telling you all these things.”
Some people have the mentality that that they will reach a goal by not eating, Nord said.
“Sometimes eating disorders convince the individual that they don’t deserve to eat, for whatever reason,” Nord said. “Sometimes eating disorders convince the individual that if they do this one more thing (eat less, exercise more) then they’ll have everything they’re wanting.”
Anorexia had a detrimental effect on Orichiella’s body. Standing at 5 feet 10 inches, she dipped to 115 pounds at her lightest weight. Someone at that height with a healthy weight could weigh between 130 and 170 pounds, according to the BMI index.
As a result, Orichiella now suffers with osteopenia, making her bones extremely fragile. She also has bradycardia, causing her heart to beat right around 35 to 40 bets per minute.
She attributes the osteopenia to starving her body of nutrients needed to repair and take care of itself. She believes bradycardia developed from exercising excessively with so little for her body to produce energy from.
“My body is just destroyed,” Orichiella said.
Orichiella did not get help for her eating disorder until she turned 15. She saw a therapist after her parents divorced and said that is when her eating disorder was revealed to others.
“(People with eating disorders are) very good at not letting other people catch on about what’s happening,” Orichiella said. “We hide our behavior. Nobody ever knew I was suffering. The only way you could tell was because I was just a soul, just a skeleton. There was nothing living inside of me. I was dead.”
Even after her mother caught on, recovery did not come easily. Orichiella began receiving treatment at Linden Oaks, a behavioral health center. Staff closely monitored her to ensure she followed a meal plan and had the right caloric and nutrient intake. But Orichiella did what she could to avoid changing her habits.
“I was very defiant, refused to do anything,” Orichiella said. “Once anorexia is in power, it’s really hard to step out of it. I wasn’t really ready to recover at that time. That’s the most important part with going into treatment. If you don’t take it seriously, it’s not going to work.”
Orichiella was ready to go through treatment after collapsing one weekend during her senior year of high school. Now, due to her low heart rate, she is not allowed to exercise and she can fall asleep in the middle of the day.
“That’s been my biggest struggle,” Orichiella said. “It’s definitely very scary. There’s nights where I go to bed, there’s this legitimate fear I might not wake up the next morning because (my heart is) not working.”
Now, Orichiella is student teaching and working with her team to recover from the harm brought upon her body. A cardiologist, therapist, doctor and dietitian collaborate to help her. She is on a strict meal plan and has to have her heart and other vital signs monitored regularly.
In November, her dietitian told her she had a 70 percent chance of dropping dead due to her weak vital signs over a two week period.
“When you hear things like that, you think ‘What have I done?’ That shouldn’t be something that I have to worry about, having a heart attack,” Orichiella said. “I shouldn’t have to worry about that at 21 years old. But that’s what happens when you deprive yourself of food or water.”
Orichiella is still working to improve her health and repair her body. But she is using her story to bring awareness to eating disorders.
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is Feb. 26 through March 4. Orichiella took part in a photo shoot to show what it looks like to have an eating disorder.
“I wouldn’t wish this upon any of my worst enemies,” Orichiella said. “It’s like being at war with yourself constantly. You wake up and just feel so much hate for yourself and that never goes away.”
Orichiella also covered the mirrors up in several bathrooms on campus in the hopes that students will not focus on how they look.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) picked the theme: “It’s time to talk about it.” Orichiella takes that theme to heart.
“It’s something that has affected my life a lot personally, I’ve known too many people who ended up losing their life to an eating disorder,” Orichiella said. “It’s hard when you have that close connection with someone and they’re no longer there anymore because … they haven’t been getting taken seriously with their eating disorder. They weren’t able to get the help and the resources. That is just something that sort of has become my mission to get the importance and the seriousness behind it. I don’t want to lose anybody else. I feel like this is something that can be avoided. They didn’t need to die.”
Orichiella said that eating disorders remain a taboo topic. Nord said she sees the struggles people face when having a discussion about eating disorders.
“It’s hard for people to talk about eating disorders because of the shame,” Nord said. “These individuals are so embarrassed and ashamed of their behaviors. Others just don’t know how to talk about it. They don’t know what to say or what not to say, and they fear they’ll do more harm than good.”
Orichiella said people should avoid commenting about others’ bodies in general. She explained that her mind associates the word healthy with being overweight. People have also asked her why she does not simply stop “dieting.”
“I need people to understand the difference between a diet and an eating disorder because they’re not the same thing,” Orichiella said. “This is not something you choose. You don’t choose to have an eating disorder. You don’t choose to think this way.”
Nord said people who suspect their loved one may be suffering with an eating disorder should approach them gently and calmly.
“The best way to respond to someone with a suspected eating disorder is to talk with them in a calm, safe place where they won’t have distractions,” Nord said. “The person should be honest about his or her lack of knowledge and understanding surrounding eating disorders but assure the individual they are concerned about them and want to support them however they can.”
Nord said people should talk about specific behaviors they are noticing that make them concerned about their loved one, whether that is excessive exercising or going to the bathroom right after every meal, which could indicate purging or the use of laxatives.
“It’s important to hold them accountable for their behaviors but to also accept that the individual has to be ready to get help,” Nord said.
One misconception National Eating Disorders Awareness Week looks to abolish is the idea that an eating disorder has a certain look to it.
Orichiella explained that people with bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder often appear healthy due to the fluctuation between periods of excessive eating and purging.
Bulimia is “characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.” Binge-eating is different since it is “recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food,” according to the NEDA website.
“I just really want people to get the right information because these misconceptions that are around aren’t helpful to anyone,” Orichiella said.
While Orichiella continues on her road of recovery, she said she has to be honest about how she is doing and that sharing her story helps to keep her on track.
“If I’m not practicing what I’m preaching, I feel super hypocritical about it,” Orichiella said. “Being open about it has been the best part of my recovery because it holds me accountable.”
Orichiella said she will struggle with her eating disorder the rest of her life but that she can control it.
“I did lose my life to it,” Orichiella said. “A whole chunk of my life I spent suffering, I spent sick in hospitals. I can’t get those years back. But I can help prevent other people from missing out on what I missed out on.”
NEDA offers online screenings for people to determine if they need to speak with a professional about their potential for an eating disorder.
Orichiella has blogged throughout her recovery process.
Follow along at livelivblog.wordpress.com or on the Facebook page The Voices of ED: Finding Strength in Recovery.