Silencing that ‘tiny voice’
CHOC is committed to protecting patient privacy. Though she and her parents have consented to sharing her story, Suzette’s name and other identifying details have been changed to further protect her privacy.
When Suzette looked in the mirror, she didn’t see her long, beautiful hair or her bright smile. Instead, the teenager focused on how different she felt her body looked from the people she saw on social media.
While she was at a healthy weight, active and in good health, Suzette started believing she needed to lose weight. Social distancing requirements prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic meant Suzette was spending more time indoors and isolated from her friends and the daily activities she used to enjoy.
In the beginning, Suzette exercised and ate healthfully.
“It was easy at first and I started to see a change, but then I wanted a faster way to lose more weight,” Suzette explains.
This is when Suzette says her eating disorder began. In search of a “quick fix” Suzette started restricting her eating.
“I was starving myself,” she says “I would hide my food or give it to my siblings or dog so my parents couldn’t see what I was doing.”
Suzette describes her eating disorder as a tiny voice inside her head — a voice that kept telling her that she didn’t have an eating disorder and that she was fine. The tiny voice pushed her to keep doing what she was doing. The voice told her this would make her body look the way she thought it should look.
Soon the effects of not eating and purging began taking its toll on Suzette’s body. She started to feel dizzy and lightheaded with low energy. One day, she felt too weak to stand up.
“I was so scared. I thought I was going to die,” Suzette says.
This is the moment when she decided to tell her parents about her recent eating behaviors – but it didn’t stop her eating disorder.
It was after another incident of extreme lightheadedness when her parents took her to CHOC at Mission Hospital. Upon examination, doctors noted Suzette had lost a significant amount of weight over a two-month period. Her heart rate and blood pressure were very low and she needed intravenous fluids.
At a follow-up appointment, Suzette’s blood pressure and weight were even lower, which led doctors to officially diagnose her as having an eating disorder. Back at home, Suzette’s parents became more involved with their daughter’s recovery plan. They ensured she ate three meals and three snacks and drank plenty of water each day.
But the tiny voice grew louder. To offset the additional food she was eating, Suzette began making herself throw up after meals.
“I felt a sense of freedom after I would do this and it made my eating disorder voice happy,” she says.
Unable to manage her eating disorder at home, Suzette was admitted to CHOC Mission, where she received the care from CHOC’s comprehensive eating disorders program. The multidisciplinary program offers inpatient and outpatient care that includes adolescent medicine physicians, mental health professionals and specialized nutritionists.
At first, being hospitalized was hard on Suzette and her family.
“I was in shock and I could see when my parents came to visit me that they were in shock too,” Suzette says.
But over time, and with proper care and strategies, Suzette’s eating disorder voice grew weaker. Meeting other adolescents who were going through similar situations made Suzette feel safe and less alone.
Suzette returned home after 19 days in the hospital – just in time for the winter holidays.
Though Suzette was afraid her eating disorder would return, the CHOC team assured her that they would continue to monitor and support her through therapy sessions and follow-up appointments.
“I’m really happy to say to you that every day, the more I talk about it, I don’t hear the voice,” Suzette says. “I don’t feel the way I used to feel before and it just makes me really happy because then I have a lot of support from CHOC and my parents.”
For Suzette’s parents, their daughter’s journey was eye-opening. For them, a key turning point was when the CHOC care team explained to them all the nutrients children need to survive and thrive. This empowered them to better advise their daughter on proper health and nutrition.
Suzette’s parents urge other families not to ignore the small signs and changes they see in their children, and for those in a similar situation, to continuing providing love, patience and support.