‘She doesn’t need jail. She needs help’: One woman’s eating disorder

  • As her weight continues to slide downward, Katherine Drouin’€™s options get more difficult. After a glimmer of hope of being admitted for recovery, she relapsed again and was recently jailed for shoplifting. Again. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • As her weight continues to slide downward, Katherine Drouin’€™s options get more difficult. After a glimmer of hope of being admitted for recovery, she back slided again and is in prison. Again. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Katherine Drouin’s challenges never slowed down, even as she gave the appearance that things were improving. “They tried mental health court, but they threw me out,” Drouin said. “It was not helping me, I was not participating. I feel like the courts did try everything. I’m trying to look at both sides, trying to be accountable.” GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • As her weight continues to slide downward, Katherine Drouin’€™s options get more difficult. After a glimmer of hope of being admitted for recovery, she backslided again.

  • LEFT: Drouin has been riding horses with court permission.

  • Dr. Seda Ebrahimi —Courtesy

  • Dr. Seda Ebrahimi —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/2/2022 3:03:03 PM

Marcia Morris, who’s devoted a huge portion of her life trying to help Katherine Drouin, grew frustrated and buried her face in her hands, disappearing into darkness.

Tom Elliott, the superintendent of the Grafton County Jail, sugarcoated nothing, saying Drouin’s battle with a decades-long eating disorder and her inability to avoid jail have created the most “difficult” case he’s seen during his long career.

And Drouin’s father, Don Drouin, juggles his emotions like a magician, moving from sadness to anger to hopelessness through Drouin’s ongoing, lifelong fight against bulimia nervosa.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Don Drouin, who lives in Nashua. “We’ve tried.”

We first met Drouin eight years ago. One day at her Campton apartment, she ate a meal fit for several kings – refried beans, pasta, pickles, chili, salad, corn on the cob, chicken, rye bread, bulkie rolls, ice cream, candy bars. That took about two hours.

Then, Drouin pulled back her hair into a ponytail, went into the bathroom and vomited for two continuous minutes.

She looked better three years later. A few pounds here, a wide smile there. But Drouin’s illness was not behind her. She was not well. Never was.

These days, at 5 feet tall and weighing an estimated 70 pounds, it’s obvious that the self-help baby steps Drouin once took are no longer in motion.

“I wish I could snap my fingers and just gain weight,” Drouin said recently. “It’s about time for a happy ending.”

Not yet.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 22 years of law enforcement,” said Elliott, the supervisor at the Grafton County Jail.

Drouin’s eating disorder walks hand in hand with her life of petty crime. Just last month, she had her latest arrest for shoplifting food and spent a week in a Manchester jail, sometimes in isolation. Food was all she stole. “Food was all I cared about,” Drouin said.

She’s under house arrest for that and other shoplifting infractions. She has court dates in her future and a monitor on her ankle. She’s listed as a habitual offender. She feels judged.

That’s part of the stigma attached to mental illness, where depression is viewed as a weakness, not a sickness. Those dealing with a mental illness are often considered dangerous and face harsh penalties from police and courts instead of medical care.

“No, no, no, this is the wrong approach,” said Dr. Seda Ebrahimi, who founded and runs the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center, which features a branch office in Concord. “She doesn’t need jail. She needs help.”

She’s not alone

Ebrahimi has seen a lot of Drouin-like behavior during her career. She remembered an Ivy League student whose parents took away her credit card due to her out-of-control spending.

“So instead, she would go through garbage cans looking for food,” Ebrahimi said.

She also recalled a teenager arrested for stealing a pint of ice cream. “I had to write a letter and say it’s a disorder, and they dropped the case,” Ebrahimi said.

Some of the people she’s worked with would simply open a bag of donuts or cookies or whatever and begin munching right there in the store.

Ebrahimi said this condition, this uncontrollable urge to binge and then purge, is just like any other addiction. The cause could be genetics, biology, emotional health or societal expectations. Perhaps a family member was mentally ill. The illnesses can be hereditary.

Certain triggers and stressors loosen an individual’s resolve to get better. Particular careers can seem to reward the hidden behavior.

“There are certain professions and activities that put an emphasis on a weight-enhancing performance,” Ebrahimi said. “There are activities like ballet, gymnastics, wrestling and track that create the impetus to those who are vulnerable in the first place.”

Drouin, who is 43, ran cross country 25 years ago at Winnisquam Regional High School. She weighed about 100 pounds back then. She had pressure to stay light and run fast.

That’s when she would have had her best chance of recovery, Ebrahimi said. As a teen in high school.

“Women in their 30s who have had the disorder since 14 have a diminished chance of recovery,” Ebrahimi said.

‘I’m better’

Drouin convinced everyone that she was moving in the right direction. She counseled addicts while trying to save her own life at a Victorian-style house, the headquarters for the Plymouth Area Recovery Connection.

