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Old Greenwich Renfrew Center celebrates anniversary

As seen in Greenwich Time

October 05, 2015

When she attended a family wedding two years ago, Stacy DeMatteo was fragile and frail, the shape of her bones visible through her skin.

Everybody noticed it, but it was one of her cousins, a nurse, who took action.

"She pulled me aside at the end of the wedding and asked me what I was doing. I said I was going outside for a cigarette and she said 'No, no, knock the B.S. off.' She knew what I was doing and said that I needed help," said DeMatteo.

DeMatteo, 41, of Torrington, admitted herself to the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, a residential eating disorder clinic for women, on Oct. 1 two years ago. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

The Renfrew Center is the oldest residential eating disorder facility in the nation. This year was its 30th anniversary, and the Renfrew Center of Connecticut in Old Greenwich celebrated the anniversary last week.

Old Greenwich has become familiar to DeMatteo — she completed the five-week inpatient program in Philadelphia and returned to Torrington, driving to Old Greenwich to attend support group meetings.

The first Renfrew Center was established June 25, 1985, on a 27-acre estate in Philadelphia. The residential clinic, which was the first of its kind, had advertisements in city newspapers that read: "If you have anorexia or bulimia, you've got our respect."

"Eating disorders are of epidemic proportions. It was then, too, but it was in the closet," said Sam Menaged, founder and president of the Renfrew Center.

DeMatteo said she has had a strange relationship with food for a long time, but what "broke the camel's back" was separating from her boyfriend of seven years.

"It took me a long time to realize I'm not just losing my appetite — my behavior has changed. I was restricting food, limiting myself to certain calories a day, only eating certain kinds of food and exercising excessively," she said.

Menaged said a lot of times the disorder isn't about food or body image, but is a matter of control.

"For me, it was completely, 100 percent self-punishment. I was very angry at myself for the mistakes I'd made," said DeMatteo.

Suffering from a trauma and trying to regain control are common factors that lead to the development of an eating disorder. Another factor to blame, said Menaged and DeMatteo, is society.

"The vulnerability of women in society is such that, while they're getting strong and stronger, the pressure on them to be everything — professionals, wives, caretakers — is great," said Menaged.

DeMatteo said it didn't help that people seemed to have mixed opinions about her weight loss.

"People were like, 'You look great, you look wonderful, what's your secret?' I felt deceitful because in my mind I was thinking, 'well, suicide,'" she said. "It was very uncomfortable when someone asked, 'How do you look so great?' and others thought I was dying of cancer."

The Renfrew Center boasts a "continuum of care," where clients can immerse themselves as little or as much as needed.

"The real challenge is when you go home," said Menaged, which is why, he said, the Renfrew Center offers programming after work hours so people can incorporate treatment and support into their busy lives.

DeMatteo said she chose the Renfrew Center for its individualized care and its flexibility with letting her do things that were important to her, including attending church on Sundays and having a support group of women over 30.

"You're aligned with people you can relate to, which helps immensely in one's recovery," she said. She said she's formed an alumni support group at the Renfrew Center in Greenwich.

Menaged said the Renfrew Center's main challenge now is improving clients with eating disorder's access to care.

"Eating disorders cross all socioeconomic boundaries," he said.

Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. Despite the data, many insurance companies deny coverage for treatment, he said.

"If you deal with the mental health issues, the origins and why the problem is continuing, you'll have less physical manifestations," he said. Curbing the disorder now, he said, is cost effective down the line.

Menaged said clinicians working for insurance companies tend to pay attention to physical and not mental conditions, reflecting a "lack of seeing the whole person."

The lack of understanding the depth of eating disorders, he said, is one hurdle society must overcome.

"I think even now, there's a lack of recognition of how serious eating disorders are and how difficult they are to work with," he said.

DeMatteo said she wants to encourage women to come out of the shadows and seek help.

"I used to say (the Renfrew Center) gave me my life back, which they did, but more importantly they gave me the will to want my own life back, for myself," she said.
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