Through thick and thin

Having recovered from an eating disorder, local woman starts Harrisonburg support group

Posted: October 12, 2012

Some people have midlife crises. But at 40 years old, Nicole Yoder is experiencing a midlife recovery.

She’s battled anorexia and bulimia since age 16, stemming from a warped image of self-worth. “It started out with depression and feeling like there wasn’t anything special or unique about me,” she remembers. “I came to the conclusion that if I lost weight, it would make me special — if I were thin.”

Finally stable, Yoder seeks to help others who may still be in the thick of their battles. On Oct. 15 from 7-8 p.m., a eating disorders support group will gather in Parkview Mennonite Church’s downstairs Room 12 – the first of weekly meetings for those dealing with eating disorders.

Filling a local need

At the start of her struggle, the words “eating disorder” weren’t in Yoder’s high school vocabulary. What she did know, however, was a deep sense of shame and isolation.

The walls continued to close in in college, despite seeing a counselor and psychiatrist. “It’s a lonely, lonely disease. You’re ashamed, you can’t eat with people; it’s just a very closed and insular,” Yoder says, cupping both hands over her face. “It’s all you think about. As much as I hated that, it’s still very hard to want to get better ... it has you wrapped around its little finger.”

After resigning from medical school and checking in and out of inpatient treatments, she was finally diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 30.

But resources for peer support in the Harrisonburg area are lacking, she says. “I’ve always thought, if I could in some way help somebody, and redeem all the pain I’ve been through, it’ll be worth it. I feel like I’ve been through so much, and I want to use that in a way that’ll help other people.”

Yoder’s nutritionist and registered dietitian, Deborah Dunn-Frederick, says she sees on average four to eight clients per month presenting eating disorders.

According to Shirley Cobb, associate director at James Madison University’s counseling center, five percent of the women they see show signs of an eating disorder.

Dunn-Frederick says she, too, sees a need for support outside of closed institutions. “There are experts in the area for eating disorders, however, several may already be working with one of the colleges and only available to students attending the college.”

Speaking up and out

Sufferers of eating disorders are often misunderstood, Yoder says. “It’s a very frustrating disease to have, also for the people who care about you. It’s so simple: just ... eat,” she says. “But that’s the hardest thing to do.”

There’s no wrong time to express care for a friend, says Cobb. She recommends using “I” statements to approach the touchy subject, such as “I’m concerned and puzzled by what I’m seeing.”

Being preoccupied with food habits or exercise are warning signs to watch for, Cobb explained. “Typically, eating disorders are an attempt to exercise some control in one’s environment. It’s also a way of dealing with feelings they may not feel adequately prepared to identify or express.”

Dunn-Frederick said simply seeking help is a brave step for sufferers: “It takes an enormous amount of courage for someone to step out and say ‘I have struggled with an eating disorder and I want to help others to recover.’ ”

Individuals with a disorder may feel they can eventually get better by themselves, but this is “rarely true,” she continued. Professional therapy, combined with learning to trust others in a safe, sympathetic environment, could be helpful to those feeling trapped, like Yoder once did.

Demanding health

Some days, Yoder says, are still harder than others. Although she’s recovering, she still copes with silencing the voices of her disorder.

Over a coffee and scone on a weekday morning, she said she was looking forward to a steak dinner with her family that night — a simple pleasure she couldn’t have enjoyed years ago.

“It’s hard to get to the place where you’re like ‘I demand life. I demand freedom. I demand health.’ ”

For more information on the group, contact Yoder at (540) 383-9701.

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