UT grad student spreads awareness of eating disorders after battling it herself


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Not long ago, Niki DuBois came across a journal she kept as a child for a school assignment.

One line she had written all those years ago stuck out to her: “My least favorite part about me was my body. And reading that was so heartbreaking to think of a 7-year-old little girl writing that in a school journal.”

DuBois, now a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, continued to struggle with body image through her adolescence.

“I started when I was 15 with purging, binging and purging, and then as I got into college I started to restrict and then over-exercise,” she said. “I had dropped to a very low weight and was at risk for a heart attack.”

DuBois is one of millions of Americans who have battled eating disorders. This week, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, is the perfect time, she said, to draw attention to the fact that it can happen to anyone at any stage of life and the public support system for people fighting the disorders needs to be stronger.You can find signs and symptoms for a wide range of eating disorders, and ways to get help, here.

“Even from the inside community, there’s not really a sense of community or support,” she said.

Working on her laptop in the lobby of UT’s school of social work, where she’s back in school to get her master’s degree, DuBois solicited sponsors and donations for Austin’s National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) walk, happening in April.

“I’m a little nervous. I’ve never planned anything on this scale,” she said. This is her first year heading up the annual walk, but her third participating in it. “Thankfully donors are responding — prospective donors.”

She wants people to consider donating to the cause and registering for the walk, even those who think they don’t have a personal connection to someone with an eating disorder. With so many people suffering, she said, everyone is affected in some way.

“Eating disorders don’t just fit one particular mold,” DuBois said.

“They range in shape and size and gender and ethnicity – all of the above,” Dr. Allison Chase, managing clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, told KXAN last month.

The disorders are complicated, both in how they manifest themselves and in their treatment, she added. Eating disorders often come with other mental health struggles, such an anxiety or depression, and have physiological consequences, such as a weakened heart and the inability to regulate body temperature

Her clinic treats a range of disorders in children as young as 10 years old, and the patients she sees are fortunate to have a chance at recovery.

“We know that someone dies from an eating disorder every 62 minutes,” Chase said. “So approximately once an hour, someone dies from an eating disorder.”

Austin’s Eating Recovery Center is where DuBois sought treatment one of the three times she attempted it after her formal diagnosis in 2011. Now, she said, she’s close to two and a half years into her recovery and feeling good.

“I used to not leave my house because I didn’t feel good enough to be seen, and now here I am being interviewed on TV,” she laughed.

Her personal journey is why she’s in grad school now. She plans to become a therapist for people with eating disorders and hopes to help people at the Eating Recovery Center, where she found another chance.

Meanwhile, DuBois is doing what she can to raise support for people fighting for their lives, both through the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and the NEDA walk coming up in a couple months.

It took a college professor to recommend treatment before she pursued it the first time — long after her body image problems were visible in her childhood writing. She doesn’t want anyone to miss the signs she was exhibiting.

“So that maybe in the future an educator who would have seen that a little 7-year-old wrote that in her school journal, they could have prevented an eating disorder from coming and accumulating,” she said. “They could have helped connect me to resources so that I wouldn’t struggle for 12 years with an eating disorder.”

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