Chandler-Gilbert Community College adjunct faculty pens heartbreaking book on daughter’s struggle with anorexia nervosa - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler-Gilbert Community College adjunct faculty pens heartbreaking book on daughter’s struggle with anorexia nervosa

August 3rd, 2017 development
Chandler-Gilbert Community College adjunct faculty pens heartbreaking book on daughter’s struggle with anorexia nervosa

By Srianthi Perera

Jenna-Marie Warnecke of Gilbert was 17 years old and weighed 110 pounds when she made the following journal entry:

“Where did all my zeal for life go? I used to enjoy every day. Now I just wait for it to pass. I used to love writing and food and living and now I don’t even want to write in my journal anymore and every time I eat anything I feel like I can feel my hips and stomach getting fatter and my chin growing another layer. I feel weak but fat and I can’t do anything about it at all.”

The Highland High student going into her senior year was in the early stages of a life-threatening journey with anorexia nervosa. Her mother, Valerie Foster, is adjunct faculty at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

The emotional disorder is characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.

During that year, the vivacious teenager dropped from a healthy weight to a precarious 64 pounds on a gaunt frame.

With the constant support of her at times disgruntled family, the teen recovered from the condition following an epiphany.

“I feel like an Eskimo who’s been curled up, fetal-like, under a heavy fur skin blanket,” she told Foster. “I’m throwing it off in this grand gesture, see? I throw it off, this Thing. I have been so disconnected from my body.”

Now in her 30s, Warnecke lives in New York City, where she pursues a self-satisfying career as a poet/novelist.

Warnecke’s battle with the illness, its wrenching effect on her family, and her miraculous recovery is the subject of Foster’s poignant new book, “Dancing with a Demon” ($14 paperback/available on

Foster is also the author of “The Risk of Sorrow: Conversations with Holocaust Survivor Helen Handler” and the recipient of the Shofar Zakhor award for Holocaust education.

“Dancing with a Demon” is chaptered by the teen’s descending weight.

“She’s always been sweetness and light,” Foster said of her daughter, with whom she had and continues to enjoy a close and loving relationship. “Then this demon just seemed to come into our house for a year and a half and suck the life out of her and change her.

Foster said the disease is mostly psychological.

“It’s not an eating disorder,” she said. “It’s a thinking disorder that manifests itself in eating.”

There’s a constant mental battle going on within the sufferer, and with the help of social media, they find chat rooms – “rabbit holes” to help each other starve.

Foster said her daughter would “sleep until early afternoon to skip a meal, come down and take an apple that she would cut into a hundred little pieces, and it would take her an hour to make herself eat a whole apple.”

Or, she’d pretend to eat. Once, she left half a muffin on the kitchen table, leading Foster to believe that she had consumed the other half. But it was in the garbage disposal unit, her mother would discover.

No one at home – her stepfather Tom, her brothers Nate and Greg – or at school could understand the change in her. “Why can’t Jenna just eat?” was the question on everyone’s lips.

Warnecke was hospitalized a few times and received counseling and therapy.

Here’s a journal entry she made at 84 pounds: “The last week has been an emotional roller coaster. I don’t want to be here, but I don’t want to be at the hospital, but I don’t want to miss anything here, but I miss the ‘safety’ of the hospital. Maybe I just can’t deal with living the two separate lives – I need one or the other.”

Ultimately, her recovery had to occur from within.

“She’s not sure why it started or ended. She did reach rock bottom. And I reached a point where I’m doing all the dancing with this demon, but you’re the one who has to do the work to get well,” Foster said.

Correspondingly, the later chapters in the book are titled “Grace,” “Transcendence” and “Metamorphosis.”

“And you see this young woman who gets it and begins to love herself and her body again and life again,” Foster said.

Although there are many books written by recovered anorexia nervosa sufferers, Foster says writing from the parental perspective is difficult to find.

“This is what the family goes through – this is the mom’s perspective in trying to keep her daughter alive,” she said. “I had to learn to nurture my own mental health so that I could be okay for her and the rest of the family. That was a hard lesson for me to learn.”

After her daughter recovered, Foster wrote the book in secret, waking early on Sunday mornings before the rest of the household awoke to write. It took her five years.

Her daughter was thrilled.

“She was so healthy by then,” Foster said. “She said, ‘I kept a journal during that time period, and if you think it’d help the book, you’re welcome to it,’ which is gold; it’s a treasure. With a journal, you’re just writing to yourself, so it’s raw. It’s honest, in the moment.”

Foster took her entries and embedded them in her narrative. In that sense, the book is a collaboration.

One of the therapists who treated Warnecke encouraged her to drown out her negative voice.

“I started writing my daughter love letters when she was sick. They weren’t about the situation; they were just unconditional love letters to Jenna,” Foster said.

Then, her daughter began leaving letters to her.

“I started seeing little signs that Jenna’s in there somewhere,” Foster said. “She just became a different person.”

Foster says she hopes their story is inspiring and hopeful to other parents going through the condition with their children.

“I’ve had a lot of parents say they’ve been needing a book like this, but I don’t have the answers; I don’t have the solutions to it because it’s still a mystery,” she said. “I’m just here to give them hope that maybe tomorrow your daughter will be okay.”

This journal entry was made by Warnecke toward the end of her misery: “The jeans that I used to wear to bed that would often easily slide off my hips to the ground before I could even make it from my bed to the bathroom next door, now fit snugly around my waist.”

And later, “I often have flashes of complete insecurity. But they pass and in the end mean nothing, simply what I believe to be the residue of old bad habits. But I am broken of those habits. I cannot possibly ever name everything that I am grateful for.”

The public can meet Foster and Warnecke 3-4 p.m. Sept. 10 at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe. For information, call 480-730-0205 or visit