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Achieving victory over 'a disease of denial'


To her high school friends, Jamie-Lynn DiScala seemed to have it all: She was thin, beautiful and headed for fame, chosen from among hundreds of girls to play the daughter, Meadow, on the HBO hit series The Sopranos.

But in reality, DiScala's life was caving in. Scared, insecure and desperately sick, the 16-year-old high school junior was starving and exercising herself to death. In the end, she almost lost her family, her job and her life.

"I was so depressed, and so lost. I had lost myself. And I was losing my friends and family," says DiScala, now 22. "I was shutting everyone out. I got to the point where I didn't even want to live anymore."

DiScala, refreshingly warm and down to earth, is open about her eating disorder. More impressive, she takes time to travel to colleges nationwide for the National Eating Disorder Association to educate people about the illness.

The Sopranos star will be in Baltimore Feb. 29, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at Towson University's Stephens Hall Auditorium for a free lecture as part of a program sponsored by St. Joseph Medical Center to mark National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

DiScala's eating-disorder battle is not uncommon. An estimated 10 million girls and women and as many as 1 million boys or young men nationwide suffer from some form of the disease, according to the National Eating Disorder Association in Seattle. Even more people struggle with eating issues but don't develop full-blown, clinical cases that land them in therapy or hospitals, the association says.

Most at risk are adolescents. Doctors say that between 1 percent and 2 percent of high school-age and college-age young women develop anorexia nervosa, a mental illness in which they starve themselves. Of those, as many as 10 percent die. Millions more young women develop less severe, sub-clinical shades of the disorder.

As many as 5 percent of young women in the same age group develop bulimia, marked by insatiable bingeing on food and purging by throwing up, using laxatives, fasting or exercising excessively. Young men suffer from both disorders too, but in fewer numbers.

"These are my peers," says Di-Scala, who has taken classes at New York University and worked on the set of The Sopranos for six years. "So I can relate to them.

"They are away from home for the first time without someone monitoring their lifestyles," she explains, "and it's overwhelming. This is where an eating disorder can begin."

The start of DiScala's eating disorder, chronicled in her book, Wise Girl, began in high school after a break-up with her boyfriend. She had been chosen to play Meadow, the sassy teen-age daughter on The Sopranos. But there was a nine-month break between the filming of the pilot and the start of the series.

During those months, the 5-foot-7-inch DiScala's eating disorder escalated. She lost so much weight, she says, that she could not fit into size 0 clothing. Instead, she started wearing children's sizes. Her behavior became obsessive.

She was up at 4 a.m. for two hours of exercise before sunrise. She limited herself to tiny amounts of food, giving herself a diet soda, for example, as a snack between school and dance class. Dinner was a fat-free yogurt.

"All my energy and focus went into the eating disorder," she says. "All I was doing was worrying about food, exercise and the calories I was eating."

DiScala also worried that some of her girlfriends, jealous about her television success, were happy to see her sick.

Fortunately, she was able to acknowledge that she had a problem. She confided in her best friend that she thought losing weight would help get her boyfriend back. When she asked her parents for help, they quickly got her psychiatric care. She was struggling with feelings of worthlessness and a sense that she had no control over her life.

"It's not about the food or your body," DiScala says about the underlying causes of eating disorders. "It's about emotions. So I couldn't have done it without the therapy. For me, that was key."

Dr. Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders and head of psychiatry at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, says not everyone with anorexia will think they are sick. The symptoms are noticeable, though, because patients drop large amounts of weight, lose hair and obsess about food. Young women may stop menstruating.

"Sometimes the patients are the last to know," Brandt says. "This is a disease of denial. So parents may have to exert external pressure to get their children into treatment, just to keep them alive."

Bulimia, a hidden disorder, can be more difficult. Patients often are aware that they have a problem, but they are profoundly ashamed of their behavior and won't seek help. Studies show that people suffering from bulimia can take up to six years to seek treatment. Because of this, parents or friends need to be on the lookout for clues. For example, a sufferer may go to the bathroom to throw up after every meal.

After DiScala started therapy, she says, she was able to slowly put herself back on a path toward good health.

Gradually, she returned to a healthy weight. Ironically, some of her television fans complained that she had gained too much weight. Some fans posted nasty messages on her Web site, discussing her weight gain and calling her fat.

Finally, without consulting cast members, directors or consultants, she took matters into her own hands. She wrote an e-mail to her fans, explaining her illness and asking for their support. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Last summer, she married her former manager, A.J. DiScala, 33, and the couple is working to create a foundation to help those with eating disorders. One problem, she says, is that many insurance companies don't cover the cost of treatment.

DiScala also plans to continue speaking to her peers about her experience.

"I am in a place that I never dreamed I'd be in," she says of her success. "My dreams are coming true beyond what I ever imagined. ... And I am very grateful for that.

"For me," she adds, "it's worthwhile speaking out if I can help just one other person through a very difficult time."

Jamie-Lynn DiScala

Name: Jamie-Lynn DiScala, formerly Sigler

Hometown: Jericho, New York

Age: 22

Home: Lives with her husband, A.J. DiScala, in Manhattan

Career: Starting her fifth season as Meadow on the HBO series The Sopranos. Made her Broadway debut in 2001 in Cinderella, playing the lead.

Hobbies: Golf, and romping with her three dogs, who live on Long Island with her parents.

Motto: "Everything happens for a reason."

Eating-disorder events

* Challenging a Negative Body Image: Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., St. Joseph Medical Center's Noppenberger Auditorium, Towson. Free, but reservations required. 410-427-2100

* Living Large -- Staying Healthy and Living in Your Body: Thursday, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., St. Joseph's Noppenberger Auditorium. Free, but reservations required. 410-427-2100.

* Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn DiScala: Feb. 29, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Towson University's Stephens Hall Auditorium. Free, but reservations required. 410-427-2100.

* Free, confidential eating-disorder screenings: Center for Eating Disorders at St. Joseph Medical Center, Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and March 4, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Jordan Center at St. Joseph Medical Center, fourth floor. For appointments, call 410-427-2100.

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