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Eating disorders don’t disappear at Christmas

Jennifer Lee (left photo), her sister Stephanie Lee and mother Deanna O’Brien are no strangers to dealing with eating disorders and the impact it can have on a family, especially during the holidays. In addition to sharing their experiences, they have some advice for others facing the same challenges
Jennifer Lee (left photo), her sister Stephanie Lee and mother Deanna O’Brien are no strangers to dealing with eating disorders and the impact it can have on a family, especially during the holidays. In addition to sharing their experiences, they have some advice for others facing the same challenges

At the holidays, Jennifer Lee takes on get-togethers with extended family, events centred around big meals and ads for New Year weight loss. They’re all potential triggers when it comes to the eating disorder that nearly killed her just a few years ago.

“My journey’s been really long. I’m really grateful now that I’m in recovery. I’ve been in recovery for about three years,” she said, speaking to The Telegram earlier this month.

Lee is from Newfoundland and Labrador, but now living in Toronto. She agreed to share some of her experiences by teleconference, with her mother and sister — Deanna O’Brien and Stephanie Lee — who joined at the paper’s offices in St. John’s.

The family wants to see greater education around eating disorders locally, but they also offered a few thoughts on making it a little easier around the holidays.


First and foremost, Jennifer Lee said, eating disorders do not run on a universal track. From influences to triggers to what helps in recovery, it’s not the same person to person.

Her symptoms started around Grade 10. She said she was studying ballet and thinking about pursuing it professionally. She heard of and then saw people she danced with going through symptoms, receiving attention in response. She never saw the negatives.

She began skipping meals here and there, she said, later studying ways for more rapid weight loss. She chased perceived benefits, while not acknowledging the harm. And then, it was about being able to stop.

She continued with her dancing, but her illness brought new personal lows as years passed. She was diagnosed as “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” with some symptoms commonly associated with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, in restricting her food intake or over-exercising; but also symptoms of bulimia nervosa, in purging.

Her health took a particularly severe turn after she lost her father about six years ago, in early December and her symptoms flared as she struggled to grieve. Her relationship hit a rocky period and then an injury sidelined her from work in dance. By now, she was working, living in Toronto.

She went through a couple of bad weeks, without really eating and suffering extreme weight loss. It was noticed by a friend, who called Jennifer’s sister back in Newfoundland.


Told of the phone call from Ontario, mom Deanna O’Brien dropped everything. “I went to work and I just told work, ‘I got to go, I don’t know when I’m coming back or how long I’ll be gone or if I’ll be back,’” she said. “So No. 1, you’ve got to have a good employer to support you.”

Both she and Jennifer’s sister, Stephanie Lee, went to the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador for information. O’Brien then grabbed a flight out. It was February. The exchange between mother and daughter, and even sister-to-sister, was difficult then, they all agreed.

Weeks later, after Jennifer made it clear she wasn’t ready for treatment, her mother flew home. Both Jennifer’s mother and sister started on the Bridges to Hope program, an eight-week educational program requiring one night each week, through the eating disorder foundation. And in Ontario, Jennifer’s partner — also a dancer — continued to encourage her toward treatment.

Ultimately, it was her decision.

“I just decided to go to treatment because my life was completely unmanageable,” she said of the decision. She started treatment that June.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”


Her treatment began with an outpatient program at Toronto General Hospital. Her program was commonly for an average six to eight weeks’ participation, but she remained for 13 weeks, spending her days in therapy sessions, on outings and being provided meals. She would leave for home at the end of each day, after dinner.

“When I went to treatment, it wasn’t just smooth sailing. There was a lot of struggle. I struggled a lot with suicide. I tried to take my life three times,” she said.

For Lee, it was a better understanding of the effect on her partner, his persistence, along with the time put in with professionals and even witnessing memorable scenes at a Toronto psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt, all helping to knock her off that path.

“The treatment program was 100 per cent necessary and, honestly, if I didn’t do the treatment program, I probably wouldn’t be alive today, about to turn 30,” she said.

“I’m just grateful my family really pushed me. And my family’s role in my recovery, it was really crucial.”


She continues to address her illness, from sessions with a psychologist to journaling, but that doesn’t mean she wants to talk about it every single day, especially around the holidays.

One of the big things around Christmas time, she said, is time with family and friends you haven’t seen in a while. Lee said there are a few tricks that help; for example, when comments are made on weight, weight loss, or her own health and how she looks.

“If I’m feeling really great, like feeling really good about my career, I’ll start to talk a little about that, change the subject on my own without waiting for them to do it,” she said. She also actively shifts the conversation to unrelated topics.

For family meals, her mother and sister have learned how to help keep pressure off.

“If you can, find one person who can sort of be your anchor. For me, that would be my sister. Someone you can go to at times when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” Jennifer said.

“I kind of just make eye contact with my sister, even across a room and she would just know, just by looking at me — my energy and how I hold myself when I’m really tense. But if she made eye contact with me, she would (also) know and say ‘Oh, Jen could you come help me, I need help with something in the kitchen. She might take me outside for fresh air.”

She said she’s lucky to have her mother and sister, who were taking calls at all hours of the night through the worst of times.

For anyone who has not shared word of their illness with people close to them or at the particular holiday function, she said there are still ways to anchor yourself.

“If you don’t have someone in your life you feel you can relate to in that way, even just someone from your family or your circle of friends who you just feel grounded or good when you’re near them, you can kind of make your way through the many times you feel overwhelmed,” she said.

Lee encouraged whatever might lower anxiety, even if it’s staying away from the big dinner this year, or having your own event with a smaller group. And ultimately, you should do whatever will help you to be healthy.

“It’s not the point of eating or not, the point is emotional wellness is more important,” O’Brien said.

“With one, will come the other,” added Stephanie.

The family encouraged anyone interested in learning more, or in need of support to reach out to the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador (toll free: 1-855-722-0500 or



Happy, healthy holidays

The Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador has been providing program participants with information on coping over the holidays. Some tips include:

• Try to predict high-stress situations and plan to respond when you or a loved one feels uncomfortable

• Don’t obsess about menus, hide food, plan special meals that single out the presence of a friend or family member with an eating disorder.

• Allow for group activities that do not involve food, such as games, singing carols, decorating and just spending time talking

• Do not give loud, attention-drawing praise when someone restricting food intake joins in the holiday meal

• Similarly, try to avoid nagging or criticism in the moment of someone does not partake in a meal; there will be times to talk openly

• Try to avoid launching into conversations about diets, weight loss or weight gain

• If you are an emotional support for someone, try to learn their triggers. If it’s big groups, for instance, you may be able to help them through, or schedule around

• Think about negative thoughts sure to arise and plan to challenge them

• Be understanding, allow yourself what you deserve and be willing to congratulate yourself for little victories

• If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm, get help

(The mental health crisis line is toll free, 24-7: 1-888-737-4668)



Sibling support

Family supports had commonly been taken advantage of by parents, but a new sibling support group — Siblings of Hope — was started a couple of years ago through the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was encouraged by Stephanie Lee, who noted siblings providing support sometimes need a space to get information or vent with people who will understand. Siblings may have feelings tied to attention from parents, or expectations because of the sibling relationship, or any number of things and the group can help. She said teleconference makes it possible to include anyone from around the province. For more:

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