Woodstone Featured in North Shore Outlook
Cover Story: A daughter's legacy
By Maria Spitale-Leisk - North Shore Outlook
Published: November 21, 2013 3:00 PM
At the height of her eating disorder, every night Amy Pezzente prayed that she wouldn't wake up.
She couldn't bear to face another day and the guaranteed judgmental glances from strangers.
It began in Grade 9, Pezzente's disordered eating habits. What started as anorexia bled into bulimia, she says, recalling "swimming" in her senior prom dress.
After high school, Pezzente's life continued on a downward spiral, fueled by the pressures of university.
"It wasn't like life, it was existing," she says.
Pezzente paints a pretty bleak picture of her early 20s. She exercised compulsively until eventually her gymmembership was revoked.
When she went to buy a treadmill from a store, a visibly gaunt Pezzente was denied the purchase. Stoking the cashier's suspicion was the $800 in cash that Pezzente was trying to pay with.
"I had maxed out my credit card purchasing food and diet pills," she remembers.
By this time her body was in crisis mode. But Pezzente remained oblivious. The voice of her eating disorder muted the alarm bells that were going off.
"I wasn't getting my period in four years and I didn't care," says Pezzente.
She developed heart palpitations and even osteoporosis, a bone density condition that normally afflicts older people. Meanwhile, the acid from all the purging did a number on her teeth.
As Pezzente's body shrunk, so did the world around her. Without many friends to turn to — plus, she had rejected her family's suggestion that she had a problem — Pezzente asked a stranger on the bus how she looked.
"Like I was on chemotherapy," Pezzente says was the response.
She finally reached her breaking point after being asked to leave university because she was too sick. After battling this all-consuming illness for six years, Pezzente decided she was tired of fighting.
As sick as she was, she would still have to wait eight months to get into an eating disorders program at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver.
There she met the head of the program, Dr. Laird Birmingham, who Pezzente says saved her life. She was comforted by the heat therapy, which helped lessen her anxiety, and by being told that her illness was not her fault.
Through counselling, she learned what trigged her eating disorder: being afraid to grow up.
"Subconsciously, I made myself sick so I didn't have to make decisions anymore," explains Pezzente. "I wanted my mom to take care of me. And she did."
Today, Pezzente is fully recovered and works for Jessie's Legacy, a North Shore-based eating disorders prevention program named for a young West Vancouver woman who never had a chance to grow up.
Diana's Budden's daughter Jessie was born a gentle, caring child.
"Basically, she was a lovely girl that just wanted to please people," says Diana from her home near Park Royal mall. "She was almost too nice."
Jessie's mood changed when she was 13 years old, says her mother. The family was living in England at the time.
At first, Diana figured her daughter was depressed. Jessie had stopped eating and expressed feelings of worthlessness.
"I'm begging her to eat, saying, 'If you don't eat — you will die,'" remembers Diana. "That doesn't mean anything to her. The voices are so loud."
When Jessie did eat, afterwards she would go to her room, bang her head against the wall and say: "I'm bad, I shouldn't have eaten," says Diana.
The vicious cycle continued when the Buddens moved back to Canada.
While they did seek professional help for their daughter's eating disorder, Diana says the treatment Jessie received was subpar.
They would sit in the emergency room for days, waiting for a bed in an overcrowded psych ward that Diana assessed was not adequately prepared to deal with Jessie's depressed, suicidal and bulimic condition.
Diana says, on another occasion, while waiting to have Jessie's self-inflicted arm cuts stitched, a doctor humiliated her, saying she was "wasting their time" by doing this to herself.
"It was pretty horrible," recalls Diana of the experiences.
Diana says Jessie's psychological predisposition, which prevented her from being able to handle difficult situations, manifested as an eating disorder.
Sadly, the trauma that triggered Jessie's illness would be hard for most people to overcome.
When she was 13 years old she went to a dance where she was raped at knifepoint and told by her attacker, "If you tell anyone, I will kill you."
In Jessie's mind, says Diana, she blamed herself and thought her family wouldn't love her.
Because Jessie was so deep into her eating disorder, Diana knew it was going to be hard to reach her. She was heartbroken to hear Jessie say: "I'm afraid to let go of it, because I won't know who I am."
Jessie took her own life in February 2002 at the age of 20. It was Diana who found her.
"I respect her for her choice," says the courageous mother, who knew her daughter was done fighting.
Since then Diana has channeled her grief by starting an eating disorder awareness program called Jessie's Legacy, which today is offered through Family Services of the North Shore.
Last year, Jessie Legacy reached 1,800 elementary and high school students who received positive messages around body image and healthy eating habits.
While many people point to magazine images and music videos featuring waif-like models as the main reason for youth developing eating disorders, psychologists say there are other factors at play.
Diana agrees, to some extent.
"I don't think the media causes it, but it contributes to these eating disorders," says Diana. "It's all bull**** messages."
Eating disorders on the rise
CaraLynne McLean, a North Vancouver-based psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders, says there is rarely a single identifiable cause for this psychiatric illness.
"It could be a significant loss in someone's life, it could be bullying," suggests McLean. "So to say that it's only the media is a bit narrow."
Still, McLean knows the media does have a responsible role to play.
"Kids are often on iPhones and iPads looking at images and videos that are not age-appropriate, and ones that are sexually explicit where women are treated like objects rather than human beings," she says.
Compounding the problem, and why McLean figures there is a rise in the number of youth with disordered eating, is the fact that children today are under more pressure than ever to excel in academics and sports.
"It is alarming the number of clients that show a fear of fat, starting as young as six, seven and eight years old," says McLean, sitting in her office filled with toy cars, dinosaurs and other items to engage children's creativity.
