Linden Oaks at Edward's Arabella House a step on the road to recovery for women with eating disorders.
Naperville's Arabella House helps women with eating disorders
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff
For Abby, purging was a way to keep the calories from showing up in the mirror.
It also was a way to fend off the pressures of high school photo ops - homecoming court, prom, senior pictures, spring break.
Soon, it became her way to deal with emotions that felt too overwhelming to face head-on.
"When I was sad or angry or depressed ... I would do it in all kinds of situations," she said. "That's when I got scared that it might actually be a problem."
She later learned purging - self-induced vomiting - is dangerous no matter the motivation behind it, but it was eight years before she sought help. In December, the 20-year-old Michigan State student entered Linden Oaks, a unit of Edward Hospital in Naperville specializing in behavioral health. Working with their specialists was helpful, but she knew it wouldn't make sense to jump from treatment right back into college life.
That's when Arabella House became her home.
Arabella House, which is run by Linden Oaks, is a transitional program for women with eating disorders who are looking for a bridge between the strictness of treatment and the complete freedom of home.
"We wanted to have a living situation where our patients at Linden Oaks could practice the skills we were teaching them," said Bev Watson, clinical leader of the program, now marking its third anniversary.
Only a handful of similar programs exist nationwide; none gives residents the same level of responsibility for preparing their meals, Watson said.
The women at Arabella House must have undergone some type of treatment before admission, which is on a first-come, first-served basis.
The house, which has had about 160 women go through since the program's inception, can accommodate eight women at a time. Many have been patients at Linden Oaks, but some come from as far away as South Carolina and New York.
Residents must be at least 16 but have been as old as 62. Most are in their late teens or early 20s. Each must be medically stable - at least 80 percent of a healthy body weight - and psychiatrically stable, not suicidal or actively harming themselves, according to Watson. But there's one criteria that in her eyes probably tops them all - the motivation to recover.
The house is named after the Italian word for "answered prayer."
Its residents say it has been just that.
Life at Arabella
Walking into Arabella House, patients and guests alike are greeted by the therapy dog, Logan, an instant companion.
Beyond the doorway the house looks like any other - two bedrooms with bunk beds, an office, kitchen and living room, all painted in warm colors. Inspirational messages are framed and scattered around the house, l and the back yard overlooking the DuPage River provides a place for quiet meditation.
Drugs, alcohol, weapons or diet products are not allowed, but cell phones and laptops are OK. Unlike some treatment facilities, the bathrooms are not locked and neither are kitchen utensils, including knives. A Linden Oaks staff member is on duty around the clock.
Arabella House operates on three pillars - trust, honesty and respect. There's no shirking on responsibilities like keeping the house clean, grocery shopping and walking Logan.
During the worst of their illness, some of the women purged dozens of times a day and saw drastic weight fluctuations. If any of those behaviors resurface while they're at the house, they are encouraged to be honest about it. If it continues, they likely need a higher level of care and may be referred to another program, Watson said.
She doesn't like to divulge just how much weight some lost during their illness for fear of sparking the competitive drive of others with eating disorders.
Sharing their darkest secrets with a group of women they've just met doesn't come easy for all of them. Nor does living with seven other women.
Jennae, 27, of Naperville, first spoke with the Daily Herald less than two weeks into her treatment at Arabella. She admits there is occasionally some tension in the house.
"We'll get a little snippy here and there," she said. "But overall I feel lucky to be in this group. We have a lot in common with each other and our personalities mesh in such a way (that) we have deep conversations but we also have fun so it's a good combination."
As the women build trust with the team of therapists and other experts who oversee the house, they are able to get passes to run errands, go to doctor appointments and visit their families. Some work or go to school a couple days a week.
"They have to learn to live life while they're recovering from their eating disorder," Watson said. "There's a lot of recovery that happens here but it does not stop here."
Coming out of 11 months in a residential program in Utah, Ella, 16, of Naperville, said Arabella House has been the transition she needed.
"It's provided me a really safe environment of support, being able to handle all the freedom I have ... It's been really nice for me to see how I can be healthy in this more free environment," she said just days before finishing her stay.
