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Living a Full Life: Meet Makenna

Meet Makenna

She took a deep breath, and Makenna Howard found herself onstage with a microphone in her hand. The excitement of her school’s Riley Dance Marathon after the long hours of planning compelled her to tell her story for the first time.

Makenna was 14 years old when the COVID-19 pandemic began. She started working out and dieting as many people did during quarantine. Having previously struggled with body image, she quickly faced a toxic cycle of “it will never be enough.” Makenna’s family sought out the help of the Charis Center for Eating Disorders through Riley Children’s Health. The Charis Center team diagnosed Makenna with anorexia nervosa, and she began treatment there on the first day of her freshman year.

Someone with anorexia restricts the quantity and type of food they eat by counting calories, skipping meals, and creating severe rules. Eating disorders involve a debilitating fear of food and a broad spectrum of restrictions. The Charis Center is Indiana’s most comprehensive eating disorders treatment program and supports patients and families through more than 10,000 outpatient visits each year. Customized care allows the Center to offer a range of support from hospitalization to intensive outpatient care.

Aside from the mental impact of an eating disorder, the body has a physical response to insufficient nutrition. “I was always hungry, and my heart couldn’t beat without my body hurting,” Makenna says. She recalls taking her frustration out on her family: “It turns into a war with yourself and everyone around you.” The Charis Center set up a personalized treatment plan for Makenna, and she began meeting with doctors and a nutritionist, as well as participating in group, individual, and family therapy.

Through her work with her Riley care team, Makenna was able to identify patterns that contributed to current behaviors. “Part of my eating disorder is wanting to please the world and make myself smaller, so I didn’t take up as much space,” she shares. “I’ve learned that I don’t need to do that because I deserve to take up the space that I’m in.” These realizations helped Makenna and her Charis Center caregivers address the depression and anxiety that were contributing to her struggles with anorexia.

The Howard family appreciates the team’s ability to address the presented issue, as well as additional issues as they arise. “Riley does not just treat the physiology. The internal work is equally significant because it builds these kids in a way you can’t see,” says Makenna’s mother, Lisa.

Makenna and her family recognize that recovery is not linear. “I’m going to be on my own as I go to college, and my recovery will be in my hands,” Makenna explains. “Recovery is not just a one-time choice, it’s an everyday choice.” She is using everything she has learned to embrace her next steps in life. “You can’t live a full life on an empty stomach,” she says.

With dreams of becoming a pediatric nurse, Makenna now adds Madame President to her accomplishments as she takes on leading Herron High School’s Riley Dance Marathon – the same event where she told her own Riley story for the first time. “I wouldn’t have shared my story if Dance Marathon didn’t show me that kids sharing their stories makes a difference,” says the high school senior. She hopes other people with similar experiences can learn from her and be courageous in telling their stories, too.

Makenna also hopes the community will join her in supporting Riley’s behavioral health program. “Riley has given me another shot at life, my sisters a chance to grow up with me, and my parents a chance to send me to college,” she says. “You’re not just helping one person – you’re healing a family.”