Alumna shares daughter’s passing
National Eating Disorders Week sheds light on teens’ struggles
Judy Heilbronner Avrin will always treasure the memory of her three-year-old daughter Melissa’s high ponytail bobbing up and down as she splashed in the ocean water in Florida.
Melissa Avrin grew to be a funny, quirky and bright individual. Up until middle school, she was always comfortable in her own skin.
But in 2009, at age 19, Melissa Avrin died from a heart attack — a direct result of her five-year battle with bulimia.
Judy Avrin said eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental disorder. In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, she shared her personal battles with the disorder.
At age 13, Melissa Avrin underwent several bodily changes from puberty, causing her to gain weight. It was then, after becoming uncomfortable with the change, that she went to summer camp.
“That’s when she first started having body image issues — the girls are all changing clothes and in bathing suits and talking about boys,” said Judy Avrin, a University alumna.
Eating disorders remain pervasive because those afflicted keep their suffering secret, she said. Although Melissa Avrin started her bulimic tendencies at age 13, her mother did not know she was bulimic until years later.
“People end up with an eating disorder because it becomes a coping mechanism, so they hide the behaviors, they go completely unnoticed,” she said.
Judy Avrin said her daughter had trouble with severe constipation, so she took her to see several doctors. She was unaware that Melissa Avrin’s digestive troubles resulted from purging with laxatives, which hindered her body’s absorption of food.
It was several months later, after Judy Avrin found glasses of chewed up food in her daughter’s drawers, that she began sending her to treatment.
Melissa Avrin spent her teenage years in and out of treatment. The disorder has a high relapse rate, and Judy Avrin said she felt powerless when bulimia repeatedly weakened her daughter’s spirit.
“You do everything and anything you can in terms of getting help and getting proper treatment but despite getting … all the best help you can it’s so difficult to treat,” she said. “I wish I could wave a magic wand and make her healthy because it’s such a long road.”
If a close relative has an eating disorder, people become 12 times more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves, Judy Avrin said.
Judy Avrin said she suffered from bulimia for many years, but Melissa Avrin experienced her eating disorder differently since it was strongly impacted by depression.
“That also made me not realize quite how severe or how dangerous her eating disorder was, so I felt helpless,” Judy Avrin said.
But she said she always remained hopeful.
“I always, always believed that she would recover — always,” she said. “She believed she’d have a future also.”
Melissa Avrin imaginatively expressed these visions of her future in the form of writing. Since early childhood, she wrote screenplays, poems and short stories, aspiring to become a filmmaker. As a teenager, she carried around a journal.
But after bulimia took her daughter’s life, Judy Avrin hesitated for months before building up the courage to read the journal.
“I thought about trying to forget about it and sticking it in a drawer, but mixed in with the pain and the depression and the illness were these powerful messages of hope and belief in a future and belief that she would beat [her disorder],” she said.
Judy Avrin showed the journal entries to Danna Markson, her daughter’s long-term therapist. Immediately after reading the journal, Markson insisted her filmmaker friend Jeffrey Cobelli could transform Melissa Avrin’s story into a documentary.
After two years of production, Judy Avrin, Markson and Cobelli finished the film called “Someday Melissa,” named after Melissa Avrin’s poem “Someday” that details her hopes and dreams, Judy Avrin said.
The popularity of “Someday Melissa” spread rapidly. The New York Times and The Today Show featured the story, and institutions screened the film all over the country. Melissa Avrin touched the lives of people globally, and now doctors and social workers use her story to help patients and high school students, Judy Avrin said.
“Her story and my ability to share it really does help give meaning to losing her, not always, but most of the time,” she said. “I get emails from people who thank me for giving them hope that Melissa’s stories inspired them to reach for their own ‘Someday.’”
Alexander Library will host a screening of “Someday Melissa” on March 5 at 7 p.m. The program will also feature panelists to answer questions from the audience, according to the University Libraries website.
Students on campus are also pushing to spread awareness for eating disorders.
Kelly Hoyt is the president of the University’s Project Help to Eat, Accept, and Live chapter, which aims to raise money for people with eating disorders, since many insurance companies do not consider anorexia nervosa or bulimia legitimate illnesses.
The group also helps diminish the societal obsession with body image that helps contribute to eating disorders, said Hoyt, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
“What society is telling us [is] what we should look like and how we should [think] about ourselves,” she said. “No one should feel like less of a person because they have a certain body shape.”
Hoyt said 25 percent of college-aged women have engaged in bingeing and purging as a way to control their weight, and 8.75 percent of those will develop an eating disorder.
This means at the University, approximately 3,345 undergraduate women are engaging in bulimic symptoms and 1,065 will develop an eating disorder, Hoyt said.
But in a survey conducted by Hoyt, she said she discovered 70 percent of students asked do not believe the University has spread awareness for eating disorders and 59 percent would not know what to do if a close friend had an eating disorder.
For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Project HEAL will work to bring change to the University. Michelle Casey, a member of the organization, feels personal about spreading the message because she struggled with an eating disorder and lost her mother to an eating disorder.
“The tagline of the week is ‘Everybody knows somebody,’” said Casey, a College of Nursing junior. “Because the statistics are so high, it’s so incredibly likely that any student on campus will know somebody who has an eating disorder. It’s such a multifaceted illness that is driven by our culture.”
Casey spoke at the Livingston Student Center Monday and Project HEAL tabled at the Douglass Campus Center to spread awareness. Today, she will give a talk at Katzenbach residence hall on Douglass campus and tomorrow Project HEAL will table at the Rutgers Student Center.