Darlene Rockey's walk of pain
August 17, 2006 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Desert Sun photojournalist José Omar Ornelas spent nearly 12 months with Darlene Rockey of Palm Springs chronicling her years-long battle with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa and the debilitating pain caused by a crippling knee injury that triggered her slide into anorexia and depression.

Columnist Darrell Smith combined interviews and excerpts from Rockey’s personal history entries and medical correspondence to tell Rockey’s story.
posted by matteo at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2006

posted by everichon at 8:33 AM on August 17, 2006

Anyone who doesn't think anorexia is a disease should listen Darlene speak perfectly rationally about what she is doing to her body, and yet ... eat nothing but little pouches of cereal to limit her caloric intake.
posted by deadfather at 8:34 AM on August 17, 2006

Reminds me of the Japanese Buddhist monks who would slowly mummify themselves alive.
posted by sciurus at 9:02 AM on August 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is a great piece. All the more amazing because the Desert Sun is the worst paper ever.

Thanks, matteo.
posted by peep at 9:17 AM on August 17, 2006

posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:29 AM on August 17, 2006

constant pain relieved by body massages? That's got to be a treat for the therapist. Unique experience of massaging muscles effectively withered.
posted by Busithoth at 9:56 AM on August 17, 2006

shouldn't have clicked on that one while eating lunch. ugh.
posted by unwordy at 10:53 AM on August 17, 2006

I've seen this woman, but she was wearing pants and long sleeves so I mistook her for one of the many freeze-dried, overly tanned women of a certain age that inhabit the Palm Springs area. So terribly sad.
posted by killy willy at 10:59 AM on August 17, 2006

She was hot!
posted by obeygiant at 11:00 AM on August 17, 2006

No doubt Jeb Bush will demand her doctors insert a feeding tube.
posted by fandango_matt at 11:06 AM on August 17, 2006

Such a horrifying disease. I lived with a woman with anorexia in college, and it was a constant struggle for her. You don't realize how much your life revolves around food, eating, eating with friends, enjoying food. For her it was torture.
posted by agregoli at 11:19 AM on August 17, 2006

Recently I saw a clearly anorexic woman walking ahead of me, speaking on a cell phone. Curious, I sped up to overcome her and eavesdrop. Not surprisingly, she was talking about food.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:51 AM on August 17, 2006

Powerful post matteo. So interesting to hear a person lucid about their disorder and also unable to control it. One expects that conscious understanding would cause release from the compulsivity, but, poignantly, that's not the way healing addiction-as-a-coping-strategy works. I coined a phrase for this ability to be intelligently aware and strong in some aspects of one's emotional/mental/practical life and extremely fragile in others areas, "compartmentalised competency". Conscious understanding and awareness of the disorder is only one part of the healing process.

People with compartmentalised competency issues often baffle their friends and relatives because they seem knowledgeable, educated, aware but inexplicably unable to cope with certain parts of their lives, which may be easy for most people to deal with and manage.

Darrell Smith and José Omar Ornelas' excellent article said: Meanwhile, the bitter, strained relationship between Rockey and her father only intensified with her mother's deteriorating condition.

Rockey would later write:

"My Dad didn't speak to us the entire time my mother was dying. (My mother) didn't eat for 18 days and my eating disorder seemed to kick in."

It prompts me to think of this exceptionally insightful online essay from Human Nature Lost for Words, The Psychoanalysis of Anorexia and Bulimia by Em Farrell.
posted by nickyskye at 11:59 AM on August 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow, that is sobering. I can't help but think that she is not long for this world, looking at those photos and the 62 pound weight revealed at the end of the piece. I do wish there had been a bit more emphasis on what to do to get help, and what a typical treatment regimen is like.
posted by tentacle at 12:10 PM on August 17, 2006

I remember being taken aback at the prevalence of AN and bulimia when I was in college. Sometimes I wonder if, given the average middle-class American diet, if you see a college-age gal who isn't athletic and is slender, there's a darn good chance she's battling with an eating disorder.
posted by pax digita at 12:37 PM on August 17, 2006

I suffered from anorexia for about three years. Mine was mostly a reaction to a terrible work situtation. What underlies everything that Darlene says is what I experienced: it is a control issue. You feel like all of these other parts of your life are out of control and just spiraling in chaos and often at other people's whims, and you end up feeling like "Well, I can't control any of this. But I can control this thing. The one thing. I can always control what I put into my body." It's not true, of course, since you end up being under the control of some illusion body image in your mind.

