Miss Georgia reveals deadly secret to help others

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 12, 2013 

After she was crowned as Miss Georgia 2012 last June in Columbus, Leighton Jordan mentioned in a post-pageant interview that she had overcome an eating disorder. That was anorexia nervosa, defined as self-starvation and excessive weight loss.

But it was among a pile of interesting nuggets about the 19-year-old from Suwanee -- professional ballet dancer as a teen, qualified for college a year early, developed her platform in honor of her special-needs brother -- so it got lost in the moment because it seemed so much in her past.

The anorexia indeed was in her past -- because she never received professional treatment for it and it burst into another eating disorder that was very much part of her present and threatening her future.

She didn't disclose that she was then suffering from bulimia nervosa, a cycle of binge-eating and purging, usually through vomiting, laxatives, diuretics or over-exercising.

"I didn't want to put a bad name on pageants or put a bad name on myself," she said.

Jordan kept her deadly secret until the fall, when her hectic schedule as Miss Georgia became too much to take for her unhealthy body and mind.

And the inspiration for going public this spring came from a young admirer.

Facing fears

Jordan, now 20, faced more than her fear of snakes when she made a Miss Georgia appearance at Claxton's rattlesnake roundup in March.

She noticed this 13-year-old girl in the crowd and, through her intuition, figured that the girl also was suffering from an eating disorder. So she took the chance to approach her.

"I think you might benefit from me letting you know about my struggles with an eating disorder," Miss Georgia told the girl.

"How did you know?"

"I just have a heart for it."

Then the girl gave Miss Georgia a verbal gift in return. She said that after watching Miss Georgia at this event, she thought she never could reach that level of success because she isn't perfect like Jordan. But now that Miss Georgia shared her struggle, the girl said she is confident she can overcome her struggle too.

That magical moment prompted Jordan to tell the Miss Georgia board she wanted to go public with her eating disorder to help more people.

"At the beginning, a lot of people were shocked," Jordan said. "But everyone was so empathetic and still very respectful of my privacy."

She also understands the cynics who have Tweeted crass comments about her disclosure less than two months before the end of her Miss Georgia reign.

"I know there's questioning about why am I doing this now," Jordan said. "Is it because she wants to get more attention right before she's done being Miss Georgia? Why wasn't this my platform? And I have to laugh at that. I had to do what was best for my recovery. Had I spoken about this earlier, it could have been detrimental to that. It could have totally derailed me."

Control

Jordan's anorexia started when she was 12 and joined a pre-professional ballet school in Atlanta.

"I wanted that perfect ballet body," she said. "I was with a lot of older dancers who were talking about their bodies 24/7."

So she thought she would eat a little less and exercise a little bit more. But then that wasn't enough in her mind, and she increased those behaviors to excess.

By age 14, she said, "it consumed my life."

Her mother noticed the drastic weight-loss and took her to a pediatrician, who prescribed appetite stimulants.

"My weight began to be restored," Jordan said, "and I thought I was better, and everyone around me thought I was better."

Jordan soared to elite levels in the ballet world. At 15, she went alone to a summer intensive training ballet school in San Francisco, where her weight became a "huge focus again," she said, and the bulimia set in.

Jordan then left her family in Georgia to live in Texas for two years and dance with the Houston Ballet.

"I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect," she said. "I was constantly trying to please everyone around me. So I needed a release, and part of these symptoms is to get that release from the eating disorder."

Ankle injuries and surgeries ended her ballet career at 17. She started college a year early at Georgia Perimeter, but the bulimia followed her there and into the pageant world as she began competing in another realm fixated on body image.

Jordan now sees that she overcompensated for what her special-needs brother couldn't do.

"I wanted to be that perfect child who never caused my parents any trouble," she said. "They never told me that, but that's how I internalized it."

Disclosure

The few times she discussed her struggle with her mother while growing up, they called it "disordered eating," Jordan said. "We didn't acknowledge the severity of it."

Jordan's mother, Clemmie said, "I didn't have an idea she was struggling like that."

But in September, after a few months as Miss Georgia, the mother's intuition broke through.

Clemmie felt her daughter was holding in a great sadness and asked her, "Are you OK?"

"No," the daughter finally admitted. "I need some help."

"My mom has supported me through it all," Jordan said, "but it was hard for me to open up."

Jordan advises parents or other loved ones to be compassionately proactive when they suspect someone has an eating disorder.

"Just say, 'I love you and care about you but I'm worried' she said, 'so what's going on?' Don't accuse them of anything, because you don't know unless you've seen something take place, but don't let it slide by. Don't wait for them to come to you, because you'll end up waiting for years."

The mother felt guilt. Clemmie wondered whether she did or said something to contribute to her daughter's eating disorder.

"She laughed and, God bless her, she patted me on the back and said, 'Mama, this isn't about you.'"

Clemmie said she is in "awe" of her daughter's grace in the face of her hardship.

"I don't know many people who could do this," the mother said. "She doesn't care that people might ridicule this. She knows the profound way this could help other people."

Perspective

Linda Buchanan, clinical director of the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders, is the psychologist on Jordan's treatment team. Buchanan has been treating eating disorders for 25 years, and the problem is getting worse, she said. She cites the following evidence:

• More people die from eating disorders (350,000) than from breast cancer (40,000) each year.

• Females age 15-24 are 12 times more likely to die from an eating disorder than any other cause of death.

• More people die from an eating disorder than any other mental/behavioral disorder, including depression.

The biggest misconception about eating disorders, Buchanan said, is that people "can just get over it if they want to." Research shows, she said, that developing an eating disorder is at least 50 percent biologically or genetically determined.

