I had to stop what I was doing this morning to write about the teenage boy who recently died from anorexia. I realize it is all over the media but I’m not the five o’ clock news so I’m not reporting anything. Actually, I wanted to write about this kid because I saw his face on the Today Show this morning and it really struck me. I have known people who suffered from anorexia and bulimia and at least one of those people had to seek help.But this kid, he was in a different category altogether. He was the extreme, perhaps the face of what those other kids would have become had they not sought help, but something else regardless.
I suppose T.J. Warschefsky really has become the face of anorexia nervosa for boys. But what disturbs me the most are the pictures he was taking of himself in the mirror each day, and the gradual receding of his entire being, wasting away with his body, his mind taken over by fear and anxiety. He developed an obsession with becoming the contemporary standard of physical perfection
According to the Today show, TJ struggled with the disease since he was 14 years old and even sought treatment from a psychiatric facility for three months. His parents describe him as an over achiever, constantly striving for perfection in every part of his life, which slowly manifested itself into a physical obsession.
His mom said he was an athlete who wanted to improve his athletic performance, at first. He began to eat less and work out more, striving for a “six pack” and “rock hard abs”. But once he achieved that goal, it wasn’t enough.
I am trying to express what really struck me about this story, other than the obvious fact that anorexia nervosa is a disease that impacts millions of people every day, there is something about this particular story that is lingering in my mind. It could be that TJ began to take his picture in the mirror every day to measure his success. It could be that in the very last photo he took of himself, he looked like a skeleton with hanging skin, emaciated doesn’t do it justice; but what’s more, his face looked empty and almost possessed. It scares me.
Many men and women have distorted body images and everyone knows how it feels to worry about how you look or to compare yourself to other people. But when it’s so extreme, you have to wonder, what is the highest contributing factor? Clearly there isn’t just one, but which has the most impact? Does anorexia generally begin with a desire to control one circumstance and receive instant gratification or reward in return; is it the fear of morbid obesity that compels a person to move beyond fitness to come full circle, where they end up less healthy than if they had eaten lavishly?
I think TJ’s mom put it into words perfectly: Susan Barry said her son TJ’s perfectionism and desire for control may have made him more vulnerable to the disease that eventually took his life. Because TJ’s anorexia took over his ability to reason, said Barry, it was impossible for him to recover.
“I think there’s a point in this illness where the obsession and the control turns to complete out of control,” she said. “The illness takes control. And they become possessed.”
TJ died in 2007 at the age of 22 and weighing a mere 78 pounds. He was in the middle of doing his daily exercise routine of1000 sit ups when his heart just stopped. Just like that, he was snuffed out. But by that time his mother believes much of her son had already been destroyed.
I believe I know a little about addiction and compulsive/ obsessive behavior; I also know how it feels to be sort of drawn into something because of fear or anxiety. But there’s something in people suffering from extreme anorexia nervosa that mirrors a similar reflection to someone who is literally “possessed.”
When TJ achieved his goal to improve his athletic ability and develop “rock hard abs,” one would think he would feel satisfaction but somewhere along that point in time, it switched on him, propelling him into a state of fear and total compulsion. He was afraid of becoming obese. He also had a significant disturbance in his own self image, a problem many young girls and boys suffer from.
There is no doubt that the superficial emphasis on physical appearance and the unobtainable image of perfection airbrushed on magazines and T.V. are major contributing factors. I mean, if we were a Country that idolized fuller bodies and extra body fat, there would be no reason to fear weight gain (not speaking in terms of morbid obesity and death, of course.) When asked if they are afraid to die from anorexia, most anorexics will tell you that it doesn’t scare them enough to stop. I believe that they cannot stop on their own. And even with help, I think there is a point when they psychosis is too much and they become too far gone.
While the physical prototype of perfection becomes more and more unachievable, the people suffering from anorexia are met with more severe consequences. TJ wanted to control the things in his personal environment and move himself to a higher standard, however, in his attempt at self control, he lost all control and if you look from the before picture of TJ to the after picture of TJ, he literally looks like something has taken over his body and stolen his soul.
TJ was suffering from a culmination of symptomatic behaviors including things like the way he photographed himself obsessively , hid food from his mother so he didn’t have to eat it, exercised obsessively, developed a distorted image of himself, believing that no matter how thin he became, he was still too fat, and his eventual transition from wanting to achieve “rock hard abs” to feeling the need to lose every ounce of fat on his body and then enjoying the moment of gratification that came from achieving (temporary) “success.” The last pictures he took of himself depict a young man who is lifeless with the same hunger and desperation as an addict might who is trying to calm his compulsion to use. When he looked in the mirror he was no longer able to see his own reflection looking back; he saw himself differently, fixated on what little was left of his body rather than on the image of what had become of it.