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Ray Duckler: After years of struggle with an eating disorder, woman knows she needs help

  • Katherine Drouin has faced isolation with her condition, many times not wanting to leave her apartment to avoid the stares and gawking at her appearance.

    Katherine Drouin has faced isolation with her condition, many times not wanting to leave her apartment to avoid the stares and gawking at her appearance.

  • Katherine is worried that her addiction is going to kill her. "I have hit bottom," she said.

    Katherine is worried that her addiction is going to kill her. "I have hit bottom," she said.

  • Katherine Drouin before her eating disorder took over. (Courtesy photo)

    Katherine Drouin before her eating disorder took over. (Courtesy photo)

  • The obession has begun. Katherine starts getting into "The Zone," trying to figure out what she is going to prepare for the three-hour meal.

    The obession has begun. Katherine starts getting into "The Zone," trying to figure out what she is going to prepare for the three-hour meal.

  • Katherine eats lettuce with salad dressing.

    Katherine eats lettuce with salad dressing.

  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

    At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

    At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

    At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.

  • Katherine gets her mail but doesn't venture out much; she doesn't like the gawking.

    Katherine gets her mail but doesn't venture out much; she doesn't like the gawking.

  • Katherine doesn't go out much.

    Katherine doesn't go out much.

  • Katherine shows her stomach immediately after purging.

    Katherine shows her stomach immediately after purging.

  • Katherine Drouin has faced isolation with her condition, many times not wanting to leave her apartment to avoid the stares and gawking at her appearance.
  • Katherine is worried that her addiction is going to kill her. "I have hit bottom," she said.
  • Katherine Drouin before her eating disorder took over. (Courtesy photo)
  • The obession has begun. Katherine starts getting into "The Zone," trying to figure out what she is going to prepare for the three-hour meal.
  • Katherine eats lettuce with salad dressing.
  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.
  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.
  • At this point, Katherine is no longer enjoying her food. She was eating chili and hashbrowns but was starting to slow down.
  • Katherine gets her mail but doesn't venture out much; she doesn't like the gawking.
  • Katherine doesn't go out much.
  • Katherine shows her stomach immediately after purging.

Katherine Drouin calls it “The Zone.”

It’s a place of focus and addiction, of eating more food than you or I could ever eat, of a distant, glazed look in her eyes that tells you she’s some place else, that food represents a temporary fix, a quick jolt after starving herself all day.

Drouin is 5 feet tall, weighs 60 pounds, and when she tells you her problem over the phone, you don’t realize how bad it is until you visit her apartment in Plymouth. The 36-year-old has lived there for 17 years and been bulimic the whole time.

Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a collarbone that pokes out like a tree root.

Her limbs are skinny, of course, her eyes noticeably wide, her chin obviously pointy, her face so very thin. Veins run the length of her forearms, a road map of lines attached to someone with no direction.

Her daily routine is rigid, clear and simple, like directions on a shampoo bottle.

Starve, binge, purge.

Repeat.

“It’s time to eat,” Drouin said earlier this month, as the sun began to set on a calm night. “No more questions. You can ask me, but I may not answer.”

That’s The Zone. It takes her a little more than three hours to eat, two minutes to vomit, and all you can do is ask “why?” Why has this bright, articulate person, who once ran cross country at Winnisquam Regional High School and got good grades, been torturing herself for 20 years?

Why can’t she eat three normal meals a day like most others, instead of waiting for nightfall and then gorging herself? Why has she been arrested dozens of times for shoplifting at grocery stores?

Why doesn’t she get help?

Then you learn it’s no different than an alcoholic gulping scotch in the morning, no different than the crack addict lighting a pipe.

“Eating disorders are one of the last of the mental illnesses being recognized by people as a biologically based disorder,” said Nicholas Hudson-Swogger, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in North Conway, who’s been treating eating disorders for 10 years.

“It’s not about control or intentions. What we know is that people go into starvation and drop below their natural weight, and that the body goes into starvation mode and then their brain changes. It’s not under control of the individual; the illness is controlling them.”

