Twin sisters Jessica and Jaime Parrish are best friends who share everything with each other. But when they were teenagers, they also began to share a deadly disease -- anorexia nervosa.
Their eating disorder was a secret they kept from everyone -- even each other. Now, doctors are studying the twins in hopes of providing both better treatment and understanding of the disorder, which could be genetically linked.
Jaime said her relationship with food and weight started to change in the ninth grade.
"I wasn't happy with the way that I looked, and I don't remember people ever making comments about how I look fat in the mirror. It was more me looking in the mirror and not being happy with what I saw," she said. "So I started changing my food habits."
Comparisons to her sister didn't help Jaime's view of food.
"I'm staring at my beautiful sister and she was always skinnier than I was," she said. "We're twins, I know we should look alike, but I don't feel like I look as pretty as she does."
Sisters Struggling Secretly
Jaime began restricting what she ate, so much so that her five-foot-eight-inch figure went from 170 pounds down to a dangerously low 89.
"I was sad and crying and freaking out all the time. And I was a burden on my parents; I was a burden on Jessica and my family," she said. "And I thought … if I were to just take my own life, it would make everything so much better for the rest of the family."
In 2004, at Thanksgiving dinner, Jessica was so shocked by Jaime's appearance that she made a declaration, slamming her hands down on the table and telling her parents that Jaime was anorexic.
"[She] yelled it: 'Your daughter is an anorexic!,'" Jaime said. "And I was a deer in the headlights."
After the Thanksgiving episode, Jaime went into treatment. All the while, she and her family were unaware that Jessica was struggling with the same disorder.
"Anything that I ate I would purge until I felt like I got it all up," Jessica said. "It was a miserable life. But at the same time, I felt like it was the life that I deserved to live."
While Jessica was visiting Jaime at the rehabilitation center, therapists realized that she, too, was struggling with an eating disorder. Jessica began to seek help too. With both twins in treatment, their family was devastated.
"My wife and I dearly love each other. This is probably the hardest thing that's happened to us in the 30-plus years we've been married," said their father, James Parrish. "I mean, I didn't think we'd survive this."
Unlocking a Cure Through Genetics
Jessica and Jaime come from a loving family. Their younger sister, Jennifer, leads a normal, healthy life. So how could both twins develop eating disorders?
The answer could lie in the genes they share. Experts studying twins with eating disorders increasingly believe their illnesses are biologically based. One recent study concluded that more than half a person's risk for developing anorexia is determined by genes.
Jessica and Jaime are participating in a new international study on genetics and eating disorders run by the National Institute of Mental Health.
"What we see is that about 70 percent of the time if one twin develops one of the illnesses, the other twin is going to develop it as well," said Dr. Craig Johnson, who is heading up the study.
By studying the twins, Johnson hopes he and his team may be able to uncover a cure for anorexia. And for Jessica and Jaime, sharing what was once a secret struggle is not only benefiting science -- it's also helping their recovery.
"The short term goal is that we would like to understand the neurochemistry better so that we can develop medications that specifically target the illnesses of anorexia nervosa and bulimia," Johnson said. "Our long term goal is to be able to cure it."