Thursday, April 22, 2010

NTY: A Mother’s Loss, a Daughter’s Story

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Documentary Website

ANDREW AVRIN sits on a beige couch in a nondescript room, a fruit still-life partly visible on the wall behind him, twisting his fingers while, off-camera, an unseen interviewer prompts him to talk about his sister, Melissa, who died last year at the age of 19 after a long battle with bulimia.

“There was no food in the house,” he says, looking off to the side as his eyes fill. “If I went out with friends, I could not bring leftovers home because they would be gone by the next morning.”

Once, he explains, in the middle of a bitterly cold night, he looked out the window and saw Melissa on the curb, going through the garbage. “I went outside and I yelled her name,” he recounts in the interview, his voice breaking. “Just the way she looked back at me — it was so empty, vacant. It was a deer in the headlights, but that doesn’t even explain it.”

It is a hard scene for anyone to watch, but even more so for the film’s producer — Judy Avrin, Melissa’s mother, who decided to make a documentary about her daughter’s life and, ultimately, her death.

People deal with grief in their own ways, and those who have been spared the loss of a daughter or a son can only imagine how they would choose to try to cope. For Ms. Avrin, coping meant confronting her anguish and trying to make something good come out of it.

The idea for a film didn’t occur to her immediately. In the weeks following Melissa’s death, Ms. Avrin mostly avoided her daughter’s bedroom, and tried to resume some semblance of normalcy, going back to work three days a week as the coordinator for a consortium of academic libraries in New Jersey. But one day she sat down to read Melissa’s leather-bound journal.

Someday ...
I’ll eat breakfast.
I’ll keep a job for more than 3 weeks.
I’ll have a boyfriend for more than 10 days.
I’ll love someone.
I’ll travel wherever I want.
I’ll make my family proud.
I’ll make a movie that changes lives.

The film, called “Someday Melissa” and now in the editing stages, has become for Ms. Avrin salve, distraction and cause — a way to get the word out to other families grappling with eating disorders that they are not alone; to sound the alarm that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; to help make sense of the senseless event that was losing her teenage daughter.

“I kept saying, ‘This is an amazing way for me to channel my grief,’ ” Ms. Avrin said. “But it also allowed me to put off grieving.”

Ms. Avrin, 56, got the idea for the film from one of Melissa’s therapists, Danna Markson, who introduced her to Jeffrey Cobelli, 27, a filmmaker. Over the last several months of working on the project, Ms. Avrin has come to know more than she ever intended to about eating disorders — how their seriousness has been underestimated, their treatment underinsured, their deaths underreported.

The process hasn’t been easy, and some, like her ex-husband, initially questioned the impulse to do it at all. Melissa’s best friend since first grade, Nicole Kendrick, who also suffers from an eating disorder, said she was incredulous when she first learned that Ms. Avrin was making the film. “I thought she was crazy,” Ms. Kendrick said. “I guess I didn’t realize how deep a mother’s love can run.”

But Ms. Avrin said that making the film has been easier than doing nothing at all. “I’ve never once thought this was more than I could bear,” she said, in an interview at her home in Totowa, N.J. “If anything, the more I continue, the more I know it’s the right thing to do.”

The difficulty of reliving her daughter’s decline has been mitigated by the public response. “Sometimes I think: ‘I’m a suburban mom. Who am I to think I could make a difference in the world?’ ” Ms. Avrin said. “But then I read the messages that keep coming in from people I know and people I don’t know who say Melissa’s story has motivated them to fight one more day.”

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