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Diet demons

S.A.-born woman describes obsession

By Marina Pisano

Laurelee Roark grew up in a middle- class family not unlike some other American families.

"How you looked was really the most important thing -- not who you are as a person. How you looked was what the deal was. Everyone wanted to be thin. Our culture feeds that," therapist and author Roark says in an interview from Marin County in California.

"My mother was always on a diet. All her girlfriends were on a diet. Every woman I knew was on a diet, so it was not unusual for me to be on a diet, too -- at 14."

The tall, slender San Antonio-born teen- ager, who went to Highlands High School, began modeling for a local agency. She soon found the perfect idol to emulate -- Twiggy, the miniskirted, reed-thin English fashion model who emblematized pop culture in the 1960s.

Roark's sense of self-worth became firmly tied to appearance -- the perfect body.

As Roark, now 48, recalls, "Then, life happened. And sometimes it was worse, and sometimes it was OK."

Mostly, it was driven by the obsession with body image and food, wild ups and downs in weight, diet pills, illicit street drugs and alcoholism. Maintaining the perfect body was killing her.

Roark and co-author Carol Emery Normandi will be at Viva Book Store at 7 p.m. Thursday to sign copies of "It's Not About Food," (Grosset/Putnam, $21.95). The book recounts Roark's troubled years of eating disorders and substance abuse and her subsequent recovery. Normandi also tells of her dieting and bingeing.

The authors take readers through techniques developed over many years at Beyond Hunger Inc., a nonprofit, San Francisco Bay area organization they co- founded. It offers support groups, workshops and education for adolescents and adults with eating disorders.

Normandi co-facilitates support groups at Beyond Hunger and is a counselor in private practice. Roark, who has a master's degree in psychology and is a certified clinical hypnotherapist, directs the organization.

Working with women and men, she draws on her experiences.

"I bounced between all the eating disorders -- obesity, anorexia and bulimia," says the former model who, at 5 feet, 8 inches, has a natural weight of 120 pounds.

"I would get very overweight, close to 200 pounds. Then, I would stop eating and lose enormous amounts of weight," she remembers. "Then, I started uncontrollable bingeing, throwing up and taking laxatives. I would binge, throw up and run five miles. And, I was in complete denial of what I was doing."

From diet pills, Roark says she went on to amphetamines.

"I started buying 'black beauties.' Here I was this white, middle-class woman, holding down a job, and I was buying drugs on the street. Anyone who would look at me wouldn't realize what was going on with me. I turned out to be a full-blown alcoholic and drug addict."

Eating disorders are all about control, observes Roark, who moved to California when she was 27. But, it was only when she stopped trying to control eating that she began to recover. She set down two rules: She could never throw up again, and she could never starve herself again. Instead she would eat when her body told her to eat and stop when she was full.

"I was eating for so many other reasons than hunger," she says. "I had to learn to nurture myself."

In its three-month workshops, Beyond Hunger uses an approach that gets into the psychological and cultural reasons for a person's disorder.

"First, we legalize all food," Roark explains. "Lettuce and ice cream are the same. There's no good food, bad food. There's just food."

In a slow process that doesn't always work for everyone, therapists take workshop participants, many of whom were sexually abused, from self-loathing and body hatred to self-love, self-esteem and recovery.

Roark is still a little amazed at her own return from the abyss.

"I'm going though menopause now, and I seem to put on a little weight once a month. Fourteen years ago, I would have been insane and on a diet. Now, I say to my body, 'Are you hungry or not?' "