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Eaten Alive! - Actress and recovering anorexic brings dramatic message to students

Monday, September 28, 2009

At the worst of it, she weighed only 68 pounds.

But it takes a big woman to do what Eva van Dok does.

An 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.

The show is poignant, powerful, at one moment laugh-out-loud funny and the next, gut-wrenching.

Since bringing the show to Buena Vista University a year ago, she has taken it coast to coast, appearing at as many colleges as she is able, knowing that college age women suffer from eating disorders at five to ten times the overall national rate.

"It's been an emotional journey," she says of the hundreds of shows she has done. "It hits to the heart of the matter, because I'm not lecturing to them. Something like this would have helped me."

She works on a mostly base stage, as she did at BVU, playing five different women, slipping seamlessly from the psyche and distinct dialect of an overwrought mother into that of bubbly but troubled 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. Soulful brown eyes sell each transformation.

The unusual form of outreach is a timely one, according to BVU's Health Services Director. Several students had come in to ask about eating disorders recently, and others have stepped forward with concerns about fellow students on campus who they fear are anorexic.

Her work is continuing to pay off - perhaps as the only play in the world that can say that it is saving lives. Eva says she hears from universities where she has performed, e-mails that tell of girls who walk into a counselor's office or recovery program for the first time after watching some of their own lives play out on the stage.

"That's why it means a lot to me," she says.

An estimated 85 percent of women have an unhealthy relationship with food. Traditionally a "middle upper class white girl problem," it has now crossed all social borders, Eva says. 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 children's box of animal crackers, spitting out lines amid a stream of flying crumbs as she pledges to herself to eat "only the heads" of the animals- after all, how many calories could those little heads hold. Afterward, she despises herself for binging.

Moments later, she is a college student trying desperately to fit in... if she eats in the cafeteria, people will whisper that she has a weight problem, and if she only gets a salad every day, she's an anorexic. Next, she is a teenage girl on her cell phone, bouncing on her bed.

"Gaining weight is worse than dying," she gushes, in character.

She refers to a "box of bliss" - a hidden cache of fattening snack food. In the role of the young girl 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 says.

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. The audience, which had been laughing moments ago, gasps.

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, the character admits, she has become "a bitch," and her husband "hasn't touched me in months."

She morphs again, 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 pair of impossibly "skinny jeans" and says she can't date a man 'til she can fit into them again.

Life is lonely, and she wants to lose weight until she becomes fragile, invisible... like a little bird... "and then I will fly away."

In the final stages, she reflects that in life with an eating disorder, "your whole life revolves around that 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 finally, adds one item instead.

"Get some help... yes."

Eventually, the drama ends where it begins - with the beleaguered mother staring into a "mirror" - in this case, the audience being the mirror.

"Do I know you?" she says to her image.

Afterward, van Dok sheds both her props and her characters, pulling a chair to the front of the stage, and talks more intimately with the crowd that remains. She does this after every performance.

While at BVU, she urged any of the students who think they might have a problem to seek help from the university Health Center, which can refer a student to counseling or clinics for eating disorders if needed.

"After college, therapy isn't free any more."

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 precipice. 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.

By her 13th birthday, she was full-blown anorexic.

"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 in her late 30s, 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.

Read more of this story in the September 26th Pilot Tribune.

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