It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week! This is year, in honor of this important week, I have decided it is time to bear my soul and share my story. Not because my story is particularly unique or interesting, but because it is my story and I hope that maybe it will either help you in some way or give you a better understanding of living with an eating disorder. For a long time I worried too much about the repercussions of the story or how to even go about telling it. It is difficult to tell a story about your journey when you are still on it. Besides, how does a storyteller decide which parts should be included and what should be left out? At different times in my life, certain parts seemed more crucial than others. Does life change when you tell your story? Will people think differently or expect something after hearing it? I let these thoughts hold me back for too long. I feel like if we as human beings were more open about our brokenness, perhaps it would speed up the healing process.
I am not sure how or why at the age of 15 I came to be a depressed anorexic. I always felt big, like I took up too much space. I hit puberty before all my friends. I was almost 4’9’’ in the fourth grade.I was probably 20 pounds heavier than most my friends. They were still little girls, but I was looked at as if I was different. I received positive attention from the boys, but negative attention from the girls. I wanted to stand out, but not at the cost of being teased. I remember seeing my first shooting star around the age of eleven while lying in my bed. The first wish that came to mind- “I wish I could be skinny.”
Everyone finds different solutions to the problem they see as themselves. My solution was to “get skinny.” It seemed like the most obvious to me, due to my weight being the thing that made me different. I remember being told “you would be so hot if you just lost ten pounds.” Those words stuck with me. Many times what many people told me off-handily and casually are the very words that I let define my existence. My solution to my problems was for me to finally get control of myself and lose the weight I hated for so long. It was easy to say I wanted to “be healthier,” because that’s a noble desire. [FYI- I’d like to add in be careful how you praise someone’s efforts to “get better”. Because for me and for many others, you see, it was never about becoming healthy.] My 14-year-old self was never interested in the positive benefits of being at a healthy weight. All I was interested in was being enough. Skinny enough, attractive enough, self-controlled enough, and good enough. For them and for me. But mostly for them. I believed that I had to prove myself worthy of value. If I couldn’t control how many slices of pizza I ate or the number of miles I walked in a day, how could I ever control what others thought of me?
You’ve likely known someone who was diagnosed as clinically depressed. Or maybe that someone was you. It is difficult to make sense of. For me, it was the big black darkness that filled two years of my life, blotting out any real connection for me and the outside world. I consider the depression I went through to be “out of proportion.” I had not suffered what I’d consider a life-changing tragedy. That’s why depression doesn’t really make much sense. I even once had a friend tell me he didn’t believe it was a “real disease”, but an excuse or overly exaggerated feeling. Yet I know he was wrong. Depression was one of the most real experiences I’ve ever been through. Darkness. As described in the movie Prozac Nation, “gradually, then suddenly- that’s how depression hits. One day you wake up afraid you’re going to live.” I remember walking to classes in the ninth grade hoping that I would run into something or that a boulder would fall out of the sky and knock me out, so I would not have to go through the day. Other than discussing the effects of depression with others who have endured it, the best description I have found is in the book, The Bell Jar.
It was like suddenly I forgot what I wanted to do with my life. All I could focus on was the ultimate goal- be beautiful, be thin, be what they want. I am not sure what came first- the depression or the eating disorder. Whatever order they came in, they arrived in a way to create the perfect storm, violent and unforgiving.
Once the cloud of depression fell over me and I slipped into the deep, dark hole of anorexia, I doubted I’d ever see the sunshine again. After a few months living in the hole, I had little idea of what the sunshine felt like anyways. I was living as a robot- moment by moment, resistant to others trying to help me and resistant to my body’s desperate plea for mercy from the eating disorder. It was a mental jail, stealing away the days of my life. The sickness consumed my entire life- thieving what I once held dearly. It was relentless in what it took- friends, time, happiness, warmth, laughter, enjoyment, hobbies and interest, goals, and aspirations. As the sickness got stronger, taking more of my mind, I saw life changing. Friends who I once felt comfortable around, suddenly felt awkward around me, without words to say. Music no longer interested me. I couldn’t remember what I loved and the thought of having to spend the rest of my life like this scared me beyond belief. I had no idea what I wanted out of life.
