Reflections on 'Fat School'

Meryl "Spidey" Juster displays her "before" picture, taken on her first day at Wellspring boarding school in September 2007. She has lost more than 100 pounds in the past year and worries about what will happen when she goes home. (Carol Guzy - Carol Guzy/the Washington Post)
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By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Meryl "Spidey" Juster says she has tried not to think about life after "fat school" or about the close friends she will miss when she leaves the cocoon of Wellspring's North Carolina campus in a few weeks. Mostly, she's worried about regaining the 114 pounds she has lost in the past year.

Her mother, Rose Capurso, is worried, too. "As stressors go up, I'm concerned about her eating," said Capurso, a psychologist who lives near Albany, N.Y. "I don't want to be a nag."

A tall 15-year-old with expressive dark eyes and a sometimes caustic wit, Spidey has undergone a striking metamorphosis.

She arrived in September weighing 263 pounds, wearing size 22 jeans and seething with anger. She had already lost nearly 40 pounds at a Wellspring weight-loss camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Once a bit plump, Spidey gained an enormous amount of weight a few years ago after her parents separated. The therapist the family was seeing had urged her parents to act. "She said that if [Spidey] were anorexic and weighed 90 pounds, we would be rushing in to do something," Capurso recalled. "This is an eating disorder."

Although she liked camp, Capurso said, her daughter "went ballistic" when her parents told her they were sending her to a boarding school for obese teenagers in the South.

"We gave her no choice," said Capurso, who refers to her daughter by her first name, Meryl.

"The first month all I got were calls [from her] that this was the worst place on Earth," added Capurso, who said that sending her daughter to Brevard was "like sending her to the moon."

But after Spidey lost 30 pounds the first month, her complaints dissipated, and she reveled in the company of other teenagers facing similar obstacles. "She loves having peers around her all the time," Capurso said.

Now that support system is being left behind, and Spidey says she is apprehensive about going home.

"I'm really disconnected," she said. "What will people say to me? 'Dude, you look great?' It's awkward."

Capurso tries to remain optimistic. "It's really been a life-changing experience for her and for me. I've gotten enormous support from the program," she said, adding that her daughter "likes herself a whole lot more."

"I guess we know [Wellspring] is there" if we need it, Capurso said. "There's nothing worse than seeing your child suffering."

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