After conquering her own eating disorder, advocate will help Congress take on cause

Federal Response to Eliminating Eating Disorders (FREED) Act (S. 3260 — Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; H.R. 1193 — Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.): A bill to expand research into the causes, treatment and prevention of eating disorders; increase proper screening for eating disorders; improve training and education on eating disorders; better track the prevalence, severity and economic costs of eating disorders; and enhance access to treatment for eating disorders.

Status: Referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on April 26; referred to four House committees on Feb. 25, 2009.

Kathleen MacDonald first told the story of her struggles with eating disorders to a congressional audience in 2002. She continues to tell her story, she says, to reach out to others who needed the help she was seeking for 16 years.

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“The main reason I share my story now is to spread the message of hope that you can fully recover, and you can do something to help other people if you so choose,” says MacDonald, a policy assistant for the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC).

Last month MacDonald’s goal of helping others with eating disorders officially became the business of both chambers of Congress as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Federal Response to Eliminating Eating Disorders Act. A House version of the same bill was introduced last year and has bipartisan support.

“Sadly, these diseases touch the lives of so many of our families and friends,” Harkin said in a statement. “We have got to do a better job at the federal level of investing in research, treatment and prevention, and the FREED Act is a major step in the right direction.”

MacDonald traces her eating disorders back to her childhood, when, at 10 years old, she remembers starting to feel pressure to be thin and beautiful. She and her friends would talk about going on diets and how fat they looked in their clothes.

MacDonald first threw her lunch away as a 12-year-old, and she says the next time she ate lunch was 16 years later. During that time she went through cycles of succumbing to the disease, isolating herself from family and friends and looking for treatment — only to find it cost-prohibitive.

At her first speech for EDC, MacDonald says, she found people who had similar stories and who made her realize her struggle wasn’t her fault. That was the beginning of her recovery, she says.

MacDonald says she is fully recovered, and she has taken her treatment a step further by making eating-disorders issues her life’s work. She plans to continue helping her organization bring awareness of the topic to Capitol Hill as part of the push for passage of the FREED Act.

“It’s definitely a very empowering experience,” she says, “and the amount of people who just tear up and say, ‘I’ve never heard people get better’ — that helps me keep going.”