The year was 1983. With mellow ‘70s hits like “We’ve Only Just Begun” to her credit and more than 80 million records sold, pop singer Karen Carpenter died of complications related to a relatively new disorder called anorexia nervosa. The media reported Carpenter had literally starved herself to death and fans were stunned by her skeleton-like appearance at 80 pounds.
For years leading up to Carpenter’s tragedy, girls had been involved in the practices associated with what would later be termed eating disorders. At that time, however, the problem was not yet fully understood by the medical community.
At the same time, in Greenville, the Pazdans were a typical Catholic family with five children. Joe was in sales and traveled for a living and Mack, the nurturer, stayed home and raised kids. Big personalities filled the home and everyone vied to be heard at the table, especially Donna, who, as the youngest, had the smallest voice of all. She felt invisible.
Donna left for college in Chapel Hill, N.C. Cute, social and vivacious by nature, she joined a sorority and had friends. Somewhere during that journey, Donna decided she needed to lose weight and like Carpenter, her quest went too far, continuing for 26 years. Fortunately, her outcome was very different.
For Joe and Mack Pazdan, Karen Carpenter’s tragedy hit too close to home. At the age of 19, their 5–foot–6–inch daughter weighed a mere 68 pounds. She was an inch–and–a–half taller, yet 12 pounds lighter than Carpenter. Donna wasn’t eating and was well on her way to starving herself to death. Sick with worry, her parents hardly knew what to do to help her. Following a physician’s advice, they placed Donna in a medical center’s mental health unit for a year.
Following intense therapy, she was discharged a year later weighing 107 pounds. While still very thin for her height, the nearly 40–pound weight gain was critical to her survival.
Soon, though, she was back down to 83 pounds. This time, she had stopped eating entirely and her parents readmitted her to the hospital. With no real progress taking place, her doctor determined the only thing to do was to have her committed. Her father, however, would have nothing to do with his daughter being institutionalized.
Fortunately, at the time, a family acquaintance had recently experienced success overcoming her bulimia while working with a woman in Ohio who had a Ph.D. in nutrition. “This was a kind of make-shift, grassroots treatment program,” Donna said. “My parents put me on a plane, and there I went. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but they were desperate to help me. The lady stripped me down and took pictures — she made me look at them so I would realize what I really looked like. Her techniques were unconventional and really kind of crazy.”
Donna desperately wanted this program to work and, as usual, she was compliant. “I always really wanted help. I was never defiant, I was the best little patient,” she said. “The key for me was to lick it outside of a hospital setting because I would do whatever they told me to do. Then I would get out and fall apart. I think that’s true of a lot of people with addictions after they’ve been in a structured environment. I’d get back out into society and say, ‘ooh, what did I do?’”
Donna did pretty well on the “homeopathic woman’s” program, as she called it. “After I left, she made me call in every night at 6:00 and report what I ate and how I felt about it. My mom kept those records, and I found that journal the other day.”
Eventually, though, she fell backward. The ensuing years were spent trying new programs and therapies – taking one step forward and two steps back – but she never stopped wanting to get better.
During a period in 2008, Donna would run for three hours every morning before dawn. She was eating far too little food to fuel her body through workouts or to make up for the lack of sleep. Again she found herself facing physical collapse. Then, she was given a book that literally changed her life: “Gaining: The Truth about Life after Eating Disorders,” by Aimee Liu.
The book detailed experiences and essential information that for decades Donna had longed to hear. She learned that true recovery required understanding the roles of genetics, personality, relationships and anxiety as they related to eating disorders. “Gaining” offered such great hope that Donna found herself writing to the author — never thinking she would write back. But she did, and the women who suffered so much in common became fast friends.
“In the 70s, Aimee suffered with anorexia. At the time, she didn’t know what it was, but she cured herself and wrote a highly-respected book on recovery. She had to come to Ann Arbor and speak. I knew her words could help so many, just as they helped me,” said Donna.
She and her husband, Randy Friedman, sponsored Liu’s visit to the University of Michigan and the local newspaper featured a story on Donna to promote the event. She was not prepared for the outpouring of letters, calls and emails she received. Until that point, she hadn’t realized just how many people were suffering and desperate for information and help.
