Those who have struggled with or currently battle an eating disorder know that it is a very lonely and secretive illness. Constantly surrounded by stigma and perpetuated by the media in fragmented and negative ways, the need for further awareness and support is vital. Vancouver-based Looking Glass Foundation is engaging in a real push for this change, taking the call for awareness to the next level. Their story began in 2002 when three women whose daughters all struggled with anorexia realized a complete lack of Canadian residential treatment facilities. After a ten-year effort the Woodstone Treatment Centre was created on Galliano Island, with the facility eventually relocating to Vancouver in 2014 under the new name Looking Glass Residence.
“Food marketing is really political,” says Looking Glass Executive Director Stacey Huget.
“You don’t have to look very far to find images of people eating enormous amounts of food and yet they’re trim and fit. That’s very confusing.”
Conflicting beauty imagery is everywhere, and diametrically opposed nutritional information creates a confusing environment for impressionable young people; the eating issues started at a young age can become highly addictive and controlling—as Huget knows all too well—following one throughout a large portion of his or her life.
“People are seeing at a young age that certain body types like broad shoulders and narrow waists are good, but pear shape is not. It messes with their heads,” Huget says. “We need to intervene early and let kids know that the imagery they see is airbrushed, fabricated and driven by profit.”
This is no small feat, but the Looking Glass’ location change-up included collaboration with the Provincial Health Services Authority, which Huget says has paved the way for some major changes. By handing over the clinical side of operations to the PHSA, the foundation is freed up to initiate new programs and focus on educating the public on eating disorders. Taking the foundation beyond the residence creates a demand for eating disorder mass education ranging from those who already suffer, to doctors, to the media and to anyone who does not understand exactly how widespread and dangerous this disease is.
“[To get] through to the residence, you go through your health authority and through whatever programming they offer first,” says Huget of Looking Glass’ process. “In some cases you don’t get to go to the residence until you qualify after going through some community-based programming, which is great if the community-based programming is what you need. But if it’s not, it becomes kind of an exercise to get to the residence. [These people] are in desperate need of help.”
The Looking Glass residence does not treat medically unstable people—if someone is desperately underweight and has any medical complications he or she would be hospitalized. Instead the facility that Looking Glass is so well known for focuses on taking in people who are stable medically and psychologically. This 10,000 square-foot Shaughnessy mansion houses seventeen to twenty-four year-old patients—up to fourteen residents at a time get their own bedrooms and have doctors, nurses, councilors and dietitians available to them throughout the duration of the three-month treatment.
“Getting in for treatment is one of the challenges for eating disorders,” says Huget. “We don’t get any government funding, we’re entirely private funded either by individuals or organizations which gives us freedom to basically fill holes wherever we see them. We look for areas that aren’t attended to; things like getting people to come forward in the first place with an eating disorder, any kind of relapse or transitioning management for those who are on a waitlist for a program and are basically without help.”
The coming forward part is the hardest for many who suffer from eating disorders, but the primary reason Looking Glass is so unique and innovative in the world of rehabilitation is that as the first Canadian eating disorder residential center they fill a lot of individual niches.
“I think that because we’re community based and volunteer driven we are very close to the sufferer,” Huget says. “We’re very much about their dignity and what they need. So it’s not about getting them to comply to our program requirements, it’s about giving them what they need and respecting what they need.”
Like many of the volunteers associated with Looking Glass Foundation, Huget has her own history with eating disorders. While running her own business, Huget was brought on in 2010/2011 to work with the Looking Glass board as a consultant.
“I didn’t disclose to them [at the time] that I had struggled with an eating disorder for twenty years and had ended up becoming an alcoholic for four years,” said Huget. “I really understood their work.”
When the Looking Glass needed an Executive Director, the foundation felt like Huget was a good fit and hired her in 2014.
“I went through just about everything,” said Huget reflecting on her long struggle. “In that time I had been anorexic and then had become bulimic. It was coexistent with depression and anxiety—which isn’t uncommon—and it eventually led to addiction. It isn’t about food at all. It’s about your self-esteem, or emotions you can’t handle, or situations in life, or disillusionment. You think the world is going to be a certain way and it’s not. It becomes a struggle to find your place in the world.”
This mass of issues leads to a desire for control and in a fast moving world propelled by media images and expectations, younger and older people and men and women alike often look to food for that control.
