Confronting an eating disorder can be frightening, frustrating and bewildering at the same time.
When Shannon Nunnelly learned that her daughter was struggling with the disease, she ached with the need to find her child help. The problem was, she didn’t know anything about the disease — what caused it, how dangerous it could be, and most of all, how to treat it.
Even more distressing was that the Center Grove-area resident didn’t know how to find those answers.
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“We were really lost. We didn’t know anything. What were we supposed to do now?” she said.
The Nunnelly family was able to connect with experts on eating disorders, and their daughter is now in recovery. At the same time, the situation has motivated Shannon Nunnelly to learn more about eating disorders and the impact they can have on all types of people.
She has taken what she has learned and become an advocate for those who suffer from eating disorders and their families, working with community leaders in Johnson County as well as state and national politicians to raise awareness.
As founder of the Indianapolis-area benefit walk for the National Eating Disorders Association, she has used her own experience to help others recover.
“I completely understand how people deal with things. Some people don’t want to talk about it. Some people have lived it. But for me, this is a really healing way to deal with it,” she said. “This is what I’ll be doing for a very long time, and how I can give back.”
Education efforts such as what Nunnelly does are vital in helping educate about eating disorders, said Lauren Smolar, director of programs for the National Eating Disorders Association.
“The earlier that someone gets help, the better the outcome. So teaching the community, families, loved ones, even the individuals themselves how to recognize early signs of an eating disorder means that these people can get help faster and ultimately can get healthier faster,” she said.
Eating disorders are a class of mental illnesses that revolve around the consumption of food and body image. More than 30 million people are impacted by eating disorders — women and men, people of all races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The disorders can take many different forms, but all are united by attitudes and behaviors involving food that get in the way of someone living a happy, healthy life, Smolar said.
Anorexia is characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight and, in many individuals, distorted body image. Bulimia is a cyclical disorder where people binge on food, then vomit or misuse laxatives to negate that eating to prevent weight gain.
Other examples include binge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, in which a person sets limitations on the amount or the type of foods they eat.
Because eating disorders involve food, each can have devastating effects on the body.
“What it really comes down to is that it’s an unhealthy way of handling how your body is dealing with food. That can ultimately result in very severe conditions of either malnutrition or over-consumption,” Smolar said. “The health consequences of that often very severe. These people often have problems with their hearts, with their kidneys, with their livers.”
Nunnelly didn’t know any of this when first introduced to eating disorders.
Her daughter — who she chose not to name, protecting her privacy — starting struggling with her eating disorder while at Center Grove High School.
But her parents discovered the issue during her freshman year of college, around 2013. They found an inpatient treatment center for her, where she attended counseling and therapy sessions to address the underlying emotional and psychological wounds that fueled the disorder.
She worked with a team of experts to develop healthier relationships with food and her body.
Following treatment, the Nunnellys thought that the issue would be in the past. Her daughter could now go back to college and continue on with her life.
But that’s not how chronic diseases such as eating disorders work.
“Our biggest misconception is that once she goes to treatment, she’ll be fixed. There is recovery, but like any mental health disorder, you’re not fixed right away,” Nunnelly said.
For the past five years, her daughter has been in recovery and her situation is stable now, Nunnelly said. With her immediate health concerns taken care of, Nunnelly has focused her energy on helping people better understand the issue of eating disorders.
She organized her first NEDA Walk in 2016. The event was at Freedom Park in Greenwood, with people coming together to listen to special guests and those in recovery offer their testimonies.
Treatment centers and therapists from throughout the Midwest offered information at the event.
Nunnelly and other organizers were unsure how the turnout would be, but close to 200 walkers came to take part. In the end, they raised about $12,000.
“The beautiful piece of that first walk, and what’s been so significant for me personally, is the awareness that grew out of it,” Nunnelly said. “Bringing that awareness to people, and reducing that stigma about eating disorders, has been a really big purpose for me.”
