“We caught her exactly at the time we had to. If we had waited one more day, potentially she would have died in her sleep.”
Nancy Keenan was referring to a particular time last year when her then 11-year-old daughter, Norrie, almost died of starvation due to an eating disorder. She had no idea her daughter was suffering from Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder until she attended an Atlanta charity event in 2015.
That event was the Celebrity Dance Challenge hosted by the Atlanta-based nonprofit EDIN, the Eating Disorders Information Network. Nancy, a respected Realtor in Atlanta, was a celebrity competitor the following year in the 2016 competition.
She described the event as a light-bulb moment that led to the discovery of Norrie’s disorder.
“People shame upon it,” said Norrie, who is now 13 years old. “In movies and society, people are like, ‘You look like an anorexic,’ and that’s like a horrible insult.”
Attempting to help educate and tackle the stigmas of eating disorders, EDIN's Celebrity Dance Challenge will return for its seventh year on April 20 at the Buckhead Theatre.
“We’re trying to help people realize what eating disorders are (and) what they’re not,” said Sarah Pannell, executive director of EDIN. “(We) try to challenge some of the myths that are out there and destigmatize these disorders.”
Understanding invisible disorders
Pannell, like Norrie, also developed an eating disorder while she young.
“I was actually hospitalized and in a treatment center for a little while,” Pannell said. “(I) … started recovery when I was 22 or 23 years old after college.”
The average onset age for eating disorders in now 12 years old. Pannell said this is why EDIN focuses heavily on education in Atlanta area schools.
“We send out professionals along with recovery speakers out to do presentations at schools,” Pannell said.
According to Page Love, a registered dietitian and EDIN board member, EDIN's work in the classroom and its Celebrity Dance Challenge helps gives a voice to an issue that's under diagnosed often due to stigma.
“Eating disorders are often like the elephant in the room,” Love said. “People are not talking about them much, so it’s a public showing to bring attention to this issue and the magnitude of this issue.”
According to Pannell, only about 10 percent of Americans with eating disorders actually seek treatment. There are approximately 350,000 Georgia residents and an estimated 30 million Americans that have eating disorders.
Injecting fun into a serious topic
Kathy Zickert, an Atlanta attorney, is one of the nine celebrity dancers competing on April 20. She'll be dancing with Desiree Nathanson, Interfusion Fitness founder and EDIN board member.
“I think (fitness) has gotten to the point where it’s kind of scary,” Nathanson said. “My focus is more on fun and making sure Kathy has a fun time while she’s up there and feels good doing what she’s doing.”
Last year, Nathanson danced with one of the biggest-name celebrities the event has ever had participate: Evander Holyfield. Last year's competition was the most successful yet for EDIN.
“We raised about $125,000 (last year),” Pannell said, “and that was more than double what we had brought in (the year before), so we’re hoping to basically double it again.”
Tickets start at $50 for entrance, and money is also raised from votes, which determine the winning dancer—similar to "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance." Votes can be casted at myedin.org/cdc, and the minimum cost per vote is $1.
Zickert will compete this year because she’s a good friend of Nancy’s, and after the Keenans’ experience, she felft she needed to be involved.
“We almost lost (Norrie),” Zickert said. “If it had not been for the intervention of EDIN, I think we probably would have.”
More than just a picky eater
Norrie was always a picky eater. However, the first sign Nancy noticed that something might be wrong was during a school buffet lunch where Norrie would only eat canned chickpeas—nothing more.
“I’m a picky eater and everyone would tell me I’m so lucky and they wished that they were picky so they wouldn’t have to eat these things and get overweight,” Norrie said.
Overly restrictive diets can end up aiding the development of eating disorders. Love continually pointed out fad diets such as low-carb, Paleo and calorie counting as slippery slopes.
“Often an eating disorder can be triggered by a diet that’s gone awry—somebody that takes a diet too far and gets into what I would call negative energy balancing and starts to harm the body because of malnutrition,” Love said.
Nancy later found out that Norrie was hiding the food given to her instead of eating it and throwing lunches away at school.
“If you cut down slowly, you don’t notice the hunger because the hunger starts to be manageable,” Norrie said.
Nancy eventually brought Norrie to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Egleston Hospital, where she found out that Norrie's resting heart rate was below 45 beats per minute and that she had low phosphorus. Her gastrointestinal tract was also completely blocked.
“If you don’t feed yourself and you starve, your body starts to shut down,” Nancy said. “One of the last things to shut down is your (gastrointestinal tract).”
The doctor said she most likely had anorexia, but what surprised Nancy more than anything was what she was given to help cope with it.
"She sent us home with Myralax, which is a laxative — the worst thing she could have done," Nancy said.
‘We get to help other people now’
By May 2016, roughly a month after Nancy’s Celebrity Dance Challenge appearance, Norrie had to be hospitalized for a week due to her slowing heart rate, which dipped into the 30s one night.
“A lot of times on death certificates, it says natural causes because they think it was a heart attack, but it was actually anorexia that took them,” Nancy said.
Once Norrie was stable, she moved to Hearth Center for Eating Disorders in South Carolina, and that's where she started the road to recovery. After about six weeks, she moved back home with her parents, and she received treatment and services from the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders.
“Her physical (and) mental condition now is really good,” Nancy said. “She is a regular growing 13-year-old.”
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Norrie is at the point in recovery where she’s attempting to help others recognize and avoid the experience she had. When Nancy mentioned a six-year-old who was diagnosed with an eating disorder, she immediately reacted with shock.
“Oh my god, she was 6! That’s not OK!”
Now, the family is attempting to help raise awareness for EDIN and eating disorder treatment, especially regarding early diagnosis and intervention.
“She knows about a lot of things other kids her age don’t know about,” Nancy said. “She knows about addiction and self harm, and things you don’t really want to talk about with your kids. But the way I look at it, we get to help other people now.”
6:30-10:30 p.m. April 20. $50-$150. Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Rd NE, Atlanta. 404-465-3385, myedin.org/cdc.
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