Emory Report

May 3, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 30

Jennifer Twillmann reflects on a semester of starvation

Chronic injuries ended Jennifer Twillmann's 16-year relationship with sports midway through her freshman year at Emory. Back home in Knoxville, Tenn., her family was strained with problems by a sibling, her grandmother was sick and her dog died. "I don't know that there was one cause. I don't know if there's ever one cause," Twillmann said of the anorexia nervosa she battled three years ago. "My problem was not so much something deep and dark from my past. I didn't set out to do it. I didn't know I was doing it."

An Emory College senior, Twillmann will graduate with a degree in psychology next week. She's undecided on a career but is considering pursuing double graduate degrees in sports psychology and nutrition. She'd like to work with athletes who have eating disorders.

Compared to many whose anorexia becomes a way of life spanning years, Twillmann's bout was short but severe. Standing 5 feet 4, she starved off 40 pounds--to weigh just under 100--in three months. Her recovery began about three months later.

Twillmann compares anorexia's grip to alcoholism, "another brain chemistry disease." Partly as therapy and partly as gratitude for surviving, she now gives the unvarnished truth about her anorexia in talks to young people. Twillman is certified to give presentations as a member of the College's Student Health Alliance of Peer Educators. "Since I came back from treatment I've had this sense I wanted to help," she said.

At age 2, Twillmann began taking gymnastics as therapy for a clubfoot defect in both feet. She worked at it for 13 years, the last eight of which she spent competing in state and regional events. Her gymnastics injuries included a stress fracture and other problems in her back, not to mention a cyst that developed on an ankle. She had surgery to remove the cyst, then tore a tendon in the other ankle.

"I'd say there was a little bit of burnout involved when I got out of gymnastics, but mostly my body couldn't take it anymore," Twillmann said. She turned to diving and participated on both high school and college teams. More injuries, including ongoing back problems, finally persuaded her to quit. Anorexia soon crept in.

"I think the problem started around January or February of 1996," Twillmann said. "There was the loss of diving--the total loss of competitive athletics--and all the other things happening. I'd always used athletics to distract me, but that was gone." A life regimented by training schedules and dietary constraints was all she'd ever known. Twillmann spent hours in the gym. She obsessed over every morsel of food. "I was overexercising, but I didn't realize I was really losing weight until March," she said. "First I saw that I'd lost five pounds, which I thought was OK. Then I lost five more and five more, and that's how it was going when I went home for Spring Break."

She exercised on the kind of machines that indicate calories burned by the workout. The number of calories expended--typically 500 to 600--would be the maximum she'd allow herself to consume that day, for a net gain of zero. Most dietary guidelines recommend normal, healthy adults consume 1,500 to 2,000 calories daily.

When she did eat, it was according to a rigid diet: a banana and piece of toast for breakfast, an apple for lunch "until I got down to half an apple," and steamed vegetables for dinner. "Looking back, I realize I definitely had food rituals," she said. "I cut all my food into little pieces, and I wouldn't touch fat. I ate no grains, no cheese, no meat. If food meant to be served hot wasn't hot, I wouldn't eat it. I avoided social situations that involved eating food, and I really didn't do anything with my friends."

But those friends called Twillmann's mother with concerns, which she saw for herself when her daughter came home on spring break. Jennifer's weight had fallen from 140 to 115 since the semester began. Her mother told her she was going into treatment by summer if she lost any more weight. At her parents' insistence, Twillmann began seeing a nutritionist and a physician, who told her she was dying. "My doctor told me I couldn't exercise, that I could have a heart attack, but I didn't care," she said. "All I cared about, all I heard, was that I couldn't exercise."

Meanwhile, Twillmann's mother researched the disease and treatment centers. Her parents arranged for their daughter to enter a facility in Naples, Fla. Twillmann initially resisted treatment. She hid food rather than eat and denied her disease. Counseling and proper nourishment gradually brought her around. She'd gained 12 pounds--weighing 110--by the time she came home.

Twillmann continued seeing a therapist for a year after her inpatient treatment. She still works out--an hour of lifting and an hour of cardio-exercise--four or five days a week, but she's "learned to relax." She said she's careful about resuming dangerous patterns. "It still hasn't completely gone away," Twillmann added. "I think about it every day. I'm very conscious of the fact I had a problem. I think about everything I eat.

"I'm waiting for the day that doesn't happen."

--Gina Stafford

This article was first published by The Associated Press and is used with permission.

Return to May 3, 1999, contents page