“Eating disorders are really prevalent, and people don’t realize how serious they can be,” says Ilise Hamilton, 20, a 2010 Toll Gate graduate who in December co-founded the Rhode Island chapter of Project HEAL, a non-profit organization that awards scholarships to people suffering from eating disorders and can't afford costly treatments to battle the disease.
“Even though I’ve gone through it, I didn’t realize that eating disorders have the highest fatality rate than any other mental illness. There’s no pill to take it away. You have to work through it, and a lot of people relapse. It’s a long process.”
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Inc., up to 24 million Americans of all ages and genders have an eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. While many of these individuals have health insurance, some don’t. Either way, said Hamilton, not all health insurance policies cover the pricey costs of treatment, which often deters people from seeking help.
That’s why Hamilton, along with Alyssa Caouette, 23, of Cumberland, decided to establish a local branch of Project HEAL, which stands for “Help to Eat and Live.” The national non-profit was co-founded in 2008 by a few teenage girls who met while undergoing treatment for anorexia nervosa in New York.
Last summer, People magazine reported that since they formed, the organization has raised at least $180,000 through donations, fundraisers and grants, helping to send seven women and girls to eating disorder treatment programs across the country.
Hamilton and Caouette, both students at the University of Rhode Island, hope to help even more people, as they will hold fundraisers, “Dine-to-Donate” for the local chapter March 5 from 4 to 9 p.m. at Applebee’s at 300 Quaker Lane in Warwick and Applebee’s in Woonsocket at 1855 Diamond Hill Road. Customers are asked to present a flyer promoting the event while dining, and 15 percent of the bill (before tax and tip) will be donated to ProjectHEAL.
The women recently made the flyers, which will be available shortly. To receive a flyer, email them at Projectheal.ri.
“In order for the money to be donated, you have to show the waiter the specific Project Heal flyer we made,” Hamilton said.
She went on to say that creating the Rhode Island chapter is so important because, from her experience, Rhode Island doesn’t offer many options for treatment to individuals aged 18 and older. She knows first hand, as she had difficulty finding help. Eventually, she came across the Adolescent Clinic through Bradley Hospital.
Caouette wasn’t as lucky: she had to travel to Massachusetts for treatment. And even though she was getting help, her insurance coverage was limited and only paying for a partial program for a psyche stay in a hospital when she needed a residential program.
“For every night that I was in treatment, my parents had to pay the overnight fee, which I think amounted to $200 a night,” Caouette said. “I was probably in treatment for about seven months. Yes, I got insurance coverage, but my parents still had tons to pay out of pocket. Some people don’t even get that, which makes getting treatment really hard. People don’t recover because they can’t even get treatment.”
“A lot of people don’t ever recover, and ProjectHEAL is geared towards people who can’t get through it on their own,” she said. “We help you find the resources.”
Aside from providing financial assistance, they also offer guidance and emotional support. As survivors, Hamilton and Caouette each serve as mentors for people in need.
“I want to show people that it does get better, life gets better every day,” Hamilton said. “We’re an organization of people who have gone through it. It’s so scary to take that first step, and I’m willing to be that example of how good it can be.”
Hamilton said her issue began shortly after she started her freshman year at Assumption College. Being away from home and taking on a different lifestyle created anxiety and stress for her. It wasn’t long before she was skipping meals and avoiding events that served food. When she came home for school breaks people noticed her weight loss, but at that point it wasn’t excessive.
“I was always watching and restricting what I was eating, but it wasn’t anything major,” she said. “I was dieting and losing weight, but it wasn’t extreme.”
Then, she transferred to URI in the fall of 2011. By December, she decided she didn’t want to live there anymore and came back to her Warwick home when the semester ended. In January, she was beginning to look gaunt, and her loved ones expressed concern. Her mother confronted her, but she denied that anything was wrong.
“I knew I was too thin and I knew it wasn’t good for me,” Hamilton said. “I was always focused on food.”
Hamilton created an eating schedule and followed it strictly. She woke up at 6:45 a.m. for school and ate exactly 11 Cheerios without milk, and then a serving of zero percent fat yogurt. She typically skipped lunch, but did her best to eat whatever her mother prepared for dinner. These meals were difficult for Hamilton, and she frequently retreated to her room consumed with guilt. She obsessed about it for hours afterward, doing crunches in an effort to feel better.
“It overtook my whole life,” she said. “I would plan my whole life based on what I was eating. There were so many things I missed out on. If my friends asked me out to eat, I wouldn’t go. I missed birthday parties because it caused too much stress.”
In time, she turned to her mother for help. After several unsuccessful visits to a pediatrician, who Hamilton said didn’t understand anorexia, her family enrolled her in the program at Bradley.
“I felt it taking a toll on my body, and I realized that I had to get help,” she said, noting that the pediatrician simply kept telling her to “eat more.”
“He just didn’t get it,” she said. “It’s just not that simple. Someone can be telling you that you will die if you don’t eat, and I still wouldn’t eat. I didn’t want to die, it was just really hard.”
When she weighed 104 pounds, her pediatrician told her that if she didn’t gain five pounds in five weeks he would have to intervene. When the time came she knew she had actually lost weight. She was right; she was down to 98 pounds.
“They could have forced the food down my throat and I still wouldn’t have eaten it,” said Hamilton. “My doctor said, ‘We’re either going to have to admit you to the hospital or send you to a clinic.’”
That’s when she was accepted into the eating disorder clinic at Bradley Hospital. Though hesitant at first, she worked with a therapist and a psychiatrist.
“I feel like a lot of people are scared to go to a psychiatrist, but it really did save my life,” Hamilton said. “She really understood what was going on. She wasn’t just saying, ‘just eat.’”
After about nine months of treatment, Hamilton began eating full meals again. These days, she is back to a healthy weight and no longer goes to the clinic or sees a psychiatrist.
“I’m really lucky because my recovery was relatively quick,” she said. “And I have a great support system.”
But she realizes that is not the case for everyone, and that not all people suffering from eating disorders want help. Hamilton has a message for these individuals.
“If you don’t get treatment for an eating disorder most likely you’re going to die,” Hamilton said. “Your body literally deteriorates. No one can want it for you. You have to want to change.”
Caouette has the same “tough love” approach. She pointed out that while no one chooses to get an eating disorder, they choose to recover.
“It’s a choice,” Caouette said. “If you’re not in recovery it’s because you chose to stick with your eating disorder, and people don’t like to acknowledge that fact because it puts the responsibility on them. Your eating disorder isn’t stronger than you. It’s a mental illness, but it’s not bigger than you.”
Learn more about Project HEAL at ProjectHEAL.org. “Like” the "Project HEAL-Rhode Island Chapter" page on Facebook and “Follow” them on Twitter under the handle @TheProjectHEAL and @ProjectHEALri.
Donations to the cause can also be made online via “Go-Fund-Me” at GoFundMe.com, or by check. To make a check donation, mail it to 255 South Cobble Hill Road, Warwick, RI 02886, care of Ilise Hamilton, or send it straight to ProjectHEAL at 17 Barbera Road, Commack, NY 11725. Be sure to put “Rhode Island” as the subject.