My own anorexia results in a 5' 8" 110 pound 24 year old male. Certainly not the paltry weight of most anorexics, but enough to start to addle my brain pretty heavily (your brain stops working properly since you deplete the fat in your body to the point that your nerves don't have proper insulation, which results in some very, very interesting perceptual changes of the world around you).

If she's like a lot of anorexics she is almost certainly suffering from depression as well. Anyone that has suffered from depression knows how incredibly difficult it can be to get yourself into a state of mind to get help or want help or even accept help. Add to that the fact that you've already got control issues, and your social life is declining because you don't want to be seen how you look, etc. and the cycle is so incredibly vicious that it is nearly impossible to get out of.

I am lucky. I did get out of it. But I won't ever forget how horrible it was.
posted by smallerdemon at 12:38 PM on August 17, 2006 [6 favorites]

Impressed and moved by your honest and articulate post smallerdemon, thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 12:45 PM on August 17, 2006

Sometimes I wonder if, given the average middle-class American diet, if you see a college-age gal who isn't athletic and is slender, there's a darn good chance she's battling with an eating disorder.

Really? You think "there's a darn good chance" that any slender 20-year-old woman who's not on her college soccer team has an eating disorder?

Not to diminish the tragic situation of Rockey, nor the prevalance of eating disorders, but kindly check this tempting assumption at the door. I'm tall (nearly 5'10), have always been slender (whether I exercise or not -- my top weight is about 135), and have been out-and-out accused by "concerned" strangers and acquaintances alike of having an eating disorder more times than I can count -- of course, friends, family, and doctors never make this mistake because they know I eat normally.

The point is that there is actually a continuum of body types between anorexic and obese, and millions of us lie somewhere in between without going to any extremes in terms of diet or physical activity.
posted by scody at 12:59 PM on August 17, 2006

Reminds me of an episode of "This American Life" where the reporter discussed her bouts with anorexia and the ongoing struggles of her friend Vivian. Also, the following "Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father" is fantastic. Bad times when one's basic survival needs are overwhelmed by self-image issues.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:01 PM on August 17, 2006

Lara: How do I look?
Lauren: You look kind of skinny, actually.
Lara: Skinny, really? Bulimic skinny or anorexic skinny?
Lauren: What's the difference?
Lara: Bulimic skinny passes for healthy, except your teeth rot. But my teeth aren't rotting, so...
Lauren: So you look bulimic skinny.
posted by geoff. at 1:13 PM on August 17, 2006

I definitely back what scody says. I know many men and women who are simly slender people. They are simply built thin. They have zero eating issues but are simply thin. At least three of my current friends would fall into this categorization, and I have no concerns about them having eating disorders.

You may not can tell when someone is on the edge of a disorder, but you can easily tell when people have moved beyond the edge. It becomes quite obvious.

Bulimia less so, I would say. But anorexia starts to become painfully obvious. The person isn't slender or thin, they are gaunt and they begin to simply look like someone you don't know.

I must correct something:
"My own anorexia results in a 5' 8" 110 pound 24 year old male."
results = resulted

It's been many years ago for me. I weigh about 155-160 now. I don't own a scale in my house. I walk a lot as my regular exercise (I don't own a car) and take martial arts classes. I eat when I'm hungry until I'm full. That last part was the single most difficult thing to learn after my bout with anorexia. That sounds like something almost crazy that you would forget how a basic function of your body works, but like any debilitating illness, the affected part of your body that doens't see any use has to be retrained all over again how to function. In retrospect, that was the single most difficult thing to relearn and took longer than anything else to overcome.
posted by smallerdemon at 1:13 PM on August 17, 2006

So, how come you can hospitalize people who are psychotic or suicidal against their wishes because they're a danger to themselves, and force them to take medication to normalize their condition, but you can't hospitalize anorexics who are clearly a danger to themselves and put them on a regimen of forced feeding, therapy, and psychiatric meds to keep them from starving themselves to death?