Hudson-Swogger distinguished between bulimia, a condition in which individuals purge to expel calories but remain at a relatively normal weight, and anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by starving oneself because of a distorted physical self image and also includes purging.

Drouin, it seems, suffers from a blend of both.

“There’s a lot of diagnostic crossover,” Hudson-Swogger said.

Finding a treatment facility is difficult, but sticking to the program is even harder. Drouin has learned that lesson repeatedly over the course of her illness.

“People genuinely want to help,” Drouin said. “But at the end of the day, everyone goes home to their own bed. I feel like I’m very alone in this process. I’m just one person in this conspiracy.”

Drouin’s illness, her addictive nature, is part of her family makeup. Uncles have died from drug- and alcohol-related problems, she said, and other family members are hooked on prescription medicine as we speak.

Her father, Don Drouin of Nashua, is a retired carpenter. He’s remarried and trying to help his daughter. He’s a former Navy man, a Vietnam veteran who usually keeps his emotions in tight, but whose eyes get misty when he talks about Katherine.

“I don’t think Katherine is going to live too much longer if she doesn’t get help,” Don says. “She doesn’t want to die, but she won’t do a whole lot. It’s kind of frustrating. It’s been such a long battle.”

Drouin knows the danger involved, that if something doesn’t change soon, she will die.

“I’ve isolated myself for so long,” she says. “I’m not getting younger. I need help. I need someone to come into my bubble. People say they’re on the outside looking in. I’m on the inside looking out. My brain is controlling my body, and my body wants to heal.”

Lots of potential

She weighed 100 pounds at Winnisquam Regional, where she was named most-improved athlete on the cross country team, which was confirmed by her then-coach, Ray Valente.

“I had a young lady come to me who didn’t have a whole lot of ability and who was looking to improve her self-esteem,” said Valente, who retired from teaching and coaching 11 years ago and lives in Sanbornton. “She developed running skills that put her in the middle of the running pack. She was not an elite runner, but she persevered and did improve and had the tenacity to want to improve.”

Drouin said she was a good student, with purpose and hope and friends. “I thrived on cross country,” Drouin says. “I was a perfectionist. It felt great to get better and better at something, getting faster, winning races.”

Pinpointing the start of her downfall is difficult. Valente doubled as Drouin’s biology teacher and taught nutrition and the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.

He had visited Drouin in the hospital sometime in the late 1990s, shortly after she graduated. He saw a sick girl, and it made him think about his classroom.

“She really made my heart think, ‘Did I go too far?’ ” Valente said. “Or did she take the information too far, the information about maintaining body weight and nutrition? You never know where the information will fall sometimes.”

Initially, Drouin starved herself to keep her weight down and cross country times fast. She was sneaky at the dinner table, sometimes hiding her food in a book or a magazine, sometimes wrapping it in a napkin, sometimes feeding it to her dog, Champ.

“It became an art,” Drouin said.

Meanwhile, Don feels guilty that he didn’t know what was happening. He fears he enabled his daughter’s sickness.

“Even when we knew she had problem and we were watching her, she’d still do it,” Don says. “She was good at it. You would think she was eating, but she wasn’t. She lost weight and lost more weight and lost more weight.”

Shoplifting and shackled

At Plymouth State College, Drouin’s problem evolved into what it looks like today, eating at night for the first time all day, then purposely vomiting. She also began shoplifting food in and around Plymouth, eventually rotating stores so she wouldn’t be recognized.

She’d walk in, grab a cart and fill it with what she calls binge food, items like cupcakes and doughnuts and ice cream and frozen pizzas.

Drouin, who’s currently waiting for a felony theft charge to work its way through the court system, says she hasn’t shoplifted this year. She claims she got away with it “hundreds of times and been arrested dozens of times.”

Sometimes, handcuffs would slip off her bone-thin wrists and fall to the ground, forcing officers to use one cuff around both wrists, held tightly together.

