Jodie Wilson-Dougherty is one of the lucky ones.
Wilson-Dougherty fought an eating disorder and won. It’s a battle she and Mary Ellen Clausen have in common; Clausen was in the trenches with her two now-grown daughters during their teen years, and it was their struggle that inspired her to found Ophelia’s Place. When Clausen stepped down as executive director earlier this year, she handed the reins over to Wilson-Dougherty.
“I had come to a place where I could see that although I did not die from my eating disorder as many do, I also had not lived,” Wilson-Dougherty said. “And I so wanted to live a life with purpose and meaning. Don’t get me wrong, my life is very blessed. Even throughout the struggle with my eating disorder, I had a wonderful family! But I knew full recovery was possible, and wanted others to know that as well. I loved the work that Mary Ellen was beginning to do in our community and it just made sense to partner with her.”
Indeed, Wilson-Dougherty was lucky to survive; eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and they are characterized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental illness. The peak onset of eating disorders occurs during puberty and the late teen/early adult years, but symptoms can occur as young as kindergarten and as late as middle age. More than one in three normal dieters progresses to pathological dieting. The most quoted study on the subject states that nearly 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. are battling eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, while millions more suffer from binge eating disorder. Those figures come from a study done in the mid-1990s.
In her months at the helm of the Liverpool-based center focused on improving body image, discussing a new concept of beauty and providing a safe haven for those struggling with and recovering from eating disorders and their loved ones, Wilson-Dougherty has carried on Clausen’s work and added many of her own ideas, including numerous support groups (a co-ed group will be joining the lineup this fall), a Coffee Talk series and more.
“Part of our mission is about changing the conversation around beauty and health, challenging society’s narrow definition of those terms, and looking at how that drive for perfection leads to the negative attitudes and behaviors that often develop into eating disorders,” Wilson-Dougherty said. “I often see people channeling their dislike of themselves into a dislike of their physical bodies. We often believe that by changing our bodies, we can change how we feel about ourselves. How sad that we spend countless hours worrying about a number on a scale or the size of our clothing, when we can be connected to the larger community in a way that gives our lives meaning and purpose. We want to change culture! That sounds impossible, but it can happen, one conversation at a time. We have collected hundreds of quotes from café patrons about real beauty, and those quotes give me hope that change is happening.”
In order to effect that change, Ophelia’s Place is partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association as a network member so that the smaller organization can better spread its message.
“NEDA is the conduit, so to speak, for all of us to connect,” Wilson-Dougherty said. “Why reinvent the wheel? If another agency has a good idea that fits in our community, we share it and so many more can benefit.”
Next Sunday, in conjunction with Ophelia’s Place, NEDA will hold its first-ever Syracuse area walk at Willow Bay at Onondaga Lake Park. The walk begins at 1 p.m. (check-in is at 12:30) and goes until 3 p.m.
The local walk is one of 32 taking place over the next year nationwide, according to C.J. Redfern, national walks director for NEDA. The walks, which started in 2009, are critical because they not only raise money for NEDA as well as Ophelia’s Place, but they raise awareness of their joint mission.
“NEDA walks serve as a catalyst to raise awareness in local communities about eating disorders,” Redfern said. “For far too long, people with eating disorders have felt alone. No one talked about these illnesses. These walks are bringing the illness into the light, and [it] makes it that much easier for family and friends to come forward to support their loved one or friend. [The money raised through these walks is] used to fund our programs that promote awareness and prevention, as well as advocate for policy changes and more funding for eating disorders research.”
Wilson-Dougherty said it was essential to educate the community about eating disorders because so many people remain ignorant about the damage they can cause.
“After 10 years of working in this field, I am still surprised by the amount of education that is still needed around eating disorders,” she said. “As our walk committee members contacted community partners, they found people who still either do not know about eating disorders or who do not believe they are a serious health risk. So, walks like this help educate the public, but they also give individuals and families a way to come together in community and honor the struggle, to feel supported, and to feel hope.”
Wilson-Dougherty herself helped bring the walk to the area after meeting NEDA CEO Lyn Grefe at a conference in Charleston, SC, this past spring. The two had a conversation about doing a NEDA walk in Central New York. Upon her return to Ophelia’s Place in Liverpool, Wilson-Dougherty discovered that she wasn’t the only one to have the idea.
“As I began to explore that possibility, I met a group who had decided to put on their own NEDA walk, and we decided to join our efforts,” she said. “They already had a group of six people who became our walk committee. They are great to work with and totally support what we do here at Ophelia’s Place.”
Working together with NEDA’s team, the group pulled together this weekend’s event. At press time, teams and individuals participating in the walk had raised more than $18,000, nearing the overall goal of $20,000 for the walk. The money raised will be split between the two organizations, with 60 percent going directly to Ophelia’s Place and 40 percent going back to NEDA to support its programming nationwide.
“For example, NEDA’s national helpline provides help and direction to care to millions of individuals and families affected by eating disorders around the world,” Redfern said. “Each year, NEDA provides the largest conference in the USA, exclusively designed for both families and professionals. NEDA’s Navigator program trains volunteers to provide support, guidance and resources to those affected by eating disorders and their families.There are currently 117 NEDA Navigators operating in 32 states and two Canadian provinces. And our NEDAwareness Week is the largest outreach effort in the world, reaching approximately 69 million participants from around the world. During NEDAwareness Week, we educate millions of people on the signs and symptoms for early detection. All of these programs are in part funded from NEDA walk revenue.”
The hope is that walks like this one at Onondaga Lake Park and across the country and the awareness campaigns that they spark will create that culture change Wilson-Dougherty mentioned.
“I want people to know that they can make a difference,” Redfern said. “Although eating disorders can be life threatening, they are treatable, especially when we steer people to help early. By registering for a NEDA walk, you are joining thousands of other people and organizations around the country in support of our mission. Everybody knows somebody who has struggled with body image issues or an eating disorder. If we stand together, and walk together, we can bring help to those struggling and their loved ones, as well as begin a movement to change the way beauty is perceived and revolutionize what is considered a healthy body image.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.