Vermont look at eating disorders set for local debut

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When Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien debuted her 2013 drug-abuse documentary "The Hungry Heart" — a picture so powerful it made national news as the focus of Gov. Peter Shumlin's subsequent State of the State address — she understood viewers might approach her with their own stories.

Even so, the middle-aged man who introduced himself in Vergennes caught her by surprise.

"He said, 'I don't know what your next movie is going to be, but my daughter has suffered from an eating disorder for the last 10 years,'" she recalls.

O'Brien had just screened her hour-and-a-half feature about the addictive pull of prescription painkillers. Yet as the houselights rose, she listened as the father spoke of his child abusing something as nutritious as food in search of a sense of control, only to watch her weight and well-being plummet.

"We've heard about it here and there," the filmmaker says of such ailments as anorexia and bulimia, "but a lot of it is through celebrities on the cover of People magazine."

Visiting the Vermont Center for Integrative Therapy in South Burlington, O'Brien saw the issue plaguing too many local girls and a rising number of boys. Turning her focus to the office's clients and clinicians, she's set to present her resulting documentary, "All of Me," in Brattleboro on Oct. 27 as part of a fall tour of some two dozen cities and towns statewide.

"All of Me" isn't as headline-grabbing as "The Hungry Heart," which sparked 200 public screenings (including one hosted by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in Washington, D.C.) and press coverage ranging from ABC News ("a cry for help from Vermont, of all places," Diane Sawyer began her report) to Al Jazeera television.

"You're only as good as your last movie," the filmmaker says, "but 'The Hungry Heart' is a once-in-a-lifetime situation."

Even so, O'Brien's latest work is elegantly effective in communicating the fact that addictive behaviors to blot out pain aren't limited to substance abuse. The Vermonters interviewed in the 75-minute feature — many who began dieting to look thin, a lesser number who are haunted by childhood trauma — all struggle with low self-esteem, self-compassion and sense of connection.

"An eating disorder is a really great way to control one part of your life," one young woman says in the film. "When everything else feels really out of whack, out of focus, impossible to deal with, that's a really simple behavior to engage in to feel like you have control over something."

For some, the response is simply not eating. For others, it's eating and then purging. For all, it's feeling a ballooning sense of power as the digits on the bathroom scale drop.

"People noticed and they were like, 'you look good — did you lose a few pounds?" a second young woman says. "Being a teenager, you're always trying to look so good, and here I was doing it."

"Suddenly it's not about food, it's not about livelihood, it's not even about you as a person," a third says. "It's just about numbers."

"That's when it gets worse," a fourth says. "When you feel you don't need anyone because you can take care of it."

"You're so mentally sick," a fifth says, "you don't know how physically sick you are."

Bree Greenberg-Benjamin, founder and director of the Vermont Center for Integrative Therapy, offers the film's professional voice.

"What starts out as just 'I want to be healthy,'" the therapist says, "really gets co-oped and turns into an obsession."

Greenberg-Benjamin doesn't serve up answers on a plate. Instead, she helps clients find them by surveying life events and emotions that trigger anger, anxiety and depression.

"That's the stuff I'm really interested in dealing with," she says.

The documentary also offers the perspective of parents ("it's incredibly difficult," says the father who inspired O'Brien, "because you don't know what to do") and, 41 minutes into the film, a young man wrestling with anorexia.

"It was just kind of a general uncomfortableness with my body," he says as he nervously fidgets.

So much so, he once attempted suicide.

"Do you want to talk about that?" his mother asks on camera.

"Can you?" he says as he chews his fingernails.

The biggest obstacle to treatment, the film concludes, is the same one chronicled in "The Hungry Heart": Not enough health care resources and reimbursement for a disorder that can drain families of tens of thousands of dollars.

"She probably should have stayed in residential (treatment) longer to really be weight restored," one father says of his daughter, "but the insurance company has their criteria that have nothing to do with the actual illness."

And so his child returned home, only to relapse.

"We're spending so much money not to solve the problem," one mother adds, "when what we could be doing is really investing in good care."

Based in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet, O'Brien has spent two years raising production money, filming and editing nearly 80 hours of interview footage. Now traveling with the movie on a statewide tour, she's set to appear at a Brattleboro screening Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Latchis Theater. Tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for youth, with more information available at the website kingdomcounty.org.

"We all suffer from the same things," one young woman says at the end of the documentary. "Just conditions of being human, being afraid of being ourselves, having uncertainties, not loving ourselves, having this really strong idea that for some reason we're not good enough. I don't know where these things come from, but somehow it seems to be a really big problem."

O'Brien would like her film to help lead to a solution.

"It's really about how we view ourselves, our bodies, what messages we're getting from our family, friends, the media and society," she says. "I hope as we tour, the conversation goes way beyond eating disorders to how do we deal with things in our lives that are uncomfortable."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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