Over the past few years, the NEDA Walk has generated about $24,000, and those funds go to the association for research, programs and education. The money helps continue the national helpline, which provided treatment options and support for nearly 23,000 people in 2017. Other programs include support groups, legislative advocacy and research studies.
“These walks are an opportunity for the community around eating orders to connect,” Smolar said. “They provide an opportunity at a local level to get involved with other people who are in that world, either an individual who has been struggling, or someone with a loved one who has. People can show their support and really celebrate as a community at these events.”
Nunnelly, a kindergarten teacher at Center Grove Elementary School, has used her involvement in the association and her own education about eating disorders to reach young people in the Center Grove community.
She has worked with Superintendent Richard Arkanoff, who has allowed her to share her story with counselors at the schools to help address the issue.
Now, on the Center Grove schools’ website, a section on eating disorders is available under parent resources.
“When I didn’t know anything about this, it was very scary. So I think making sure parents have somewhere to go is so important,” Nunnelly said.
Through her involvement with the NEDA Walk, Nunnelly was asked to join the Indiana delegation of the Eating Disorders Coalition traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with Congress and other leaders.
Nunnelly worked with leaders such as U.S. Sen. Todd Young to help get the final week of February recognized as Eating Disorder Awareness Week. They also asked the Centers for Disease Control to put questions regarding eating disorders on its youth risk behavior survey, a monitoring system to collect data on health risks for young people.
“We all got to share our story, and to be able to share that and be with people who have that same passion for this is really powerful,” she said. “I never thought of myself as an advocate, but here I am.”
Nunnelly has brought that spirit home to Indiana, where she is working with legislators on efforts to raise awareness of eating disorders. With Monday to March 4 designated at Eating Disorders Awareness Week, she wants to educate even more people about the problem, and how to prevent eating disorders from forming.
She has been trained to present a program called the Body Project, a research-based intervention and prevention program aimed at high school-aged girls. The materials help young women address unrealistic beauty ideals and develop healthy body image and self esteem.
The hope is to bring that to Center Grove schools later this year.
“It’s not addressing an eating disorder, it’s reaching people before it gets to that point,” Nunnelly said. “I really feel like my platform and my purpose is to bring that awareness, and let people know there is a place to turn. It’s given me a sense of purpose.”
What is an eating disorder?
- Eating disorders are real, complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships.
- They are caused by both genetic and environmental factors.
- Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) are biopsychosocial diseases—not fads, phases, or lifestyle choices.
- People struggling with an eating disorder often become obsessed with food, body image, and/or weight. These disorders can be life-threatening if not recognized and treated appropriately. The earlier a person receives treatment, the greater the likelihood of full recovery.
What are the warning signs of an eating disorder?
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, dieting, and/or body image.
- Development of abnormal, secretive, extreme or ritualized food or eating habits.
- Withdrawal from usual friends and activities.
- Evidence of binge eating, such as the disappearance of a large amount of food.
- Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, self-induced vomiting, periods of fasting, or laxative, diet pill, or diuretic abuse.
- Compulsive or excessive exercising.
- Discoloration or staining of the teeth.
- Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, or irritability.
What does treatment involve?
- Eating disorders require the care of a trained professional with expertise in the treatment of eating disorders.
- The most effective treatment involves some form of psychotherapy or counseling coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs.
- Treatment should be tailored to the patient’s individual issues.
- Treatment must address the eating disorder symptoms as well as psychological, biological, nutritional, interpersonal, and cultural forces that contribute to or maintain the disorder.
- Early diagnosis and intervention significantly enhance recovery.
Who’s at risk?
- Anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, culture, size, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation.
- Eating disorders also impact the family, friends, and loved ones of someone struggling.
Where to get help: Contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 800-931-2237, or go to nationaleatingdisorders.org
— Information from the National Eating Disorders Association
What: A fundraising event for the National Eating Disorders Association, to help provide education, support and other resources for people dealing with eating disorders and their families.
When: 10 a.m. April 7; registration starts at 9.
Where: Garfield Park, 2345 Pagoda Drive, Indianapolis