Heather Purdin had run out of options. Aged 33, she had been suffering from anorexia nervosa for more than two decades and her weight had plummeted to that of a small child, an all-time low for her. Her case worker, out of frustration and desperation, suggested hospice care as a way to spend her remaining days in relative comfort. But for the first time in years, Heather was sure of one thing: She desperately wanted to live.
Treating anorexia, which is characterized by self-starvation and an inability to maintain an adequate body weight, seems absurdly simple on the surface: Just eat and gain weight. It’s something Heather and the millions of others afflicted by eating disorders have heard countless times. The problem is that it’s never that simple. Heather has long since lost track of the number of times she has been admitted to hospital for low body weight, electrolyte imbalances caused by starvation or self-induced vomiting, or thoughts of suicide. In hospital she gains weight, but as soon as she is discharged she promptly returns to her old ways and loses what little weight she has gained. And so for more than 20 years, she has remained hopelessly, incurably, stuck.
Up to one in five people with chronic anorexia may die as a result of their illness, either due to the direct effects of starvation and malnutrition or due to suicide, making it the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders. Although scientists have made tremendous progress in decoding the underlying biology of eating disorders and in finding ways to intervene in cases of teenage anorexia before the disorder becomes chronic, this hasn’t translated into effective treatments for adults like Heather.