I mean, their skewed body image is obviously at least as severe a failure in reality perception as that of an an average psychotic.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:27 PM on August 17, 2006

I read this intruiging theory in Phantoms in the Brain that conjectured (while solving phantom limb problems) that eating disorders are caused by a malfunction of the mental picture of the body, that it doesn't update as one loses weight so it will never feel they are skinny enough.
posted by Brainy at 1:29 PM on August 17, 2006

I just finished a grad school paper on Catherine of Siena and how she died of anorexia at age 33. There is a great book called "Holy Anorexia". Saints who killed themselves by starvation. Anorexia has been around for a very long time. Much of it has to do with childhood grief or trauma that was never resolved and also having very controlling parents. Many have been molested. If you feel helpless in a controlled situation, no one can control what goes in and out of your mouth. You become the one in control of that at least. It's never about the food really, it's deeper than that. It's not feeling worthy enough, guilt from being molested, not feeling good enough, etc.
posted by Sonserae at 2:04 PM on August 17, 2006

I choose to hang on to my rice krispies treats.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:21 PM on August 17, 2006

I am 5' 11" and was ~110 at around 23/24... I remember I just wasn't very hungry...
posted by LoopSouth at 2:21 PM on August 17, 2006

This might be a strange thing to focus on, but the cereal she's eating is a brand called Optimum Slim by Nature's Path. It has about 11g of fibre per serving, and is designed to keep you fuller, longer so you eat less.

Now, I don't really want to make this about me, but here goes:

I eat Optimum Slim for breakfast every day. Discovered it during my first go-around at Weight Watchers, and I think it was an important part of getting my hunger pangs under control so that I wouldn't reach for a bagel, muffin, or some other calorie-laden carb missile an hour after eating breakfast. But to see that this woman -- this painfully thin, obviously mentally ill woman -- eats this same cereal for similar reasons just made my head snap back and think about how obsessed I became with food when I was at the height of my WW-fandom. I wasn't necessarily eating it because it tasted good (it does) or for my health, I was ate it because it helped keep my weight down.

I don't think I'll ever be able to look at that purple box quite the same way again.
posted by likorish at 2:28 PM on August 17, 2006

utterly heartbreaking.
posted by sdn at 3:08 PM on August 17, 2006

Is there any scientific, physical, measurable evidence that addictions and compulsions aren't a behavioral choice?

She says she chooses the anorexia. Other people choose obesity, or body building, or body apathy, or alcoholism, or sobriety. I can't understand the It's-A-Disease explanation for every imbalanced indulgence except as an excuse. You blame a "disease" for something you want to ignore you're too weak to change.

Pretty soon virtue will just be another disease whose sufferers can't help but do no wrong.
posted by techgnollogic at 3:43 PM on August 17, 2006

All addictions are usually symptoms of a deeper problem. It's a way of masking the hurt from something in your life or childhood. When you deal with the real issue, the need to reach for the pacifier of drugs or alcohol or food or depriving yourself of food diminishes when the pain is resolved through therapy.

Our society is fixed on fixing the symptom rather than the problem. "Your obesity is a food problem. Here, go on this diet and only eat 1500 calories a day". "Your drug abuse is a drug problem. Don't take drugs anymore". This is silly. When you talk with the person, they are usually in pain...some deep pain, some feeling of worthlessness, unworthiness, insecurity. When you deal with those real issues, the cravings for reaching for something to mask the pain is reduced drastically because you don't have anymore pain to mask.
posted by Sonserae at 4:27 PM on August 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the article. These extreme cases of anorexia are always pretty emotionally intense, and I don't think this one is an exception.

The worst part, I think, is reading about her background, the main event that catalyzed her anorexia as well as her childhood with her father (what sort of little girls eat celery and carrots for lunch?)...you think you've got it bad, but someone's always worse off.
posted by nonmerci at 5:15 PM on August 17, 2006

I understand people who are anorexic that do not realize that they are anorexic. But this woman is anorexic to the point that she is going to die, she knows it, and she continues to do it. I cannot say that I understand that at all.

It would be like having a fatal disease that can easily be cured/controlled by taking a drug and refusing to take the drug. In her case, the drug that will cure her is food and she is refusing to take it.
posted by flarbuse at 6:03 PM on August 17, 2006

There's a walking woman in my neighborhood of South Boston, thin as this woman. Sometimes she has a cast on her leg. I always wondered what was wrong with her. I think I know now. They could be sisters. Sad. (Scoffs down another caramel torte...)

I used to wish I could have anorexia for about a month. Now I'm happy being pleasantly plump. So sad, sooooo sad.
posted by WaterSprite at 6:32 PM on August 17, 2006

Powerful images. Seeing things like that always shake up the perception I have of myself, so I guess that is...something.
posted by liquorice at 6:44 PM on August 17, 2006

Thank you, smallerdemon. I've struggled with anorexia and other forms of disordered eating over the past couple years, and am really only coming out of it in the last year to six months. Nowhere near as bad as Darlene, but I'd just like to second your statement about how hard is it to learn to eat again.

