20/20 Friday: Moms With Eating Disorders

An intimate look at one woman's struggle to overcome anorexia.

ByABC News
February 11, 2009, 7:46 PM

Jan. 14, 2008— -- At age 47, Sue Harootunian does not look like the stereotypical person struggling with anorexia, an eating disorder most often associated with teenage girls. Harootunian is 5 feet 4 inches tall, but the married mother of three has withered away to 80 pounds after battling anorexia for more than two decades.

Yes, decades.

In recent years, experts have warned of a raging epidemic of eating disorders among older women, many of them mothers. Treatment centers across the country report that adult women are seeking help in record numbers.

"The whole idea of gaining weight is scary, but it's not. I have mixed emotions about it," Harootunian said.

For more than a year, "20/20" and ABC News' medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson chronicled Harootunian's desperate fight to overcome anorexia. Granted rare and intimate access, our cameras followed Harootunian inside the Renfrew Center, an elite treatment facility in Philadelphia where more than 20 percent of the patients are over 35.

"We spent a lot of the first several weeks of her treatment simply refeeding her," said Dr. Susan Ice, Renfrew's medical director. "She was 67 percent of her ideal body weight. Her heart rate was low. She was dehydrated. She needed to be placed on bed rest."

When Harootunian first arrived at Renfrew, staff members spent several days just trying to stabilize her health. Until they did so, she could not participate in the most difficult part of recovery -- confronting her inner demons in raw and painful therapy sessions.

Harootunian had to re-examine her relationships with all the people close to her: her parents, her husband, and even her children, who had always known their mother as an anorexic. And with cameras rolling, Harootunian made a startling revelation about her life that became the key to her getting better.

Harootunian agreed to let "20/20" document her journey as an example for other women struggling with eating disorders. Today, she hardly resembles the withered woman who had checked into Renfrew.