Recovering anorexic seeks 'revenge' on disorder

Nov 22, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

This spring, Lander resident Lilly Clark is set to begin studying psychology at the University of Wyoming with the ultimate goal of working in eating disorder therapy.

"I figure that would be the best revenge on the bastard that took my childhood," she said. "I would not wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy -- which used to be myself."

Eating disorder treatment was a resource the 23-year-old found hard to come by while growing up in Wyoming. She struggled with anorexia throughout her adolescence in Lander. In sixth grade, the food restrictions started, setting off a "decade of hell" for Clark.

Clark will be the subject of a "Wyoming Chronicle" program on WyomingPBS, airing at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Just two years ago, she assumed she'd die from the disease.

It's not just Wyoming. Across the U.S., treatment for eating disorders is hard to come back. Patients are typically sent out-of-state. In-patient treatments are incredibly expensive and insurance coverage is minimal.

"My parents had to pay somewhere around $100,000 for my treatment," Clark said. "If you have the means, you can do it, but insurance is rather stingy about it."

Scott Hayes, executive director of Fremont Counseling, said his organization has limited interaction with anorexic patients. The unusual combination of a medical and psychological condition presents a too high a risk for non-specialists. If anything, counseling groups are typically used to screen eating disorders patients, who are then referred to specialists.

Clark said that during her period of anorexia, there weren't any resources available in the state.

When she first became anorexic as a middle-schooler, she was taken to the Denver Children's Hospital for a six week course of treatment.

The anorexia continued, but Clark didn't return to treatment until 2015. By that time, she had heart problems, edema and severe osteoporosis.

"I had the muscle mass of someone with Stage IV terminal cancer," she said. "At that point, I didn't know if I was going to see Christmas."

Only at that point was she able to rid herself of the disease.

"I had to hit the hardest bottom possible to realize that death is very real, and that I wasn't ready to go," she said. "No matter how unhappy I was, I couldn't completely commit to dying."

Before being confronted with her own mortality, it was easy for Clark to think of her anorexia as an "abusive boyfriend" or "the monster under the bed."

"The reality is the monster is you. You're doing this to yourself," she said.

Roughly 30 million people suffer from eating disorders in the U.S., according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

The nonprofit says that, once an hour, an American dies as a direct result.

Eating disorders are still sometimes stigmatized as a lifestyle choice. Often, they're associated with body image issues and a desire to be thin.

While those components are common underlying factors for eating disorders, Clark said that a desire for control and aversion to being bullied were more significant causes of her food restrictions.

She said that the anorexia was initially a misguided, childish attempt to stave off puberty, which she said "basically sounded like you were getting a plague for a decade."

"I didn't want to grow up yet," she said. I wanted a way to control my life because I felt like I was going to lose control of my body."

"It's a malicious disease," she said. "You can hide it if you want to, and most people do want to, because you don't want to get better for the majority of it. You like it. It gives you control and makes you feel powerful. You kind of feel adrenaline rushes from not having to eat like everyone else, and you kind of feel empowered by that -- because you have a secret. It's seductive in that manner."Clark said her family "celebrates food," and her parents did eventually notice how much she was restricting.

Then she stopped growing and started losing weight.

She'd wake up in the middle of the night to exercise for hours. Then she'd pretend to eat a full breakfast.

"It was crumbs on a plate," she said. "It was a very staged crime scene of eating."

The behavior continued throughout high school, where she said she continued to get bullied in a "more sophisticated" manner.

After she graduated, she went to Westminster College in Salt Lake City. There, she assumed she'd find happiness -- and a solid group of friends.

"It spectacularly blew up in my face," she said.

After a few suicide attempts, her family made "an executive decision" to bring her home.

The next fall, she went to the University of Wyoming. Her first semester, she made the Dean's List.

Then the anorexia began to take its toll on her mind. Eventually, she developed what she can only describe as "dementia."

The physical cost became devastating.

"I thought my erratic heartbeat was sign of heart failure. The edema kind of confirmed that," she said.

The edema ran from her feet up through her thighs. Shoes became difficult to wear, but she still got on the treadmill every day.

She was afraid to go to sleep, fearing she wouldn't wake up.

Still, she was afraid to ask for help.

"It was really scary to be willing to give up this boa constrictor that I'd been lugging around with me for the past decade," she said. "Because the pain you know is better than the pain you don't."

The next time her mom saw her, Clark could barely walk.

After some incessantly pleading from her mother, Clark finally conceded after a "heavy duty come-to-Jesus conversation."

"I didn't want to have her bury me. I couldn't do that to my mom," she said. "I came back home and I collapsed on the couch and I slept for about 22 hours a day for 1-and-a-half to two weeks."

Her second time in treatment, it finally stuck. She recovered.

Recovery, she said, is "absolutely going to be the hardest thing you ever do."

And it's part of the reason anorexics can avoid treatment for so long. Some are willing to die instead.

But the important role those resources played in saving her own life is now the reason Clark is dedicated to working in therapy for eating disorders.

"If I could help anyone have the support and aid that I couldn't find, I want to do that," she said.

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Lilly Clark sat for an interview with

Lilly Clark sat for an interview with "Wyoming Chronicle" host Craig Blumenshine. Her story airs on WyomingPBS at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Photo by Dan Bendtsen

Lilly Clark sat for an interview with

Lilly Clark sat for an interview with "Wyoming Chronicle" host Craig Blumenshine. Her story airs on WyomingPBS at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Photo by Dan Bendtsen

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