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Cassandra P Breaking the Cycle of Eating Disorders - Cassie's Story

I thought my meal plan had too much food initially. I didn’t want to hear that behaviors I felt were OK weren’t normal. But my team continued to support and teach me, even in my worst moments.

A Medical, Therapeutic and Nutritional Approach Helps Patients With Eating Disorders Thrive Again.

“Food is my medicine.” It’s a mantra Cassandra Peterson repeats often to herself. It’s also a tattoo the 24-year-old wears proudly on her arm. Cassie got the ink last year while receiving treatment for bulimia nervosa at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset’s Eating Disorders Program. The tattoo reflects Cassie’s changed perception as she progressed through the program. For Cassie, who continues to make the one-hour drive to RWJUH Somerset from her home in Franklin Lakes, the journey has been a hard-fought one. “I’ve been struggling with my eating disorder since I was 10 years old,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get better overnight.”

Diet Culture

Cassie says she grew up in a “diet culture,” in an atmosphere where thinness was praised. When she reached puberty and her body changed, she felt the rebukes keenly. “Comments about my body triggered intense dieting,” she says. In secret, Cassie began a litany of unhealthy behaviors. “Some days I’d eat six almonds and the next, everything in the house,” she says. She’d then “purge” and empty her stomach with self-induced vomiting, laxatives and diuretics. She worked out at the gym for hours. When Cassie entered college, dormitory life offered a free-for-all for her eating disorder. “I had my own place to binge and purge and use pills,” she says. “I had too much freedom and my eating disorder had full reign.” Cassie’s primary care doctor became alarmed with her rapid weight loss and visible physical symptoms. She was experiencing chest pain and was prone to fainting. “I had the shakes and couldn’t handle anything in my stomach,” she recalls. Her appearance lost its vibrance.

Willing but Resistant

Though Cassie followed doctor’s orders and went willingly to RWJUH Somerset’s Eating Disorders Program, she was not convinced she had a problem. “I told them, ‘Sure, I do weird things but I’m still fat. Lots of girls use diuretics.’” When admitted to the inpatient program in December 2017, Cassie was using 40 a day. She was assigned a team of experts that included a psychiatrist as well as a therapist, dietitian and occupational therapist. “Eating disorders often stem from a major life event, family or social problems or emotional issues such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, low self-esteem and stress,” says Mary Ann Piro, RN, director, Behavioral Health Services, RWJUH Somerset. “Individuals use the disorder to cope with these stressors and to feel ‘in control’ when life is unmanageable.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million American females and 10 million males between 12 and 25 years old will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Potentially life-threatening, eating disorders can affect every organ system in the body. Just one in 10 individuals seeks treatment.

Team Approach

RWJUH Somerset stands out as one of only two locations in New Jersey offering inpatient care for patients 14 and older with anorexia, bulimia, bingeing and other eating disorders. Each patient receives a comprehensive psychological assessment and physical evaluation upon admission. The hospital-based location means medical center specialists are easily accessible. A multidisciplinary team— psychiatrists, nurses, therapists, social workers, dietitians, occupational therapists, physical therapists and teachers—addresses medical issues and psycho-social concerns in a supportive and structured environment. The program tailors a scope of services to individual needs, from goal-oriented hospitalization on the 14-bed inpatient unit to a continuum of outpatient treatment and support groups for patients and families.

In Recovery

As Cassie recovers at home, she continues to see her therapist and dietitian. She’s working full-time, hanging out with friends and dating again. “I plan to return to college and study occupational therapy,” says Cassie, who learned to express her emotions through art while in treatment. “It was a slow process,” she admits. “I thought my meal plan had too much food initially. I didn’t want to hear that behaviors I felt were OK weren’t normal. But my team continued to support and teach me, even in my worst moments.” Cassie said once she broke the cycle of her eating disorder, she learned to respect her body and the food she puts into it. “Food is my medicine now,” she affirms. To learn more about the Eating Disorders Program at RWJUH Somerset or to schedule an evaluation, call 800-300-0268.