'Eaten Alive!' makes an impact at BVU
At the worst of it, she weighed just 68 pounds.
But it takes a big woman to do what Eva van Dok does.
A secret sufferer of anorexia and bulemia since her earliest teen years, the Broadway veteran now tours the country, presenting her one-woman show "Eaten Alive!" to as many young people as she can reach - performing it hundreds of times so far.
The show is poignant, powerful, at one moment laugh-out-loud funny - and the next, gut-wrenching sad.
She energetically works a mostly bare stage at Buena Vista University's Anderson Auditorium, playing five different women in the process, slipping seamlessly from the psyche and distinct dialect of an overwrought mother into that of a popular and bubbly but troubled high school girl, into that of a desperate older woman who cannot afford the latest diet fad proposed by her doctor.
Gliding into a new piece of clothing from a rack on stage, she becomes each character completely, a remarkable flexible face selling each transformation.
About 80 college students and a few community members watched in fascination. When the drama was over, no one left, and many had questions for the actress.
The unusual form of outreach is a timely one, according to BVU Health Services Director Tami Laursen. Several students have come in to ask about eating disorders recently, and others have stepped forward with concerns about fellow students on campus.
Dok says that 85 percent of women have an unhealthy relationship with food, with about 1 percent of the U.S. population suffering from serious eating disorders. Among college students, the average rises to 5-10 percent. Traditionally a "middle upper class white girl problem," it has now crossed all social borders and age groups. Men now make up 20 percent of the eating disorder cases.
In the opening scene of her drama, she is an overstressed mom, obsessed with exercising off the weight. She finds herself voraciously consuming her childrens' box of animal crackers, delivering lines with a stream of crumbs.
She pledges to herself to eat "only the heads" of the animals, because hey - how many calories could those little heads hold? Afterward, she hates herself for her guilty binging.
Moments later, she is a college student... then a teenage girl bouncing on her "bed" - speaking of how a girl is always judged. If she eats regular food in the cafeteria, she has a weight problem, and if she only gets a salad every day, she's an anorexic.
"Gaining weight is worse than dying," she says, in character.
She refers to a "box of bliss" - a hidden cache of fattening snack food. On a cell phone, she tries to convince a friend to binge and purge with her. "I eat until nothing matters any more in my life, then I stick my fingers down my throat. You can lose 10 pounds in a week, easy," the character enthuses.
Friends, boys, even teachers treat a super-thin girl differently, she notes, but she fears that the popular boy who now sees her as a "goddess" will lose interest unless she continues to throw up her food - "forever."
"You got to get your knuckles bloody," she says, to a gasp from the audience.
A few moments later, she is a society wife in a fancy restaurant, ordering double rum and Diet Cokes, harassing a waiter and gossiping about the fat college professor who has entered the cafe. Although she has lost all her weight, she admits, she has become "a bitch," and her husband "hasn't touched me in months."
She morphs into the overweight woman the other character had gossiped about, sitting in a doctor's office, and lying that she had to go to the car to get her checkbook to pay - and then fleeing.
Another transition, and she is a frenetic southern belle, who carries around her "skinny jeans" at all times and says she can't date a man until she can fit into them again.
She wants to lose weight until she becomes fragile, invisible... like a little bird... "and then I will fly away."
In the final act, she reflects that life with an eating disorder is always about the next five pounds. "I know there is more to life. But I can't think about anything else."
She begins crossing things off her crammed schedule, and adds one item instead.
"Get some help..."
Eventually, the drama ends where it begins - with the beleaguered mother staring into a "mirror" - in this case, the audience being that mirror.
"Do I know you?" she says to her image.
Afterward, van Dok shed both her props and her characters, pulled a chair to the front of the stage, and talked more intimately with the crowd of students that remained.
She urged any who think they might have a problem to see help from the university Health Center, which can refer a student to expert counseling or clinics for eating disorders if needed.
"After college, therapy isn't free any more," she warned.
She knows what she is talking about - she is still in therapy herself.
For the actress, it was the death of her father that pushed her over an emotional edge. Most often, anorexics and bulemics use their eating disorder as a coping mechanism or diversion from other issues in their life that they cannot face.
Before her 13th birthday, she was already suffering from eating disorders.
"I would take a single curd of cottage cheese and cut it into as many tiny bits as it could possibly be, eat it very slowly, and then regurgitate."
Dangerously thin in her teen years, van Dok finally sought help. Later, in her early 20s, she suffered a major relapse, and at 26, finally kicked her demons.
Now 37, she is suffering from pre-osteoporosis, bone mass loss and hair loss due to the strain she has put on her body during her anorexic years. She has friends who cannot bear children or who have serious heart problems as a result of the same illness.
The characters she plays are not autobiographical, although she wears them like a glove.
Her drama "Eaten Alive!" was actually written by a friend who then produced Eva in the role so that it could be carried out to as many people as possible. The actress has been touring the play for the past several years, especially concentrating on college campuses, where the performance seems to resonate with young people in a way no lecture could.
Students and visitors questioned van Dok about the media's stereotypical presentative of stick-skinny models as an ideal, but she refused to accept placing responsibility on pop culture.
"We have to ask ourselves, 'Why do I feel inadequate when I look at the people in that magazine?' We have to start with ourselves. Why compare ourselves to anyone else?"
She said she doesn't think about weight any more. "I'm healthy," she answers the weight question, with a shrug.
She is aware now that what she had done all those years was "slowly trying to kill myself - without even realizing what was happening. When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone very different than who was really there."
Looking back, her symptoms of an eating disorder included feeling cold all the time, loss of her energy, and losing strands of her hair. Depression and compulsive exercise can also be symptoms.
"Sirens went off in my head, but I ignored them. Those sirens still go off, but now I've learned to stop what I'm doing, step back, and find out why it is going off."
With recovery, the root problems may not go away - depression, for her - but they no longer are able to control life.
She also warned that people with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. "You don't have to be 60 pounds," she said.
Van Dok told the students that if they want to help a friend with a problem, they need to hold back from talking about the food.
"That is like putting drugs into the veins of an addict," she said of the obsession.
"Try to get underneath the issues - is there trouble at home, trouble in school? Tell them that there is help available here - and offer to go with them."
That very scenerio has happened at BVU, Laursen added, encouraging friends to accompany the sufferer. "Trust will be a big, big thing."
Eating disorders are cloaked in secrecy, Van Dok added, and having a friend they can share with helps to bring it out into the light where it may be easier to deal with successfully.
The fabled "freshman 15" is real, the women said - at BVU it is not at all uncommon for a woman to gain 10-15 pounds as they break away from their home routine and face academic stress.
"Some of them do get caught up in the 'Gotta lose weight, gotta lose weight' thiing," said Laursen. "They can't control what is happening to them in class, but they can control what they eat - and that's where it takes over."
* Eva van Dok has performed on and off-Broadway live theater. Her film credits include "Millennium Crisis" (2007), "Pandora Machine" and "Waldo Walker." A graduate of the Goodman Theater Conservatory in Chicago, she teaches, produces, directs and acts across the U.S. and abroad, returning to her mission of awareness and "Eaten Alive!" between her other pursuits.