As I quietly opened the theater door at the end of the last screening of Someday Melissa at the California Independent Film Festival, I could see the last image of Melissa scrolling on the screen as the final credits ran. It’s a black and white video clip of Melissa, laughing at the camera as she sat on a staircase. I don’t remember exactly when the video was made. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was a time when she was happy. A time before she was crushed by the bulimia and depression that ultimately took her life.
That’s how I like to remember her.
There was total silence for half a minute before the lights were turned on. I was grateful for those 30 seconds that would allow the audience time to catch their breath. As the lights came on, I walked to the front of the theater. I knew from past screenings that there would be a lot of questions, but they wouldn’t come for a few minutes. So I began to speak. I told them that I understood the impact that Melissa’s story, my family’s story, is having on audiences. Jeff Cobelli, the remarkable young man who directed the film was standing beside me and I told them how the idea for making the film was born and how we met.
I told them about the impact that Someday Melissa is having on the world of eating disorders. About the emails I get from around the world: from Germany, England, Australia, Chile and more. From across the country. From people who had been struggling in silence but Melissa’s story finally gave them the courage to tell someone. From others who finally admitted they had a problem and reached out for help. And from others who were inspired by Melissa’s dreams of “Someday…” and how her story had given them encouragement and the determination to keep fighting. Given them hope. I told them about the messages of recovery. From people who continue to write to tell me of their recovery and the healthy lives they’re living that they never dreamed possible.
The first hand tentatively went up and then others followed, one after another. What advice would I give other parents at the start of the journey? How can we get the message into schools? Why are eating disorders so difficult to treat? I was asked what the process of making the film was like for me and Jeff was asked what it was like to film such emotional interviews. The questions continued. I told them to download the Parent, Educator, Coach & Athletic Trainer Toolkits that have been developed by the National Eating Disorders Association and give copies to their children’s teachers, guidance counselors and coaches.
There were several therapists in the audience who treat eating disorders. I deferred to their expertise in responding to some of the questions since I make it clear that I’m a mom, not a professional. One of the most powerful moments, echoed by others, was when one therapist expressed her gratitude that Someday Melissa is a documentary about bulimia, because most films are about anorexia and people don’t understand how deadly bulimia is.
It had to be about bulimia.
That was Melissa’s story.
A few weeks ago a high school student in Indiana contacted us about hosting a screening of Someday Melissa for her senior project. I had several email exchanges with Jane, a remarkable young woman, and received a lovely note from her mother as well. They both made comments about the impact of eating disorders on the entire family.
Yesterday morning, a Google Alert led me to a powerful article written by her father, Mark Baldwin, Editor of The Republic in Columbus, IN.
Reprinted with permission:
Openness about eating disorders overdue.
Although we don’t exactly shout it from the rooftop, my family never has hidden the experience of our middle daughter’s struggle with anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that leads some people — and especially smart and pretty young women — to starve themselves.
Very often, the conversation produces a flash of understanding.
There was the baseball executive. The City Council member back in Wisconsin. The fellow parishioner. The neighbor. The casual professional acquaintance.
All had firsthand experiences with eating disorders.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
After all, the theme of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, to be held Feb. 26 to March 3, is “Everybody Knows Somebody.”
Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, pegs the number of Americans battling a form of the illness — anorexia or one of its evil cousins, bulimia or binge eating disorder — at 24 million, a figure that dwarfs the number of those suffering from, for example, Alzheimer’s disease, estimated at about 5.4 million in 2011.
Some estimates put the eating disorders number as high as 30 million.
“The piece that’s missing is ‘eating disorders not otherwise specified,’” Grefe says. “That’s probably where most people are.”
To put it simply, that means sufferers are prone to bouncing pinball-fashion from anorexia to bingeing to bulimia.
Here’s one more fact to make you shiver: The mortality rate for eating disorders is higher than for any other mental illness, with death typically resulting from medical complications or suicide. And anorexic patients remain at higher risk for premature death for years after treatment.
One key to reducing the awful toll is to raise public awareness. Ignorance of eating disorders, their warning signs and their long-term effects is widespread. Teachers, coaches, physicians and plenty of others who ought to know, don’t
And that brings me to Daughter No. 3, a clever and articulate lass named Jane, who was required by circumstances beyond her control to transfer to Columbus North High School before her senior year. With the change of schools, of course, came the requirement that she produce a senior project.
Almost on the fly, Jane decided to draw a positive result from the experience of her sister’s illness and make eating disorder awareness the focus of her project.
One result of her work will be on display at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Bartholomew County Public Library, where Jane will screen a documentary called “Someday Melissa,” the story of Melissa Avrin, a New Jersey woman who died three years ago at 19 after a grueling battle with bulimia. The movie was produced by Melissa’s mom, who resolved to make something good come out of her daughter’s death.
The documentary will be followed by a question-and-answer session with a representative of the Coalition for Overcoming Problem Eating at Indiana University in Bloomington.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by Jane’s choice of topic. The two sisters are best friends — except, of course, when they’re mortal enemies. They’re very different, but their bond is unbreakable.
Her sister’s ordeal has been a significant influence on Jane’s teenage years. Like alcoholism, eating disorders distort family routines nearly beyond recognition as the illness exerts a centripetal force that draws all things to it.
Life in a household struggling with an eating disorder can be isolating. After all, who else understands that for the sufferer, “dinner” can be a few strands of chicken breast and a lettuce leaf?
Let me rephrase that. It was isolating — until it became clear just how many families out there have dealt with the same thing.
That’s why I’m writing today. If an eating disorder has wrapped itself around someone you love — or if you simply want to learn more — head to the library on the 16th.
A six-week hospital stay provided Daughter No. 2 some valuable tools for coping with her illness, though eating remains a high-anxiety endeavor. A sharp, sympathetic therapist in Bloomington has made a difference. Still, you can’t wave a magic wand to make an eating disorder vanish.
If you know what I mean, we should talk.
Mark Baldwin is editor of The Republic. Reach him at 379-5665 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkFBaldwin.
The article can also be found on: The Republic’s website