Because the women don't fit into the same mold, Arabella's experts mold the treatment to each woman.
"At Arabella they focus on each person and what they need," said Amy, a 20-year-old student at DePaul University who spent about two months in the program last year. "They push you to work hard, but at the same time they make you feel comfortable and accepted."
Going to the grocery store and planning meals may seem routine for most people, but for those with eating disorders they can be panic-inducing.
So, women at Arabella House work with a dietitian to plan and cook balanced meals. Each makes her own breakfasts and lunches but they take turns cooking dinner for the group, preparing the meals from start to finish.
On Sundays, they go out for dinner and activities like bowling, skating, dance lessons and rock climbing so they can have fun and feel comfortable eating in a social setting.
Even fast food isn't off limits.
"We want them to learn all this food is good for you," Watson said. "It may not be good every night, but a variety of foods is very healthy."
The women at Arabella exercise three times a week, but without keeping track of how many calories they are burning. There are also a variety of individual and group therapy sessions and support groups, including art therapy and equine psychotherapy.
The latter occurs at Reins of Change in Elgin and involves going through such tasks as haltering the horses.
"It's just a different way to try to get them to attach feelings they don't normally allow themselves to feel," said clinical therapist Jill Jacobe.
The women also attend support groups at Linden Oaks for eating disorders as well as drug or alcohol issues they may be struggling with. In addition, they attend family therapy sessions.
Amy's mother, Marla, knows all too well the toll an eating disorder can take on the entire family.
"It's the most stress you've ever had in your life as a parent to see your child suffering and you can't understand it," Marla said.
Every Friday each resident also invites up to two family members or friends to the house to eat together and listen to a speaker who can show them the best way to provide support for their wives, daughters, sisters and friends who are in recovery.
Marla found the sessions to be eye-opening and she praised the Arabella staff members. She said their passion for helping the women recover makes all the difference.
"As a parent you want a pill to fix it, but it doesn't exist," she said. "It's hard work. Places like Arabella are pretty amazing. I wish there could be more like Arabella so everybody could go to them."
With a name that means "answered prayer," it comes as little surprise there is a spiritual aspect to life at Arabella. A chaplain visits with the group regularly and each week they attend a service in a different religion.
They also perform service work with groups like St. Patrick's Residence nursing home, the Naperville Humane Society and food pantries.
Visits to the food pantries hit especially close to home, Watson said, as they see people desperate for food and think about how many times they themselves have turned food away.
"We try to get (the women) to see it's not the outside of the body that's important, it's what's inside," Watson said of the volunteer work. "It's what is in your heart."
Abby said her stay at Arabella has been "absolutely amazing."
"We definitely have a great mix of activities and a lot of different, intelligent and truly great people coming in and out of here," she said.
"My heart has definitely been touched by this place."
Symptoms of eating disorders
Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder may manifest themselves through a variety of physical, behavioral and emotional signs. All of the symptoms below do not need to be present for a person to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.
- Low body weight
- Obesity (sometimes seen with binge eating disorder)
- Inaccurate body perception
- Fear of gaining weight
- Self starvation
- Binge eating
- Vomiting or abusing laxatives after binge eating
- Compulsive exercise
- Excessive use of diet products
- Low self-esteem
- Mood fluctuations
- Decline in school work
- Excessive facial or body hair
- Hair loss
- Irregular or absent menstruation
- Sensitivity to cold
Source: Bev Watson, Linden Oaks, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital hosts a variety of support groups for people with eating disorders and their families. The groups take place at 852 S. West St., Naperville, and are free. Help line: (630) 305-5500.
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders; 6 to 8 p.m. every Monday
- Arabella After Care: 6:30 to 8 p.m. every Wednesday; for women who have been discharged from Arabella House
- Eating Disorders Anonymous: 7 to 8:30 p.m. every Thursday
- Friends and family support group: 7 to 8:30 p.m. the first and third Thursday of each month; 18 and over
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: (630) 577-1330; www.anad.org
- National Eating Disorders Association: (800) 931-2237; www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Naperville, Illinois (IL) - Edward Hospital and Health Services