Mother, son look to help others battling with weight, body image

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FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. -- Julie Watling sells children's books to school libraries for a living, but she also spends time journaling about her life experiences.

"What I like to write about is realistic experiences in my life," she said.

Right now, Watling is working on turning her latest journal entries into a book of her own. The main character is her son Riley Garcia, but the subject matter she's writing about isn't the happiest of topics.

She said, "I knew I'd be writing a book about Riley someday because he's always been a very special child. I didn't imagine it would be about this."

Last year, when Garcia was just 13 years old, he came home from school one day and expressed concern about his body image.

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He said, "(I) was in a bad state at that time. I wasn't really feeling good about myself. (I) was very insecure. I thought I was fat, yes. When I looked in the mirror, I did not like what I saw."

Garcia began restricting what he would eat and when he would eat in public. He also would exercise immediately after consuming food.

Watling said her heart broke the entire time her son was making these noticeable changes at such a young age.

"He always used to eat cookies and brownies. (He was) a normal eater and all of that went away. So, it was hard to go to the grocery store," she said.

Watling has worked before with people suffering from various addictions through Christian outreach and ministry programs. She said that experience helped her realize her own son was in desperate need of help.

"I called the doctor and we discussed that if he lost any more weight he was going to look like a Holocaust victim basically," she said.

At the time, Garcia stood 5'8'' and weighed 130 lbs.

He is a smart, outgoing athlete who also likes to write. He is the last person his family thought would ever have an eating disorder.

"I thought if anything I had to lose more weight, which is what I thought. I just thought it was perfectly fine," Garcia said.

Watling added, "To me, he's always been perfect in the way he was. I never would have imagined that this would happen to a boy."

That is a popular misconception people have about men and eating disorders.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports 10 million men and boys will have one in their life, but that the issue is often thought of as only affecting women.

"I don't think people's radar is up as much for men as it is for women," said Marilyn Dahl, a registered dietitian with the Beaded Star Eating Disorder Recovery Center in Jacksonville Beach.

She said men, like women, are bombarded with messages and images of perfectionism in the mainstream media, but that it's less okay for them to have issues with body image and weight.

"I think we have no idea how deep it goes for men," she said.

Dahl said many men feel ashamed to come forward and admit they have a problem. "It's an isolating disease," she said.

But what sets Garcia apart is he willingly opened up about it and wanted to get better. The teenager spent nine months in treatment working to improve his relationship with food.

"It's a very complex and intricate disease, but he's fragile. So, there's no way you'd be able to shove food down him. We just had to work with him to make him comfortable, so he was able to eat," Watling said.

Garcia is one of the fortunate males who could afford what was needed to work through his eating disorder.

Dahl's co-worker at the recovery center, registered dietitian Jill McCann, said many insurance companies don't always cooperate with their patients.

Each case is different and it depends on a lot of variables, but McCann said sometimes insurance will not pay a dime, or pay for only 30 days of treatment when a patient really needs 45 or 90.

She said her center has even seen families risk going broke just to get help.

"We've worked with families who've taken out second mortgages on their homes. They've taken out loans just to send a child or teenager or adult, both men and women, to treatment," she said.

For Garcia, going to therapy helped him separate conflicting messages.

He said, "That voice that is inside your head that's telling you you're fat is not real, but the people around you are."

Right now, eating something as simple as a sandwich is still sometimes a struggle for Garcia. But, he is determined to get better and hopes his story will someday be a lesson for other teenage boys.

"You can not just give up. You always need to be, you need to be patient. You need to be willing to do the recovery and it pays off," he said.

When he gets older, Garcia would like to be a psychologist. He is currently working on his own book, just like his mom.

"He does what he's supposed to do because he wants to get back in the game," Watling said.

The family is also working to form a support group on the First Coast for other families going through similar experiences.

Here is a list of tips to help with preventing an eating disorder and detecting one early.

  • Don't equate happiness with certain body types
  • Avoid labeling food as "bad" or "unhealthy"
  • Be critical of images you see in the mainstream media
  • If you suspect someone of having an eating disorder, approach them in a caring and gentile manner

You can also learn more about fighting insurance discrimination by clicking here.

Monday, February 24 is the start of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which has a theme this year of "everybody knows somebody."

Click here if you want to learn more about the ways to help people in your life.

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