She was taking courses, hoping to one day become a certified counselor. Her life experience would certainly come in handy, help her build a career. She had even gained a few pounds.

“I’m better,” Drouin said five years ago. “I think I found my niche. I know where I’m supposed to be.”

Today, she freely admits, “My issues never went away. They tended to flare up. I never stopped doing it.”

She’s always been a walking contradiction, in one breath blaming the cops or the prosecutors or the mental health system for her trouble.

In the next, she’ll admit she squandered opportunities, as though she had looked hard into a mirror.

“They tried mental health court, but they threw me out,” Drouin said. “It was not helping me, I was not participating. I feel like the courts did try everything. I’m trying to look at both sides, trying to be accountable.”

Her complaint that the system is failing her is rooted in truth, of course. Incarceration doesn’t help a mentally ill individual, but New Hampshire’s mental health capacity, once admired nationwide, is down to the State Hospital and little else.

“Last weekend I was researching the closing of mental hospitals in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Morris, Drouin’s longtime advocate. “Back in the day, someone like Katherine would be in a psychiatric hospital under constant supervision until they were ready to get on their feet.”

Instead, Drouin estimated that she’s been arrested 80 times. Many police officers and law enforcement personnel in and around Plymouth know her by name.

Their subtle snicker – when told that a follow-up story on Drouin was imminent – revealed their feelings, as though they were saying, “Good luck. You’ll need it.”

Recent infractions

Her most recent transgression – stealing $20 worth of ice cream from a nearby convenience store – occurred last month. She spent a week in jail, time that included solitary confinement.

Drouin’s father, Don, remains in her corner. Retired and living in Nashua, Don’s feelings fluctuate. The hope he used to feel, he said, is fading.

Don grew upset during a recent phone conversation with Katherine, lecturing her, trying to make her understand that the warning signs are everywhere, that getting kicked out of treatment facilities in New York and Maine and Massachusetts for stealing food from a patient’s tray, or keys from a nurse, or a candy bar from a store, cannot be ignored.

Organ failure could be the next step, he warned. Don is frightened. One time, he was waiting for her when she got out of jail. She noticed something. His eyes.

“The day I got out, I saw it in his face,” Drouin said. “He’s so worried.”

Don called the Monitor seeking help for his daughter.

She’s back in her apartment in Campton, living alone. She stays with a friend now and then. The monitor on her ankle tracks her whereabouts. She’s permitted to venture outside her home with permission from the court only.

She often visits Morris, the most valuable ally in her life. Morris lives in Alexandria. She has two horses.

The two go back 15 years, when Drouin was relatively new to the mental health court system and Morris was on its board of directors. Morris has long been passionate about improvements in mental health care, and a change in public perception.

She’s heard the fabricated, happy story that Drouin used to tell, about her rehabbing and volunteer work, about reflecting on a lifestyle that, Drouin claimed, no longer existed.

“She is probably an extreme case,” Morris said. “It’s about as bad as it gets. Recovery from that is not a straight line.”

Morris said multiple layers of help are needed, and that would include easy access to a mental health professional and someone trained in addiction. Jail never helps.

“With an addicted person, you need to have logistics in place, people who drive you places,” Morris said. “She’s got a DUI conviction, so she can not drive. Imagine coming out of jail. You don’t have any food, you don’t have a job, no friends.

“At the moment,” Morris continued, “I’m all that’s left.”

More than merely a friend

Morris sees the best in Drouin despite the years of lying, jail time and failed rehab sessions. She said, simply, “I love her. She’s awesome, she’s funny, she’s smart.”

Drouin rides horses at Morris’s place – with court permission, of course. She climbed aboard a pony named Sweetie. She wore black jeans, showing her too-thin legs. Her helmet accentuated her gaunt features.

Morris showed her how to hold the leash and control Sweetie. She rode around the fenced-in perimeter, smiling the whole way.

“She has a way of relating to animals,” Morris said.

In the living room earlier in the day, Drouin had received a phone message from Walden Behavioral Care, a facility specializing in eating disorders. She’s been there before. She’s been thrown out each time.

Walden offered her another chance. The phone call, a message, said that the facility had an opening. They had an open bed.

Drouin never made it there. The message, she said, was old, phoned in while she was in jail. By the time she heard the message, the bed was taken.

She said she grew excited when she heard the phone message, that Walden had given her another shot. She reached an administrator by phone and was told the bad news. That she was too late. That she missed her chance.

She’s hoping for another. She used to express optimism. Not much, but a little bit. That’s changed. She clearly sees that beating this disease is going to take hard work and maybe a little luck – like not missing those phone calls that could change her life.

“I wasn’t surprised at all by that,” Drouin said. “It’s why I don’t get my hopes up anymore.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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