And flarbuse: In my experience, the "drug" that can cure anorexia is not simply food. Even if Darlene were put in an inpatient program to bring her weight up, the underlying issues would probably still be there. And let me reiterate: I was straight anorexic for 4 months, and at the end, even though I knew I needed to do something, even though I had read ridiculous quantities of nutrition articles, even though I thought constantly about food, I had no clue what a "normal meal" was. Eating can be very very hard.
posted by matematichica at 7:03 PM on August 17, 2006

I think the notion of "I can control nothing else, but I can control what goes into my body" sheds a great deal of light on this disease. I can understand that, when I cannot understand any other aspect of allowing your body to waste itself into death.

Such a convoluted path to destruction by way of sense of self, huh?

Personally, I think there has to be a cure for this. I am disappointed that there has not been more progress, and am pretty sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that the cure won't lend itself to TV and NASCAR ads nearly as well the cure for limp dicks.
posted by VMC at 7:26 PM on August 17, 2006

Sonserae, Just wanted to thank you for your intelligent posts and from my own knowledge to validate your thoughts on the matter.

Patrick Carnes, who has written extensively on sex addiction, sexual anorexia and "betrayal bonds" has also written about deprivation addiction in his excellent book, Betrayal Bond, as a neurochemical addiction pattern, with highs and crashes.

Addictions are multi-faceted states/situations, partly about the substance or behavior, partly about underlying emotional/psychological issues to do with the past, partly about external cues and input, partly about the person's biology and what's happening with their body, partly about genetics, and partly the brain getting in a neurochemical rut. With anorexia nervosa this addiction to depriving oneself by not eating adequately is compounded by body dysmorphia.
posted by nickyskye at 7:39 PM on August 17, 2006

THere are two women at my gym that are verging on this kind of exercise routine/ body type. At this point I wonder when the gym will step in and say "no more".

The worst part about this is that it sounds like she had a scar tissue problem in her knee and it is treatable. But most surgeons don't know it so they just tell the patient "too bad. guess you're crippled for life. may as well just give up." I've been through that and it took a lot of research and doctor visits to find someone who was able to fix it relatively easily.
posted by fshgrl at 8:32 PM on August 17, 2006

NO AUTHOR FOUND NO BACKLINK FOUND " THere are two women at my gym that are verging on this kind of exercise routine/ body type. At this point I wonder when the gym will step in and say 'no more'."

Never. Why would they? They're making money.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2006

I wish you good luck and good thoughts matematichica. It's hard right now, but in the long run it's worth getting back to looking at food as something to enjoy instead of something to agonize over.

Might I recommend finding food you love the flavor and mental feeling of to get you back on track. Peanut butter was my food of choice while recovering from anorexia. Not sure why. But man, it was the best. Still love it even now.
posted by smallerdemon at 11:24 PM on August 17, 2006

I understand people who are anorexic that do not realize that they are anorexic. But this woman is anorexic to the point that she is going to die, she knows it, and she continues to do it. I cannot say that I understand that at all.

From living with an anorexic, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that there is a large mental component. Control is a huge part of it, and fear of loss of control. But it also seems to be a purely mental block.

Also, food becomes so vile that at least my roommate became disgusted at people even talking about it.

I believe personally that it is a chemical imbalance combined with real-world factors (much like depression) and that hopefully one day pharmacology will be able to fix it.
posted by agregoli at 9:38 AM on August 18, 2006

I wish I could get that mental block. I'd like to get rid of this lard butt and beer gut. It's not the diet that I can't grok: it's the twenty mile hike she makes herself do every day. That's the insane part.

I've changed my diet to include more muesli & yogurt and less beef and junkfood. I've been contemplating taking more drastic measures, like trying a week of nothing but muesli & yogurt, and removing junk food entirely. This is really hard cuz there's fastfood joints like everywhere. I hear they're going to install a Starbucks and a Burger King in my front yard next week. The backyard will have a Taco Bell. There's a sign in the back seat of my car telling me this is the future site for a Seven Eleven, and thanking me ahead of time for my patronage.

Think I'll just do water and cheezits for a month. If I ever get that thin, someone remind me to have a cheeseburger.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:59 AM on August 18, 2006

I wish I could get that mental block.

No, you really don't. It is, by all standards, a living hell.
posted by agregoli at 10:36 AM on August 18, 2006

Here is an exerpt from the book I mentioned. "Holy Anorexia". It's very interesting:
posted by Sonserae at 11:22 AM on August 18, 2006

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