Her explanation for why she did it? It’s all part of her illness.

“I didn’t want to pay for it if I was going to purge,” she said. “That would have been a waste.”

She did time at the state prison in Goffstown, and in jails in Grafton, Belknap and Merrimack counties. She spent 90 days at a boot-camp-style program, marching like a Marine, her uniform hanging off her tiny body like a shirt on a hanger.

Her criminal record includes 70 arrests for theft since 1997. Several bench warrants have been issued for Drouin after she failed to appear in court.

She has a final pretrial hearing scheduled Oct. 31 in Grafton County Superior Court on a charge of theft by unauthorized taking, bumped from misdemeanor to felony because of Drouin’s laundry list of offenses.

In fact, she was scheduled to appear in front of a circuit court judge Aug. 14, but her public defender filed a motion that allowed her to instead seek treatment at an in-patient clinic in Waltham, Mass., the day before the hearing.

She has sought help at other places as well. At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Tulane University in New Orleans, New York Presbyterian, the University of North Carolina and in Westbrook, Maine.

In 2002, she began a year’s stay at New Hampshire Hospital, where she says she was shackled to her bed. A feeding tube was inserted into her stomach, and the hole is visible today.

While away, her father and several family members entered her apartment and packed the crackers and chips and chocolate into garbage bags and hauled them away, loading a pickup truck four times.

“I was livid when I got home,” Drouin said. “It took me two weeks of shoplifting to restock.”

Each time Drouin sought help, she was kicked out for stealing food for her late-night binges, or she was able to sign herself out – remaining sick and not caring or fooling herself into believing she could eat in a normal fashion.

Nothing ever changed, though.

“I didn’t care if there was a fire,” Drouin says. “I’d finish eating first.”

‘It’s sick’

Drouin lives in a cozy apartment in Plymouth. It’s clean, with trinkets and flowers and baskets, a sharp contrast to the misery it sees each night.

She’s lived there for 17 years, shortly after dropping out of college. She lives on Social Security, $350 a month. Her rent is $80 per month, heat $90 during the winter.

“I don’t go out anymore, except to get the mail,” Drouin says. “People gawk at me. I feel disgusting.”

A friend visits once a week and takes her shopping.

Before preparing for this night’s binge, Drouin reveals her past, which is filled with addictive behavior in her family.

“It’s in my blood,” Drouin says.

Three uncles, her mother’s brothers, have died from cocaine- or alcohol-related abuse. Drouin has a half brother who, Don says, is homeless and begging in the streets in Florida.

Meanwhile, Don is the anchor, having spent years working to save his daughter. He’s the one who has fought with insurance companies and medical clinics, the one who drives from his home in Nashua to check on Katherine, the one who calls and calls and gets no answer because Katherine is sleeping the day away, depressed and gearing up for her nightmare as the sun sets.

“I have to try to help her,” Don says. “I love her, and I don’t want to see her die. She’s got to want it and find the fight within herself.”

Two days before visiting a private psychiatric care facility for the third time, fighting her illness is not part of the process.

Looking around the apartment, some of the weapons of mass destruction are in a living room closet. Binge food she calls it, boxes of cinnamon and cheddar crackers in Wal-Mart bags.

Sometimes she orders out, eating two pizzas in one sitting. A few slices simply won’t do.

“If it’s just one pizza, I won’t eat it,” she says. “I need to know I’m going to be able to over-eat. It’s sick.”

The Zone

Tonight, she’ll cook. To prepare, she moves into the bathroom and pulls her soft brown hair back into a ponytail, then moves to the kitchen.

She opens the top cabinet and scans the canned goods, the refried beans and rings of pasta, then bends over at the waist to check through the lower cabinet, hand on chin, planning, thinking, starving.

She’s oblivious to the photos on the refrigerator door, undated pictures showing Drouin, her face full, her eyes smiling, with her mother and her grandmother and a niece.

