One of the earliest memories I have dates back to when I was four years old. As I stood in ballet class in front of a wall of mirrors, wearing my leotard and tights, I vividly remember thinking “why am I bigger than all of the other girls?” Four.Years.Old…And I felt pressure to be thin, to be perfect- which for me were synonymous terms. Thus began my 17 year struggle with a negative self-image, battle with an eating disorder, and subsequent journey toward a healthy life.
This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. So in honor of that I thought I would share a bit about my story. I debated about whether or not I should discuss this in a public forum, as this is a very personal topic to me, and I’m generally quite a private person. In fact, even those that are closest to me don’t know about my disorder. They may have known that I was “sensitive about my weight”, but they never knew the extent to which I struggled. Also, I don’t usually like to dwell on the past because I can’t change it now. To be honest I don’t think I would change it. My past has played a huge role in forming me into who I am today, and I love who I am now. So for that reason, I count my eating disorder not as a mistake, but only as a lesson. If putting my story out there- putting MYSELF out there- can help one person to have hope that they don’t have to live with an eating disorder and that they can live a healthy life, well then it’s worth it to me.
I was always a very active child. I began ballet lessons at the age of four, and gymnastics at the age of six. So, needless to say I spent a considerable amount of time in a leotard, and if you’ve ever been in one of those, you know they are NOT very forgiving. The dance studio I attended was NOT AT ALL like the shows you see on television. There was zero pressure to be thin or to fit a certain dancer mold. There were beautiful dancers of all shapes and sizes. If there was pressure to be felt there, I would have felt it. I never felt like I needed to look like the models I saw on magazine covers. My parents always encouraged activity and a healthful diet but they never made me feel like I needed to look or be a certain way. The pressure to be thin, to be perfect, came from within myself. I feel like I was just born that way because I can never remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel like if I was just a little bit thinner all would be right with the world.
Growing up my body type was described as “big-boned”, or, “athletic”, or maybe even “pleasantly plump”. To me, all of those terms equated to fat. I remember feeling so ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body. I was ashamed to eat in front of people. I was ashamed of the fact that I felt like I had no control over what or how much I ate. It was like my brain and my stomach were disconnected. I would eat and eat until I was so uncomfortably stuffed and yet I still felt unsatisfied, and again, ashamed that I had eaten so much. I remember waking up in the middle of the night so that I could eat in private. I would hide food in my room so that it would be there for me when I needed it. It was my greatest comfort and my biggest enemy.
When I was 11 years old, I came home from school one day to find a lifetime movie on television about a girl who binged and purged. The intent of the film was to show the negative effects of her behavior, but all I saw was that she lost weight. So it began. This was the solution I had been looking for. I could eat until I was content and still lose weight. I’ll never forget the first time I binged and purged. I ate until I couldn’t stuff another bite in my mouth. And then I got rid of it. I felt immediate satisfaction. It was an instant addiction. If you don’t have any personal experience with bulimia, it can be very difficult to understand why someone would do this to themselves. But in the mind of a person with bulimia, it makes complete sense and the cycle is nearly impossible to break on your own.
I lost about 15 pounds, which still wasn’t enough. I felt like a failure. Nonetheless I received loads of “positive” feedback. But somewhere in my brain “you look great” morphed into “you’re worth it”. Soon, however, my mother caught on to my behavior and I had to stop. I was being watched. I quickly gained back all of the weight I had lost, plus some. Hesitantly I attended therapy for a while, and it helped- for a while. But a few therapy sessions could not change the lies I believed to be truths about myself deep down in my core.