These brain differences make some people more vulnerable to triggers, such as anxiety and sensitivity, Buchanan said, and they heighten other eating disorder factors, including society's warped images of what are healthy bodies, family stress and trauma. Recovery requires learning skills to manage these differences in the brain, she said.

Buchanan explained how someone can hide an eating disorder even while being a high achiever and in such a public role as Miss Georgia.

"They usually are very talented and intelligent individuals," she said, "so they can perform very well and often have an outward face that is in contrast to their inner life."

Buchanan also explained how those with eating disorders think they benefit from the unhealthy behaviors of anorexia and bulimia.

"Not eating helps them control their fear that they won't have a perfect body," she said. "Binging helps them reduce the intensity of that feeling, numbing it and pushing it down. Then purging offers the chance to make up for the mistake."

Although she encouraged Jordan to go slowly, Buchanan supports Jordan going public with her struggle and admires her courage.

"Helping others," she said, "I think that is part of their own growth."

Treatment

After she admitted she needed professional help, Jordan started treatment in September at the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders.

"I realized this disorder was totally taking away from the joys of being Miss Georgia," Jordan said. "It was consuming me very quickly. I was having some pretty dark thoughts, and that was pretty scary for me.

"I had never been depressed in my life, but I felt that coming on pretty strongly. I thought, 'This is not me. It's not what I've been.' … I didn't even want to get out of bed."

She opted for a weekly outpatient program because she was preparing for the Miss America pageant, which was in January.

"She was in denial about how serious her eating disorder was," Buchanan said. "So, as her treatment team, we were really looking forward to the pageant being over."

Jordan "crashed" after the Miss America pageant, Buchanan said.

"Having that behind her and not having to put on as much of a front, she spiraled down," Buchanan said.

But that was a blessing in disguise, because it forced Jordan to face her eating disorder without excuses.

"She turned it around," Buchanan said. "She was so committed. She decided to trust us rather than the voice in her head.

"She didn't have to have that perfect body. She didn't need to accomplish more and more. You are good enough. You are never going to find your worth in your next accomplishment."

Jordan often viewed the anorexia and then the bulimia as separate from her persona.

"On most days, the eating disorder was bigger," she said. "But now, it's this itty-bitty voice."

In January and February, Jordan was in the partial hospitalization program, where she was treated from noon to 8:30 p.m. each weekday and traveled to events as Miss Georgia on weekends. She estimated she has appeared at 100 events and driven 27,000 miles the past 10 months.

After her treatment team allowed her to become an outpatient again, Jordan felt assured enough in March to disclose her bulimia to the Miss Georgia Board of Trustees.

"I admire her greatly for stepping forward," said board president Mansfield Bias of Columbus. "She can save the lives of young girls."

Bias said he was shocked and didn't see any clues about Jordan's eating disorder.

"I know there's a negative reputation for pageants," he said, "but these are very normal looking women, not skin and bones."

Jordan's case is the first eating disorder Bias has seen in the 30 years he has been with the Miss Georgia pageant, he said. Still, he hopes this will serve as a wake-up call for those involved.

"It certainly has opened our eyes to watch for things more than ever," he said. "When the girls are with us the week of the pageant, we are stressing with them eating healthy and making sure they're getting enough nutrition."

The toughest part, Jordan said, was being in the public eye while secretly being in treatment.

"When I was in treatment, I could be totally me and talk about a lot of hard things," she said. "But then, the next day, I had to go to an event as Miss Georgia, and everything had to be great, but I knew in the back of my mind how much I was hurting."

In treatment, Jordan learned alternative behaviors to replace the binging and purging, such as writing in a journal or calling a friend or doing a self-care activity, Buchanan said.

Page Love, founder of Nutrifit Sport Therapy in Atlanta, is Jordan's dietician and has treated eating disorders for more than 20 years. She joined Buchanan in praising Jordan's attitude toward her treatment.

"I've seen a lot of women who are provided the tools but aren't ready to do the work," Love said. "She's pushed through."

Love has helped Jordan through guided eating challenges, such as eating her trigger foods in a slow and mindful way to enjoy instead of binge.

Love explained how anorexia often becomes bulimia.

"It starts with restricting, then physically and mentally you can do that for only so long and the body overreacts to get the nutrition back," she said. "Then that person learns that they can eat all these calories and get rid of them by binging and purging."

Studies show about 30 percent fully recover, another 30 percent continue to struggle with symptoms but still have productive lives, another 30 percent don't recover and 10 percent die from their eating disorder, Buchanan said.

She didn't hesitate when asked how dangerous Jordan's eating disorder had become: "If she hadn't gotten help, it may have taken her life."

Next

Now, Jordan and her treatment team say they are confident she is at the tail end of recovery, focusing on relapse prevention. She receives treatment twice per week for 90 minutes.

"It's still hard," Jordan said. "It's something you think about every day, at every meal. It's always in your thoughts, but through my faith and through my recovery and a lot of tools that I've learned, I think it's coming to an end."

Jordan is looking forward to college in August. She is deciding between scholarships at Mercer and Alabama-Huntsville. She wants to be a pediatric oncology nurse. She also wants to find a way to continue to share her story about eating disorders so she can bring more order to other lives.

Her message: "No one is perfect. This isn't something to be ashamed of. Get the professional help you need."

About six weeks ago, Jordan smashed her scale with an ax.

"I actually haven't weighed myself in a quite a long time," she said, then laughed and exclaimed, "Oh, that feels so good!"

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