When Someday Melissa was just a glimmer of an idea – unformed, certainly unnamed – I remember saying maybe we could make a short film for parents or doctors about parental denial and the importance of recognizing the early signs of eating disorders. Never in my wildest dreams could I have pictured where I would be standing two years later.
Two days ago I stood at a lectern at the front of an auditorium filled with almost 100 doctors, medical students, nurses and other healthcare providers at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in Newark, NJ. Under the guidance of Dr. Diane Kaufman, an extraordinary program has been developed, Creative Arts Healthcare, with the idea that within each patient is a person. I learned from Dr. Kaufman that “when artistic expression is used to share and communicate, there can be a profound ‘heart to heart’ connection made which is a most needed addition to didactic learning alone.”
Dr. Elmer David, Director of Pediatric Continuing Medical Education, began the program by introducing Dr. Kaufman who is a child psychiatrist and board certified pediatrician. The mission of Creative Arts Healthcare, Dr. Kaufman informed the audience, is to “inspire and empower individuals to acknowledge, respect and transform the healing process through creativity, and its vision to transform on a day to day basis the medical culture by recognizing and valuing creative self-expression as essential to health, healing and humanistic care.”
I walked to the lectern and spoke about Melissa, her transition from a happy and healthy childhood and how body image issues ultimately led to the bulimia that took her life. That it was my greatest hope that hearing Melissa’s story and seeing Someday Melissa would help them gain a better understanding of eating disorders, their impact on families, and the importance of identifying early signs.
After a screening of Someday Melissa, Danna Markson, LCSW and co-executive producer of the film, addressed the rapt audience. She shared not only her knowledge gained from 18 years as a specialist in treating eating disorders, but also the history of her own severe eating disorder and that this year marked 20 years of recovery.
I then took the podium, and while understanding that it is often difficult for audiences when I return to speak after the film, there was more I needed to say. I spoke about how Melissa’s creativity provided an outlet for her emotions when she was unable to verbalize them. I described how the process of making the film gave me an extraordinary way to channel my grief and that it continues. I shared that one of the most difficult aspects of Melissa’s illness was how long it took before a diagnosis was made and that although my initial reaction when finally receiving the diagnosis was denial, we lost critical time in getting her into treatment, allowing the bulimia to become firmly entrenched. I needed to help them learn as much as possible about what it is like for someone battling a severe eating disorder and the impact on families.
The program was supposed to end at 10:30 sharp. It didn’t. The questions started, one after another until finally it had to conclude. One of the physicians said that in all his years of attending programs and lectures he’s never seen a more gripped and attentive audience. People came up afterwards to ask us more questions.
I won’t pretend any of this is easy for me. It’s not, and I’m incapable of staying in the room when the film is being shown. It’s unbearable for me. But I’m determined to continue to speak out, to raise awareness, to share Melissa’s words and her dreams to help bring eating disorders out of the darkness. Being able to speak to a room full of healthcare providers, many of them pediatricians and students, was a gift. Thank you Dr. Kaufman, Dr. David and UMDNJ for making this happen. ~ Judy