Liu shared her personal journey with the audience. It contained a powerful message like the one that had so deeply touched Donna. Liu, in a recent interview, recalls that time fondly.
|Left photo: Donna Friedman, left, during her freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill. Right photo: Friedman posed for a photo a year later in 1983.|
“I met Donna when she was still battling to free herself from the grip of anorexia, but even at that fragile stage she showed such courage and generosity,” Liu said. “She dared to speak out publicly about her own experience of eating disorders, and in doing so, encouraged others to seek treatment. This honesty also paved the way for her own full recovery, which in turn launched her as an activist in the field of eating disorder treatment and advocacy. Today Donna is a tireless and fierce champion, a beautiful example of the power to be gained through recovery.”
Donna became involved with the Academy for Eating Disorders in the Chicago area and finally found a therapist who understood her and more importantly, recovery. She was ready to embark on a new treatment plan and for the first time, she began to really conquer her disease.
In 2011, the family moved to Charleston and immediately became involved in community initiatives. Because of her personal interest in the subject, Donna realized there was a lack of resources available to treat children and adolescents who were dealing with eating disorders. She learned that local schools were trying their best to assist with the number of cases they were seeing, and families were sending their children to other states, like North Carolina, for treatment.
Donna spent 24 months doing her own personal research on the subject and was disheartened by the statistics. The S.C. Department of Mental Health states that anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and estimates that of the 8 million Americans who suffer with an eating disorder, 95 percent of those are between the ages of 12 and 25. Further, 50 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight and 80 percent of 13-year-olds have already attempted to lose weight.
But the most alarming statistic of all served as a personal call to action for Donna: the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate related to all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
Donna reflected on the gravity of this statement and the tremendous need for resources to help children with eating disorders in the Charleston community. With her history in mind and a sincere desire to help, she and Randy made a generous leadership gift to fund a pediatric intensive outpatient center at MUSC and with the help of Dr. Charles Darby, Jr., M.D., professor emeritus and executive director of the Center for Child Advocacy, $1 million has been raised.
Darby said when the Friedmans moved to Charleston a few years back, it was obvious that they loved the community.
“Donna is a ‘recovering’ anorexic and very knowledgeable about the disease – she quickly found a weak spot in our health services. She and Randy have generously committed their time and resources to help the MUSC Department of Pediatrics recruit a first class team of specialists to form a center of excellence in eating disorders, and we are committed to researching the causes, treatments and methods of prevention that are not currently fully understood,” Darby said.
In addition to being integrally involved in all aspects of planning, Donna is also working on her master’s degree so she will have the credentials to play a significant role in the new program.
“I am incredibly committed to this project. Anorexia robbed me of so many important moments throughout my life. My goal now is to help others understand this illness and completing my M.S. in psychology will enable me to work directly with those who need help the most.”
Donna also was named to the AED board and serves as the first member to represent the patient’s perspective. The global professional organization is a leader in the research, education, treatment and prevention of eating disorders.
“I am pleased to be the voice of the patient as I believe I bring a different point of view to the table. It is important to humanize this issue that for too long has been stigmatizing,” she said.
Donna proudly calls herself a survivor. She will always need to remain vigilant, but today she is healthy. And while she still speaks to her therapist in Ann Arbor once a week, there are no signs of protruding bones, sunken eyes or the brittle hair that typically characterizes someone in the throes of anorexia. Warm, vibrant and slender describe the Donna Friedman of today.
Thirty–one years after the death of Karen Carpenter, awareness and treatment have greatly improved, yet society is more body-conscious than ever. Models get thinner, photo-shopping is a common trick to make perfection look attainable, and TV programs aimed at promoting fast weight loss underscore society’s prejudice against the overweight — things that conspire to undermine the self–esteem of young girls and cause unrealistic behaviors.
For nearly three decades Donna lived a nightmare, but now she lives a dream. She has a devoted husband, four beautiful children and two charming golden doodles all of whom she adores; a spectacular home that sits at the confluence of Shem Creek and harbor where shrimp boats bring in their catches and paddle boarders test their skills; and a mission in her heart to improve the lives of children who fall victim to an erroneous perception of perfection.