Mom caught on to my slipping away before anyone else, just like Mom’s do. She forced me to go see a doctor on my fifteenth birthday. At this point in time, I angry at myself and resistant to anyone who wanted to call me out on my mission to lose weight. The doctor made me even madder, claiming to understand me as a teenager who thinks “the whole world is against her.” Mom was trying to keep anything terrible from happening, but unfortunately, the sickness had already begun to take its toll. Not even three months later I was back at this doctor’s office thirty pounds lighter, being sent off to the hospital to be “stabilized.” Nothing would ever be the same.
After a two and half week stint in a local hospital I was shipped off to a treatment center, resentful and full of hate. I simply could not believe that people were telling me I had to put on weight after being called fat for so many years. The next three months were spent living in the Ronald McDonald House with my Mom. Never will I be so grateful than I am for my parents who supported me through this whole process. Mom putting her life on hold for me, Dad falling into the role of a single parent for my siblings. This is the love God meant for us to live out. Recovery was a painful, up and down process. I think the hardest part was realizing that I could not coexist with my eating disorder. One of us would win out. During my first time in treatment, I was mostly going through the motions. Waiting for the cloud to move just enough so I could feel the sunshine. Still, as I went through each day, I was holding on to my eating disorder just enough that it would still be a part of me. This mindset is what sent me back to treatment for a second time, just seven months later. At least this time I had spent some months regaining bits and pieces of my life back. This time I at least went in to treatment with a smidgen of hope for recovery.
There were many days that I simply believed that I would never be fully “recovered”. How many more times would I repeat the same stories to my therapist, hoping some new discovery would come from restating the same words? Some memories I just couldn’t let go of. There were relationships that ended in rejection. There were relationships that left me feeling unworthy and used up. There were words that couldn’t be unspoken. The worst memory, the one I played through my head most often, was a time in eighth grade when my deepest insecurities were made public. A rap had been made up about me, going something like “Katie is a chunky monkey who smells kind of funky…” I’m sure there were other equally insightful lyrics, but that is the line that stands out most prominently in mind. I am sure that the creators of rap, who I called my friends, would have never thought such a silly tune could leave such an impression in my mind. During this time I had the same assumption that would carry me for the next five or so years- if I could just control what went in and out of my body, I could make myself better. I would never have to hear hateful, degrading words about me again.
It was memories of my old self, prior to my ED that would keep me from letting go of ED. Every move was driven out of pure fear. It had convinced me that I needed it to be in control and not be a failure. Months after getting out of treatment for the final time, my wise therapist told me, “it is hard to fight for someone you don’t recognize.” And she was right, I did not recognize myself. I was a shell, housing the one who stole my spirit. But I had to keep fighting. At the start of 2009, I wrote this in my journal: “So I’ve realized that even when you find yourself looking at where you are and hating it more than where you were, the worst thing you could do is try to go back to where you were. The only thing to do is keep fighting your way through what doesn’t seem that much better than what you fought through to get where you are now. Go through the motions, whatever it takes. But backtracking only promises that you’ll eventually have to fight through this anyways.” So even if I didn’t feel any better, I had to at least make an effort to live as if I did.
After leaving treatment, I never wanted to talk about my eating disorder for fear of being misunderstood. It was easy for them; they would tell me to “just eat” or “stop starving yourself.” They didn’t understand that it wasn’t just about not eating or losing weight. The eating disorder had become my identity. I feared the little pig that lived inside me. The common fear among anorexics: if I gave in to a single French fry or one bite of cake, it would inevitably lead me to eat until I gained fifty pounds or more. This irrational fear held me so tight. Sure there was a chance the fear was false and ungrounded- but what if it wasn’t? I would return to the girl who lacked self-control and lived in a state of gluttony, emotions all over the place. Not to mention, I didn’t even know who I was without my eating disorder. What did I like? What were my hobbies? I had put so much time and energy into counting calories and controlling my weight that I let anything of significance fall to the waste side. If I was to let go and embrace recovery, I would have to rediscover myself. That seemed too cumbersome and risky.
“Being thin created intense anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to maintain that weight for life, and I couldn’t.”
