The No. 1 cause …..

Leslie* and I were close friends growing up together in Harrisonburg. We shared school classes, neighborhood games, clubs and dreams. She was artistic and interesting. After high school, we enrolled in different colleges and drifted apart. The next time I saw her she was rail thin. Scary thin. I heard she’d had some problems in college, heard the words “anorexia nervosa” mentioned alongside her name, but until I saw her it didn’t sink in. Back then, anorexia was a relatively unknown condition, until singer Karen Carpenter died.

It was hard for me to understand my friend’s obsession with her weight and body image. After all, she was talented, beautiful and very smart. The problem,  I would gradually come to understand, was that everyone knew that – except Leslie.

Catherine Boyle (photo by Missy Bane)

Recently, I talked to a JMU alum who understands it well. As a senior in high school, Catherine Schuermann Boyle (’85) was on top of the world.  A high achiever at the head of her high school class, she had been accepted early decision to her No. 1 choice: James Madison University. Excited and hopeful, the future looked bright and promising for the 18-year-old. But Catherine was headed for rough waters. Despite stellar academic achievements while also holding down a job, Catherine learned to her dismay that her dream of entering JMU as a freshman was financially impossible. Instead, she enrolled at a local community college, swallowed her disappointment, and continued to work hard in school and at her job.

But something had been triggered deep in Catherine’s psyche.

By all outward appearances, Catherine was a success. She eventually made it to JMU, graduating from the College of Business in 1985 with a degree in accounting and four job offers. In time, she became a vice president at Crestar bank and married another banker before “retiring” when their second child was born.

But despite her success, Catherine struggled with a dark secret that few knew about — and that even fewer understood. “I was anorexic while I was at the community college and became bulimic while at JMU,” she says. “I struggled with it all through college.”

Catherine was not alone. Anorexia is the No. 1 cause of death in woman aged 15 to 24, according to Duke Medicine.**  Number one. The statistics are sobering:

    • Among western women between 15 and 24 years old, approximately 1 out of every 200 suffers from anorexia nervosa, while about 1 in 50 is bulimic.
    • Between 10 and 50 percent of American college women report having binge eaten and then vomited to control their weight.
    • Approximately 40 percent of American girls ages 9 and 10 report being or having been on a diet to lose weight.
    • Some 50 to 60 percent of teenage American girls believe they are overweight, yet only 15 to 20 percent of them actually are overweight.**

Catherine says that many factors contribute to eating disorders, ranging from physical, emotional or sexual abuse to genetic predisposition to difficult circumstances, but those who find themselves struggling with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders all end up struggling with an eating disorder “mindset.” Reaching and changing that mindset is critical to successfully overcoming eating disorders.

Northfield’s Cumberland Home

Today Catherine is healthy and has turned her experience into a means of helping others. She has written and published about the disorder. In 2010, she was named chief operating officer of  Northfield Ministries, a residential treatment facility for women near Richmond, Va., that opened this spring. Here women can find the help they need to change that all important mindset.

The problem with most treatment plans, explains Gwen Seiler, the founder and director of Northfield, is that they treat the symptoms without addressing the root causes, which are deep and complicated. Many young women whose lives hang in the balance are admitted to hospitals for short term treatment. When their weight stabilizes, they are released, but their mindsets haven’t changed. The medical crisis  is over, but the problem is still very real.

“The rubber meets the road when you go back home,” Catherine says.

Changing that mindset, helping young women find freedom from the torment of anorexia and bulimia, is the focus of Northfield, the only non-profit, faith-based facility of its kind in Virginia and surrounding states. Northfield works with many families who have exhausted all of their resources. Treatment across the country is limited and expensive, up to $45,000 for a month’s stay.  By contrast, Northfield offers affordable options, in large part because of the tremendous support they have received.

“People have come from all over the country for working weekends,” Gwen says. Businesses donated goods and time, and often both. Over the past five years, with volunteer help, the residential Cumberland Home has had a slow and steady extreme makeover. “We want to be the place that so many people need,” she says.

Northfield has found much support in the in the JMU community around Richmond. Among the supporters are Wallace and Nita (’48) Chandler, Frank and Brenda (’80) Bell, Mike (’87) and Blair (’87) Grappone and Anna Daddio (’11)  who have all lent their support.

Another strong supporter is Kellyn Cunningham (’11) who graduated from the School of Communication Studies. “I was motivated to get involved by how much it touched my life.” Kellyn, like Catherine, struggled with an eating disorder while at JMU, but with Gwen’s help, she overcame it. “I was surprised to learn that so many more young women/students struggled with eating disorders than I realized. I wasn’t alone. I think isolation is one of the greatest weapons against recovery, and having a place with Gwen and the other girls gave me encouragement and hope,” she says. “Unless someone has experienced an addiction, it is hard to describe the sense of hopelessness and downward cycle eating disorders can create. Northfield offers freedom.”

Gwen Seiler has her own JMU connection. She spent two years at JMU before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University to finish with a degree in nursing. It was in nursing school that she first encountered eating disorders. At the time, she felt burdened by one young woman’s problem. “How do you help?” she asked. Now she knows.

Gwen and Catherine understand how great the need is, and it spurs them both. The solution for many of these women is simple yet daunting. “If you can heal the thoughts,” Catherine says, “you can heal the body.”

Last year, my friend Leslie died unexpectedly. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that anorexia eventually killed her. As in so many cases, the root cause of these deaths is hidden. If nothing else, an eating disorder wrecked her life. She was never able to reach, break free and hold on to the lifeline that Catherine and Kellyn  found.

Knowing Leslie, knowing the light that went out — the beauty, intelligence and talent that disappeared — convinces me of the importance of Northfield’s mission. Sometimes it’s critical to change a life in order to save it.

To learn much more Catherine’s work with Northfield  and how you can help, visit their website at  and Catherine’s website at

*name has been changed.              **
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