She has treated dancers, figure skaters, jockeys and other youth involved in weight-sensitive sports. And it's not just females. In fact, one in 10 eating disorder cases involve men.
"Men are not immune to this," says McLean.
She uses wrestling as an example. In a sport where only one pound can put a person in a higher weight category, there is a prevalence of disordered eating.
McLean says male eating disorders, in particular, are underreported because of the stigma around them.
There are warning signs to look out for. According to McLean, people with an eating disorder might: lose interest in things they once loved, isolate themselves from friendships, become concerned with certain types of foods and eliminate food groups.
And then there's the voice of Ed.
"Someone with an eating disorder will often talk about it as if someone else has taken over," explains McLean. "They label that person or that voice as being the voice of Ed. Unfortunately, the voice is so strong."
McLean said diagnosing someone with anorexia and bulimia can be challenging, as there is certain medical criteria that needs to be met.
For example, a woman with disordered eating who is still menstruating technically doesn't have anorexia, in terms of the diagnosis. But that doesn't mean she is not struggling with anorexia, cautions McLean.
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) are ones that don't meet the exact criteria for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.
There are physical steps to recovery from an eating disorder, nourishment being the most important.
Then there is the reprogramming of the brain through the use of such techniques as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and education around media awareness.
Eating disorders often result from poor or non-existent coping skills. McLean recommends her patients develop healthy coping habits: journaling, walking, meditation, talking with a close friend, checking in with a counsellor and joining activities are some of her suggestions.
She recently welcomed a new addition to her practice, an 11-week-old therapy dog named Lexi. The Labradoodle will pick up sadness, trauma and grief in a patient, among other emotions.
At the same time, the heaviness in the room can tire out a therapy dog.
For McLean, who has spent more than a decade researching and treating eating disorders, this work weighs on her heart, too.
"I think that I see what happens and I see how much time is lost with kids, especially those who have eating disorders," says McLean. "They lose a huge portion of their teenage life, and I find it heartbreaking."
A welcome retreat
Every day, a young man or woman is reclaiming his or her life at a tranquil retreat on Galiano Island.
Two years ago, a residential treatment program for eating disorders, the first of its kind in Canada, opened on a sprawling nine-acre property on the island.
The creation of the Woodstone facility was a labour of love. It's the brainchild of North Vancouver mothers Dolores Elliott and Deborah Grimm and Vancouver mother Cindy Dobbe, who were all brought together by their daughters' eating disorders.
Dolores's daughter Denise's illness started with anorexia in 1999 when she 14 years old. Just when the family thought she was past her eating problems, "bulimia reared its ugly head."
The moms met when their daughters were in treatment, each sharing their frustration about the lack of resources for eating disorder programs in this province.
"We kind of thought it was a bit of a revolving door," says Dolores. "Is there a waiting list to get treatment for children with cancer? I don't think the wait lists are three or four months long."
For one particular program, whoever had the lowest Body Mass Index got accepted first, she recalls. Dolores discovered that some people would purposely make themselves more sick just to get in the door.
Desperate to save her daughter, Dolores sent Denise to a renowned treatment facility in Arizona, at a cost of $2,000 a day. Denise spent 67 days there. Some B.C. parents who went the same route had to remortgage their homes to pay the hefty bill.
While it was expensive, the families found the non-clinical environment was conducive to their child's recovery.
In 2002, fed up with the current system back home, the mothers formed the North Van-based Looking Glass Foundation. What started with summer camps and support groups grew into a vision to create B.C.'s first residential eating disorders program for young people ages 17-24.
Woodstone, a one-time inn, with its pastural setting, was the perfect fit for the foundation's mandate to create a healing environment.
During their two- to three-month stay, residents, along with taking part in group and individual therapy sessions, get plenty of opportunity to enjoy the area's natural splendor. They volunteer in the Galiano Island community and even attend classes at the local schools.
Right now there are 10 publicly-funded beds at Woodstone, with the intention of opening 10 out-of-province beds down the road.
Explains Dolores, while the beds are partially funded by the government, it costs $800 per bed per day to keep Woodstone operational. The foundation relies mainly on funds raised during an annual gala to keep their programs afloat.
Dolores senses the urgency for more beds.
Last week she received three phone calls on one day from parents enquiring about Woodstone. Dolores says it's no coincidence they are all calling right now.
"It's the kids that are in university," she says. "There are pressures."
And with the upcoming holiday, Dolores says some people with eating disorders might be stressed out thinking about the food they will have to consume in a social setting.
Dolores says their family had four Christmases from hell when Denise was sick. These days there is a lot to be thankful for.
"Today, she is just full of life," says Dolores of her daughter, who owns her own business. "She's just inspiring to other people."
Pezzente has an equally bright future ahead of her.
The 29-year-old graduated with a bachelor's degree in human kinetics and physiotherapy.
She is the coordinator of the Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness campaign and is involved in a myriad of other prevention programs.
Pezzente also oversees the Looking Glass Foundation's online group which provides live support to people affected by an eating disorder.
Recently married, Pezzente says her husband loves her no matter what size she is. Her long brown hair shines in the daylight and she smiles through her eyes.
"I feel free and there is space in my head now," says Pezzente. "All I used to think of was weight and calories. I can think about other things now."
It took a good six years for her to be comfortable in her own skin, but she now has a healthy perspective.
"I'm borrowing this body for this lifetime," says Pezzente. "I don't want to die being known for the way I look."
The Looking Glass Foundation:
604-988-5281, ext. 204
Kelty Resource Centre at BC Children's Hospital:
CaraLynne McLean Counselling
The Looking Glass Foundation will host a 10th anniversary gala featuring a live and silent auction on Jan. 31 at the Rocky Mountaineer Station.
Those wishing to donate items can contact 604-314-0548. More information is available at lookingglassbc.com/gala.