― Jenni Schaefer
I remember the first real feeling of happiness I felt. It was my second time in treatment and I was in recreational therapy. By this time the antidepressants were keeping me from feeling the severity of depression, stabilizing my mood so that I could live and not want to die. Still, they did not give me happiness. They helped me become a person that could be social, laugh at the right times, look people in the eye, and carry on conversations. Still, it had been almost two years since I had felt that freeing, inner joy that exists despite my surroundings. So when the recreational therapist suggested that we play a game that required us to dance, all fifteen of us anxiety-driven, depressed individuals cringed. At least I could trust that we were all equally uncomfortable. As the game began, I saw individuals awkwardly think of moves and the rest of us awkwardly repeat them. When my turn came around I had decided on a simple, safe dance move.. However, as I began to dance, a feeling I barely recognized overcame me. All I knew was that I wanted to dance, I had to dance in order to keep the feeling. So I danced past my turn and kept on dancing. The people in the circle began to laugh and a few of them broke out new moves too. I was dancing so freely, without inhibitions. The walls that I built up had momentarily fallen and I couldn’t let them return. All of a sudden the game was over, and the fifteen of us were free-style dancing, like it was party. Which felt so strange, because none of us had seen a party in a long time. For those brief minutes, I was reminded of the inner joy I once knew. I was transported back to life before anorexia, before depression. It was a pure happiness, the type of joy only God of the universe can bring to you. For me, it was hope. Over the next couple of years I would experience glimmers of hope like this that helped to keep me going.
There were people, places, things that helped me to live again. Deciding to be in a play after getting out of treatment was huge for me. It helped me find my place again among my school peers and revealed a confidence in me I had forgotten about. Joining a praise team was also life-changing. During the praise team tour I finally realized that God was big enough for me and MY problems. Not to mention, I met my future husband during one of those tours. The people who remained constant in my life, from pre-anorexia days and beyond, are the ones that helped me to find purpose again, to see the value in living. Graduating high school early was probably one of the best decisions I made. I needed a fresh start and that’s what Spartanburg Methodist gave me. It was during my first years of college that I truly felt I was greater than my eating disorder. Going to Ethiopia for mission work helped to shape my understanding of life in many ways. I found that giving my time and attention to others played a huge role in my healing. The less I focused on me, the less I was concerned about the things that kept me a prisoner to myself. Even now, this is a fundamental truth for me.
“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.”
– GK Chesterton
I have finally chosen to accept my broken human condition. While that may seem like a recipe for low self-esteem, it is one of the most freeing decisions I’ve ever made. I don’t have to try to be anyone or work so hard at being the best version of myself. Instead, I can live day to day and allow the grace and love of my God to overflow from me. I no longer see the value in me working so hard to achieve perfection. I can cling to my Savior for perfection, realizing how little I can do to make myself better. Things are not perfect, but it’s is okay because I no longer anticipate perfection. The world has little to offer me, so why should I live my life desiring to please it? It is a daily decision that I make to say “no” to the voices in my head telling me I have to try harder- I have to be better. Yet, if saying no to those voices means I get to live out the love that has been showered on me, I will say no a million times over. The repercussions of my life with an eating disorder will likely never fully evade me, but I will not use them as a crutch or allow them to dictate my life in any way.
I no longer let my past to make the decisions for my future. I desire to move on, believing the truth that Christ has made me a new creation. I will not allow the longings of my old self to have any part of my life. The greatest hurdle in recovery was realizing that I could not claim recovery dependent only on myself. I also had to choose to love myself. We all have to love ourselves- the kind of self-love that motivates us to love others. The kind of genuine affection for ourselves that exist simply because we are human, capable of loving others as broken as we are.
Now, I can say I love my body and myself. My body is amazing! It can think, dance, cook, cuddle, and get me from place to place. It works just as it should. I choose not to give into the self-deprecating lifestyle our society forces many women into. I live my life in the freedom of Christ. Many people ask me why I am so happy and positive- it is simply because I’ve seen real darkness and felt hopeless. Now, I am so filled with hope and understand how precious life is- it difficult to not feel grateful and blessed. If you are struggling with an eating disorder- keep fighting! You are loved and valued. There is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how hard that is to believe.
If you have any questions, please reach out- if you are afraid for someone or yourself, I would love to be here for you.
<A href=”http://www.runningwithspoons.com/”>Linking to the HOST</A>