BRATTLEBORO—Eating disorders never entered the mind of filmmaker Bess O’Brien. At least not until she met Norm.
He was at a screening of “The Hungry Heart,” O’Brien’s 2013 documentary about drug addiction, and he told O’Brien that his daughter had struggled with an eating disorder.
O’Brien said his story struck her. She started digging into the issue.
Two years and many interviews later, O’Brien’s new documentary, “All of Me,” strives to bring the topic of eating disorders — what she describes as a “very secretive disease” — into the light.
“Food is glorious,” O’Brien said. “But we can also turn food on ourselves.”
The Brattleboro Retreat is presenting “All of Me,” from Kingdom County Productions, at the Latchis Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available only at the door: $12 for adults and $7 for youth. The screening is one of 24 scheduled across the state.
“All of Me” introduces audiences to the women, girls, and boys struggling with eating disorders and their efforts to heal. O’Brien’s film also focuses on the parents of those dealing with this disease.
A widespread struggle
According to the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association, “In the U.S., 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder.”
O’Brien described the underlying causes of eating disorders as a “perfect storm” that can include outside pressures around having an ideal body, emotional issues, mental health issues, and a seeking of control.
In a news release for the film, she writes, “Although the film focuses primarily on bulimia and anorexia, the underlying issues of other eating disorders are touched upon in the film.”
“In addition,” she writes, “‘All of Me’ delves deep into the often pervasive ways that food, dieting, and body image affect all of us on a daily basis. Many of us may not be diagnosed with an official eating disorder but struggle with our own histories and insecurities around food and weight.”
The undercurrents of eating disorders often include depression, anxiety, trauma, sensitivity, control, and perfectionism, O’Brien said.
“All of Me” also chronicles how people can rebuild a healthy and compassionate relationship with food, their bodies, themselves, and their loved ones.
’It’s all around us’
O’Brien said the popular conversation around eating disorders is often relegated to the realm of celebrities.
“Eating disorders are mostly talked about in a context of the rich, beautiful, and powerful,” she said.
But researching the documentary taught her otherwise.
“It’s all around us,” she said.
As an example, she related a story from a screening of her film in Montpelier. According to O’Brien, an audience member asked who in the room had either lived with an eating disorder or knew someone who struggled with the disease.
Of the estimated 120 audience members, O’Brien said, “half raised their hands.”
In O’Brien’s opinion, too few resources exist in Vermont for people struggling with eating disorders.
Her earlier documentary, “The Hungry Heart,” also focused on a disease: drug addiction. But unlike drugs, which often lead people into some form of criminal activity, O’Brien said, food “is legal and everywhere so it’s very easy to hide.”
“Get fit, eat food, go on diets,” O’Brien said. “These are all connected to our daily lives.”
In other words, a person looking to binge can buy three pizzas and no one will notice. Or another person dealing with an eating disorder can exercise five hours a day and no one says anything.
O’Brien listed some of the myths around eating disorders: They only happen to skinny white girls who want to look like models; these disorders are only fueled by the desire to be thin; only women develop eating disorders; the way to cure an eating disorder is to just “stop it and eat.”
“[Eating disorders] are a disease of the mind,” she said. “The addiction is in control [of the person].”
O’Brien said eating disorders start with people seeking ways to sooth, punish, “numb out,” or gain a sense of control. Maybe their lives feels out of control, or emotional issues feel painful, or they are struggling with mental health issues, she said.
Food is something a person can have control over, O’Brien said.
The irony is that, for some, that impulse toward control can tip into an addiction.
“And they are no longer in control,” she said.
One of the takeaways for O’Brien after working on “All of Me” is that “food is everywhere.”
“We don’t usually grow up with a bowl of heroin on the table,” she said, but food is all around us, it’s steeped in cultural traditions, and we must eat to live.
That combination can make recovering from an eating disorder hard, O’Brien added. Patients must rebuild a healthy relationship and interact daily “with the very thing that scares and triggers them,” she said.
One specialist O’Brien interviewed for “All of Me” was Bree Greenberg-Benjamin, MS Ed., LMFT, at the Vermont Center for Integrative Therapy.
According to O’Brien, Greenberg-Benjamin uses a combination of psychotherapy, mindfulness, family therapy, and yoga to help her patients.
The Brattleboro Retreat also offers eating disorder treatment through its adult, adolescent, and child programs. The hospital is helping sponsor the Oct. 27 screening.
Toward prevention and treatment
“As is the case with most mental health issues, the stigma around eating disorders generates shame and can prevent people from getting the help they need and deserve,” said Louis Josephson, president and CEO of the Retreat.
Josephson continued, “I encourage everyone in our community to see this film not only because it inspires empathy for those who are suffering, but because it harnesses the kind of collective awareness that helps strengthen our efforts to prevent and treat these disorders."
How can loved ones help someone dealing with an eating disorder?
There are many ways, such as eating with the patient and understanding that relapses are part of the healing process.
O’Brien stressed “taking away the shame of it.”
“We all have addictions — coffee, shopping. We all reach for something to sooth, numb, relax, or deal with anxiety or pain,” she continued. “The line [between a beer after work and an addiction] is fairly fuzzy in my opinion.”