The binging and purging occurred sporadically over the next few years. When I was 14 years old, a freshman in high school, I got a hold of some prescription diet pills. The first time I took one of the pills was amazing. I had NO appetite. What had taken me so long to find these magic pills? Each day I ate less and less. I can’t forget the first time I went to bed having not eaten anything for the entire day. The emptiness in I felt in my gut resonated VICTORY! I felt victory over my appetite, over my body, and over my will. Ultimately, I finally felt like I was in complete control. In reality, I had never been more out of control. Over four months time I lost about 35 pounds. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like the fat girl. Again, I got all kinds of compliments that I counted as positive at the time. Now it’s painfully obvious to me that each comment about my weight only fed into my unhealthy behavior and obsession. Not one day went by when I didn’t step on the scale and either congratulate myself for losing one pound or utterly loathe myself for gaining one pound. I didn’t walk by one mirror without checking my profile to see if my stomach pooched out more than the last time I checked.
I maintained this behavior and my weight throughout the rest of high school, but soon it was time to go off to college. Since I no longer had access to the prescription diet pills I had been taking for the last four years, I turned to anything over-the-counter that claimed to decrease my appetite or increase my metabolism. I came into a new cycle of disordered thinking and eating. I would starve myself- punish myself- all day long. It was relatively easy to keep my mind off of food and my hunger as I was busy with my classes. Then when it came time for dinner, the game changed. I was surrounded by my friends so I couldn’t just sit there with them and not eat. That would’ve been a bit suspicious. But the hunger was so overwhelming that I couldn’t just eat a normal dinner. Once I started there was no stopping until I couldn’t eat anymore. Every dinner was a feast, complete with ice cream for dessert, as a reward for having properly fasted all day. And then the guilt would inevitably set in, as did the feeling of fullness, which was the worst feeling in the world as far as I was concerned. There was only one solution. I had to get rid of it. So I did. But I only felt even more guilty, and so to atone for my sins I had to go have a good hard workout- do something good for my body- penance to make up for the fact that I had starved it all day long and then binged and purged. This was my cycle EVERY.DAY.
By about halfway through my freshman year in college, I became sick- really sick. I was sleeping all of the time. I had chronic infections and subsequently was constantly on antibiotics. And I had this persistent pain in my chest- it just would not go away. No matter what I did, at rest or during activity, I had pain deep in my chest. In my mind I knew that the cause of all of these issues was likely due to my eating disorder. But like any other addiction, you CANNOT just talk yourself out of it. It’s just not that simple. I would tell myself, “just stop… you can stop… just be normal”. But the more I tried to control my disorder, the more my disorder controlled me. I knew what I had to do. I had to go home.
When I got home it was time to figure out what was going on with my heart. I went through quite a bit of invasive testing, and when all was said and done I ended up on beta blockers for an arrhythmia. At the age of 19, I was on serious medication for a condition that I felt I CREATED, out of my selfishness. Was it because I took prescription diet pills for four years? Maybe. Was it due to electrolyte imbalance from years of starving and binging and purging? That probably didn’t help. The point was, I was beginning to see the consequences of the years of torture and punishment I had inflicted on myself. And again, I felt MORE GUILT. How could I do this to myself? This was the body that God created for ME! Just ME. He created me EXACTLY how He wanted me, on purpose, for a purpose.
Over the next couple of years I sought more help. What I thought would be the most difficult part of dealing with all of this- the physical addiction- was actually the easiest part to overcome. The more complicated aspect was getting to the root of why I associated my weight with my worth. I had to learn how to live day to day without agonizing over every single bite of food that I put in my mouth. I had to learn how to be able to look at myself in a mirror and not scrutinize my every flaw, but instead have gratitude to God for creating a healthy, functioning body for me to borrow for my time here on earth. One day it just clicked for me. I’m really just borrowing this body, because ultimately I belong to Him. I’d heard it a million times. God created me for a purpose. But this time I really HEARD it, and I saw the lies I had believed about myself for so long for exactly what they were- LIES.
I can’t say that the change was overnight. It takes time and daily effort to change a pattern of thinking and behavior that you’ve been accustomed to for so long. But every day I worked toward making healthy choices for my body and every day I told myself-I tell myself- that I’m worth it. I know who I am in Christ, and it has nothing to do with how much I weigh or what size pants I wear. I never thought my life would be free of that burden, but I feel blessed beyond measure to say that my eating disorder no longer has control over me. Praise be to God!
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” Ephesians 3:20