She spreads newspapers on the kitchen table, making cleanup easier later on, and begins to place items down as though she’s setting up a chess board. There’s a jar of pickles, ketchup, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise.

“I love it,” she says. “No one interferes with my little ritual. And it is a ritual.”

As she’s preparing food in the kitchen, she tells you about the old days, when she used to drive behind Dunkin’ Donuts late at night and pull garbage bags of discarded doughnuts from the dumpster and bring them home.

It’s hard to watch Drouin eat, and for the first time you realize the depth of her illness, despite her stick-figure build.

With a huge pot of chili warming on the stove and bread warming in the oven, she starts with yogurt, at 7:15 p.m.

The TV is on, and breaking news about the death of Robin Williams and his problems with addiction and depression flashes across the screen, stopping Drouin mid-bite.

Only later did the parallels surface, the ones about depression and addiction slamming someone with so much to offer.

“I loved the movie Patch Adams,” Drouin says.

She cuts up lettuce, pours Ken’s salad dressing and shakes pepper on it and picks at it with her hands. She chews methodically, evenly, but is still talkative.

“I hate rushing,” she says.

From there, Drouin eats three pieces of corn on the cob, drenched in butter. Then she squirts mayo, ketchup and barbecue sauce onto her plate in three separate dollops.

She tears strips from a full rotisserie chicken and alternates dipping the pieces into each condiment, eventually stripping the bird clean.

On to the chili, spooned out into a bowl and covered with shredded cheese. The bread – three pieces of rye and a bulkie roll – are warm enough to set on the table, and each is covered with more butter.

Drouin picks off pieces of bread and dips them into the chili, then spoons more chili out for a second serving and quickly goes back for a third bowl, turning the big pot sideways and scraping the side to make sure she gets it all. The third and final bowl is covered with peppers and onions.

At 9:04 p.m., a reality TV show is on, about handsome men and beautiful women living on a beach and looking for love and sex.

Drouin sips Diet Coke through a straw and says, “Got to keep this figure,” then moves onto the hash browns, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Her eyes have changed, to a faraway look, and you get a feel for what she had said earlier, about “The Zone.”

“I don’t even taste it anymore,” she says, staring down at newspapers she’s not reading.

Next, Drouin grabs a pint of vanilla ice cream from the freezer, but it’s frozen and she can’t dig the spoon in, so she digs into a nearby bag and pulls out four candy bars to eat while waiting for the ice cream to soften.

She eats four types of candy bars: Snickers, 100 Grand, Butterfinger and Mounds, then spoons through the ice cream, which, like the rest of the food she’s eaten, doesn’t stand a chance. The container is empty within 10 minutes.

It’s about 10:15 p.m., nearly three hours in, and Drouin begins digging into a banana cream pie and eating spoonfuls, slowly.

She’s full, though, and puts the plastic cover back on the pie, lifts her shirt and flicks her stomach with her index finger, making a drumlike sound.

“Ready to pop,” she says. “It’s time.”

She moves to the bathroom, to the toilet, bends at the waist and vomits for two minutes straight. When done, Drouin’s eyes move from hollow to sorrowful as she realizes that for the first time, she’s allowed someone into her secret world.

She says she’s ashamed.

“Purging is a relief, a high,” Drouin says. “That’s the gist of it. That’s my life, every night.”

Next Sunday: The complex and frustrating procedure to find help for Drouin, and the ride down to a treatment center in Waltham, Mass.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Related

Ray Duckler: ‘A long battle’ for treatment

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

To Katherine Drouin and her supporters, none of this makes sense. Forget the drawn-out process of getting lab work and a psychiatric evaluation, tests needed before Drouin could receive treatment for her eating disorder. Forget the lack of resources in New Hampshire. And forget the miscommunication between agencies, and the lack of guidelines needed to navigate the health care system. …

Legacy Comments2

I wish her well and hope a means exist to overcome. It is an insidious illness.

I wish her well, and hope there is a way, some means to overcome. It is an insidious illness.

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