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Deadly Secrets: A mother and daughter share their victory over eating disorders

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TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Eight million young people in the United States have an eating disorder. It is a number that grows every year.

Eating disorders are not a new problem, but what is new is just how easy it is for teenagers to hide this potentially deadly secret from their parents.

WTOL 11's Chrys Peterson spoke with a mother and daughter who have fought through an eating disorder and shared their experience.

Like many parents, Patti has always wanted the best for her daughter Abby. In Patti's eyes, Abby has always been just perfect.

"Abby's a happy go lucky sort of girl," said Patti. "[She's] always been a leader not a follower and she just marches to her own drum."

But sometimes a mother's confidence can lead to unachievable standards in the minds of teens.

"When I was told ‘You can be everything,' what I heard in my mind was, "You have to be everything,'" said Abby.

That pressure to be perfect did not just come from her parents or from Abby herself.  Experts say teenagers are surrounded by it.   

"They get so many mixed messages: be yourself, but be this way. And it gets really confusing.  They're constantly getting ‘Fit into your prom dress!' ‘Here are 10 ways to fit into your bikini for the summer' and it's like aaaaaahhh what am I going to do with all this information?" said Dr. Brithany Pawloski, who treated Abby at the River Center Clinic, a center for treating eating disorders.

"I was so caught up in that lie that I need to look this way, I need to be perfect, perfect, perfect," said Abby.

For Abby, like many teenagers, "perfect" meant thinner.  She became obsessed with losing weight and eventually just stopped eating.

Experts say our modern family lifestyle might actually contribute to the problem. 

Families do not sit down to eat together like they used to and teens are so over scheduled with school and sports activities that it is easy for them to hide the fact that they're really not eating.

"When you have that eating disorder and that's all you want, you lie," said Abby. "I ate here, I ate there, or I'll eat later. When I was in that state, there were ways I found to escape food.  And it came to lying, hiding myself, just kind of being very sneaky."

Patti noticed a change in Abby's personality and her physical appearance. When Patti confronted her, Abbey denied she had a problem.

So Patti decided to fight sneaky with sneaky to save her daughter.

"When she would get up from the table and go upstairs, I would secretly follow her upstairs and if she went in the bathroom I'd secretly listen," said Patti. It was a horrible feeling - I hated doing it, but I wasn't going to watch her kill herself."

And Abby was headed in that direction: Abby had lost nearly a third of her weight. She barely weighed 100 pounds.

"It was one of her soccer games and I saw her in her uniform and it really shocked me," said Patti. "I forced her on the scale and I said, "Okay, we're going for help.'"

Abby got intensive therapy, living at an eating disorder clinic for three months where she learned healthier lessons about eating and body image. Lessons many parents don't teach their teens at home.

"I don't know too many people who don't think a diet is a good idea. So modeling acceptance of self and not going (she pinches her fat) oh, look at this, or that few extra pounds at Thanksgiving everyone's worried about and people just talk about it like it's common and it is common but it does impact people and their thoughts about themselves," said Pawleski.

Parents play a massive role in forming positive self-images in their children.

"We as women have to do a better job of being better role models for our kids," said Patti. "We cannot be so obsessed with our weight and when we look in the mirror we look at the bad things look at the good things!"

It is a lesson Abby has worked hard to learn. Now she sees herself as fit and athletic a perfectly healthy young woman.

"You realize there's so much more to life than being perfect, and trying to achieve something you're never going to achieve," said Abby.

Eating disorders are still kind of swept under the rug not talked about and sometimes parents just don't know what to do.

That's where we can help. Click here to access a world-class eating disorder clinic in northwest Ohio: the River Centre Clinic in Sylvania.

Also, a panel of experts will take your questions about this growing but often secret problem from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Call 419-255-2255 to participate.

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