Recovering from an eating disorder is an often long, painful and difficult journey. But what many people don’t know is that it is also an extremely expensive one.
It is estimated that 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders and that it is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran met while in treatment for their eating disorders as young teenagers. By the time they were 15, they vowed to do something to help others with the same disease who didn’t have the money to pay for treatment. They founded Project HEAL in 2008 and have since sent 36 patients to treatment.
At Project HEAL’s fundraising gala in San Francisco on Friday -- which was co-hosted by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington -- Saffran told the audience about being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when she was only 10 years old. She was hospitalized four times during her freshman year of high school for a total of seven months.
“I didn’t think recovery was possible for a long time and I had many lapses along the way,” she said. “But I was lucky, with an awesome support group, top-class treatment and frankly, a great insurance plan, I got there. Full recovery from this disease is possible. That said, the journey that enabled me to get my life back cost upwards of $200,000 -- something that most Americans simply can’t afford.”
According to Project HEAL, it costs $30,000 for one month of full residential treatment for a patient with an eating disorder. Project HEAL says it is one of only three organizations in the United States that funds treatment for eating disorders.
For Kalanick, who co-hosted the event at Uber headquarters in San Francisco, it is a deeply personal cause. Kalanick’s longtime girlfriend, violinist Gabi Holzwarth, is currently in recovery from an eating disorder.
“Unlike Liana and Kristina, I am still in recovery. Every day is really hard,” she said on Friday. “But I fight every day and I’ll never give up. There are a lot of girls out there like me who can’t afford treatment like I can.”
The theme of the gala was “Fighting for 500.” Each year, Project HEAL receives around 500 applications from those who are motivated to recover, but lack the financial resources for treatment.
The goal this year is to support all 500 applicants. Of the millions of Americans who suffer from eating disorders, Project HEAL estimates that only 10 percent of them get treatment due to inadequate insurance coverage.
Kalanick began the night by saying, “This is tough.” He met Holzwarth at a Silicon Valley party, and soon after becoming involved, she told him that she needed help. He opened up to the gala audience Friday night about what it means to be a supporter.
“We all have a sister, a daughter, a mother, a partner or a best friend who is going through a tough time. There is light at the end of that tunnel -- and they don’t always see it themselves," Kalanick said. "As a supporter, it’s our job to make sure that they know that our love is unconditional, that their beauty starts from the inside and that our support will always be there to help them get back up, no matter what.”
Huffington, too, came to the evening with the experience of being a supporter. Her youngest daughter, Isabella, was diagnosed with an eating disorder when she was 11 years old.
“Anybody who is a parent knows that there is no fiercer love than that of a parent to a child,” Huffington said. “When your child goes through something like that, especially when it comes to your relationship with food -- which, as a Greek, is something that is sacred -- you just cannot imagine anybody refusing to eat. I kept thinking of my mother as I was dealing with my own guilt, thinking how did I bring this about? What did I do to make this be a condition for my daughter?”
Huffington remembered seeing her daughter reject her birthday cake, and watching her hair come out in clumps as it was washed in a London salon. “Even after you move into recovery, a lot of the symptoms continue," Huffington said. "She’s now 24 and gratefully, she’s doing well. But it’s something that you’re always on watch about.”
The gala honoree was documentarian and activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who has made it her life’s work to shed light on gender inequality and how the media has contributed to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power.
Her relationship with eating disorder awareness is also a personal one. “The issues of struggling with an eating disorder hits close to home,” she said at the gala. “It’s been a long journey since my personal struggle at the age of 18, but like Project HEAL tells us, recovery is possible."
"Still, though, as a mother, I have tremendous concern for the future -- that our girls and boys will grow up with a strong sense of personal empowerment, self-confidence, a healthy body image and a wealth of healthy role models -- so that our children do not experience the pain that I and many of us suffered in our earlier years,” Siebel Newsom said.
Siebel pointed out that eating disorders do not just impact women in America. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million men struggle with eating disorders today.
“How do we remedy this unhealthy culture?” Siebel Newsom asked. “A culture that limits our boys and girls by seeing women’s value in our youth, beauty and sexuality only. And men’s value only in physical strength, power, control and the ability to dominate others. For starters, it requires each and every one of us to challenge toxic norms in public culture, private culture, the media and daily life.”
Project HEAL raised over half a million dollars on Friday evening, which will go a long way toward its fight for 500. To donate or learn more about their mission, visit the Project HEAL website.
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