“Your problems manifest [themselves] in food,” says Huget. “One of the reasons is because food is one thing you can control. If you’re trying to get some mastery in your life you can control food and the way your body is. Our culture inundates this with messages, and we get this onslaught about the way our bodies should be. If you’re struggling with the way you fit in the world and food is something you can constrict to create an image of yourself, that’s something that can lead to anorexia.”
Those who battle eating disorders rarely talk about it, and the result is a tormenting and isolating experience.
“Food can be used to cope or hide from things and in some ways is a form of addiction,” Huget says. “When I was going through it, by the time I was in my mid to late thirties I was exhausted from being this person who could not manage it and felt like I was living several lives. I was really struggling and tired of my relationship with food, so I started to drink [until it] took over and became a physical addiction.”
A severe problem here and a much focused-on topic for Looking Glass is that the medical community is not educated well enough on eating disorders—when a patient goes to a doctor for help and admits to an eating disorder, often he or she will be diagnosed with depression and anxiety and given medication to deal with those issues.
“When I went in for help [medical professionals] saw my eating disorder as a side effect of depression,” Huget says. “They think they’ll nail your depression and the eating disorder will go away, and that’s just not true.”
Instead, the issues that contribute to eating disorders need to be teased out and dealt with individually. There are essentially two dynamics in place. One is when someone has a restrictive eating disorder and becomes medically compromised—this will lead to intervention. The second is when someone is bulimic or a binge eater and can mask it to the outside world.
“This notion that you can pick out people and tell that they have an eating disorder is wrong; people can have an eating disorder at any weight,” Huget says. “They can hide it from the world and they do hide it from the world.”
This particular part of the equation is not evident in mainstream conversation and people do tend to be more responsive to addiction problems. The stigma associated with eating disorders and the general lack of knowledge leaves people feeling uncomfortable.
“When I told people I had an eating disorder they would cringe a bit, like they just didn’t want to hear about it,” Huget says.
“If you have a relationship with food that is allowing you to cope—even if it’s a destructive one—but it’s allowing you to live your life, it becomes a relationship that you don’t want to give up. So even if it torments you, even though you’re living this nightmare where you know you’re being controlled by this relationship with food, it’s also something you don’t want to let go of. It’s kind of your friend and enemy at once and it creates a lot of conflict and that’s where the counseling is different from addiction. That’s the part that the mainstream community doesn’t understand.”
Men are constantly under pressure to bulk up and as a result binge eating and over-exercising become key factors in unhealthy physical obsessions. Huget says that focus on men and bulimia often gets overlooked, and this hole is something that the Looking Glass aims to fill with outreach programs and Something’s Gotta Give—an expose about the barriers we face in overcoming eating disorders. This particular effort by the foundation asks people who have suffered or have known someone who has suffered to speak about this disease that in the thirty years since Karen Carpenter’s death still is not talked about enough.
“The Looking Glass Foundation is 70% about programming for people that are suffering and we recognize that the disease is getting away from us,” says Huget when asked about Something’s Gotta Give. “The thing is that if we’re really going to get on the other side of eating disorders, something’s gotta give. We decided we’d primarily ask someone who knows something about the disease and is typically silent instead of the general public. They just don’t know.”
This digital campaign is nation-wide and has had 200 submissions so far; it includes a public rally and a documentary that is set to be released at the end of the year. With the documentary the foundation is putting forward a call for more diverse programming, more funding, flexible programming for all ages and further education for doctors on eating disorder issues.
“One of the most important things we’re finding is that after someone goes through treatment, they can’t necessarily sustain it on their own. It’s not surprising when you look at the culture,” says Huget about our society. “We have to get back in touch with our compassion for other people and over our complacency for other people’s pain. Our society loves marketer-defined messages and conformity.”
Because of the lack of knowledge, what is quoted by a doctor is what is reported—depression rather than eating disorders—and that is what is in turn quoted as a statistic.
The reality is that many, many people suffer and they are hiding in plain sight.
“This disease is out of control and people do die,” says Huget. “We need to coral the effort and that’s what Something’s Gotta Give is all about. If you leave it and you don’t address it, you may be surprised where it takes you. It took me twenty years—they weren’t lost years, but they were seriously compromised ones that I couldn’t get back. It affected my relationships, my finances and my engagement with the world. I was hiding for twenty years.”
For more information on the Looking Glass Foundation and their various programs like Hand in Hand, the residence, summer camp, online peer support, Something’s Gotta Give, eating disorder facts and volunteer options, visit www.lookingglassbc.com.