PRINCETON, N.J. – When a feeling that her life was out of control developed into a severe eating disorder, Jenna Simon found solace in art.
Simon started drawing as a child, doodling on napkins during dinner. After extreme dieting developed into bulimia at age 18, she ended up seeking professional treatment. In her spare time, she would draw sketches of celebrities and landscapes. But when she became frustrated with her therapy sessions, Simon struggled to find a way to describe what she was feeling — so she drew it.
“I showed it to my therapist, and she was like, ‘This is amazing. … People would relate to this,'” said Simon, now 29.
Simon continued to draw, mostly for herself, until two years later, when the images she shared on Facebook started to go viral. Vivid sketches of herself trying to cover her tears with a smiling mask captured the attention of many.
Combining her experiences, talent and educational background in art therapy, Simon continued to share drawings in hopes of telling those struggling with an eating disorder that someone understood what they were experiencing. That catharsis of artistic expression guides her as her own recovery continues.
Evolution of an eating disorder
Growing up in the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey, Simon said she was exposed to a variety of abusive situations.
“As a child, I suffered trauma, physically and sexually by people I shouldn’t have had any reason to fear,” she said.
To escape, she turned to dance. Ballet was her “first love.” And for years, she gave everything she had to perfect the art, practicing 40 hours a week and sometimes coming home to practice even more.
“I needed something that was mine. I needed something that I could just have for me, and I wanted it to be dance,” she said.
Dance companies’ height and weight preferences can vary, but traditionally, dancers have tall and slender frames. Unfortunately for Simon, her height proved an obstacle into the world of professional dance.
“I was really short; I’m still short. I’m 5’1″, so even at 15, you’re aware that’s not something you have control over,” Simon said.
While in high school, she continued to pursue performance art, doing her best to compensate for her height with a slim frame. Inspired by older dancers who ate nothing but salads for lunch, Simon began to watch what she ate and count calories more closely.
As Simon continued down this path, her behaviors evolved to include vomiting and abusing laxatives. “By the time I was a junior or senior in high school, I started eating whatever and throwing it up.”
She began therapy, but when she moved to Philadelphia for college, things just got worse. And because she was an hour’s drive from home, her parents were not fully aware of the situation.
“I think it took my parents at least four or five years to figure out what I was doing, especially because a lot of it, I did in college,” the New Jersey resident said.
It wasn’t until after she had graduated and was working as an actress in North Carolina that a concerned roommate alerted her parents.
“She called my parents and was like, ‘You need to come and get your child.’ So my parents showed up, brought me home,” she said. “Two days later, they admitted me to Princeton University Hospital’s eating disorder unit.”
What are eating disorders?
An eating disorder is a mental illness that can affect people across every demographic. Although the cause is unknown, experts have identified several potential biological, psychological and sociocultural factors. Once someone begins to display serious symptoms, professional intervention is usually required for recovery.
Anorexia nervosa, lack of appetite or desire to eat, is an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. Bulimia, another common eating disorder, involves instances of overeating followed by depression and self-induced vomiting, purging or fasting.
Dr. Evelyn Attia, director of the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, says that having a weight below normal can mean different things for different people.
“For example, in a growing teenager, it might mean no weight loss at all but failure to gain, as is expected when one is growing. So it’s a significant nutritional problem.”
Untreated, eating disorders can evolve into more serious problems. Researchers have found that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness in the United States.
About half of anorexia-related deaths are “due to complications from the low weight state that’s typical of anorexia nervosa,” Attia said. The other half, she says, are associated with suicide.
A national survey estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
The same survey found that 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men had anorexia at some point during their lives, and 1.5% of women and 0.5% of men showed signs of bulimia.
Although many eating disorders begin in adolescence, medical providers and therapists are finding an increasing number of young children and older adults with these illnesses. Early diagnosis and treatment, experts say, increases the chances of recovery.
Eating disorders are unique to each individual, which can make them difficult to treat.
“These are psychiatric illnesses that affect one’s emotional as well as physical states. That means we have to worry about two things at the same time,” Attia said.
And unlike other mental illnesses, she said, “The very thing that will be needed to help someone feel better, restoration of healthy weight and normalization of nutrient intake, those are things that are core fears for anyone who’s affected with one of these illnesses.” She said that asking a patient to do what they fear the most can be a real challenge.
As medicine and the understanding of mental illness evolve, so do treatment options. Often, plans are tailored to the patient and may include individual, group or family therapy, nutritional counseling, monitoring in an inpatient or outpatient setting and alternative therapies — such as art.
“We are always trying to find what’s going to work for a particular individual,” Attia said, “but having opportunities for people to draw about the problem, maybe a part of some program as they’re trying to engage folks who really are struggling with the very best ways to communicate.”
Art therapy worked remarkably well for Simon, and she hopes that she can share her success with others through her new book, “Unbroken: An Art Book: My Journey So Far, Plus 20 Feel-Good Drawing Activities.” She shares her own work and includes drawing activities at the end of each chapter.
Today, Simon is in recovery and no longer abuses laxatives or skips meals. The actress continues to see a therapist — whom she credits with saving her life — and is working through issues through her art.
“I’m definitely still in progress. I don’t always feel great in my own skin, and I do pay some attention to what I eat,” Simon said. “We just have to fix and heal what caused this in the first place so that it doesn’t happen again.”