I was recently talking with a friend whose daughter is struggling with an eating disorder. Her story sounded all too familiar...
For 5 years I battled Anorexia and Bulimia, a battle I nearly lost and remember all too well. Though I’ve been free from this for nearly 15 years I will carry the scars for the rest of my life. Even after all this time I must make a conscious daily decision to continue to choose to live in freedom.
I don’t talk about this often, not because I’m uncomfortable with it, but more practically because my story has continued to grow beyond this. The accident, the Thank You Project, music, family and other experiences have claimed the spotlight and in so many ways defined me. Yet, I always thought that my journey in learning to have a healthy relationship with food was something I would be able to use to help others. So as I share more of this part of my story, I invite you into this conversation. Ask questions, share your thoughts, share your story.
Food is something we can’t live without; but I think a lot of us struggle with knowing how to live well with it. I don’t have all the answers, but I have my own experience and this is what I can offer to you now.
(If you’re not interested in the full story skip down to the bottom for practical ideas on how to care for someone struggling in their food relationship.)
I started puberty young. I was about my same current size and weight in 5th grade that I am today, curves and all. And wow did those boys make fun of me! They were mean and their mocking still sticks with me like it happened yesterday. I was different from the other girls and therefore something was wrong with me… or at least that’s how I internalized it as a young child. This is when my mindset that curves were bad began and from that point on I began doing all I could to get rid them. Yes, I went on my first diet in 5th grade.
By 8th grade I learned more about the power I had over my body. I realized that it was actually pretty easy to make myself throw up. It was like I was given the key to unlock so many more possibilities to make my ‘dreams’ of being pretty come true. I was a straight-A student, a lead in the school musical, in the top school singing group and thriving in ballet. Of course I had to do all of this ‘perfectly’, my body being the icing on the cake of this whole image I was trying to maintain. To me success and attention equaled love. If I was perfect than surely I would be accepted.
As I lost weight my teachers and instructors gave me more attention. The boys paid more attention to me too. All of this affirmed my belief that the skinnier I was the more successful I would be and therefore the more loved I would be. Everything, everyone and every experience confirmed this, the positive reinforcement of this idea was addicting, pervasive and consuming.
By high school my vicious cycle of anorexia and bulimia was in full swing. Everything was going great and I’d say I was happy. I went to a highly competitive School of the Arts, had amazing friends, majored in music and minored in dance. I thrived in the high-pressure, intense environment it offered.
Junior year brought my driver’s license and first car - a red Camaro Z-28 convertible sports car. Yup, you read that right (sigh). I was so uninterested in cars but of course even my car brought more attention - bringing me one step closer to my goal of being the ‘perfect girl’. My chase of this elusive facade led me to discovering the wonder of binging and purging. I’d go to the grocery store or a fast food place on my way home from school and eat way too many gross things (alone), then pull into a gas station and make myself throw up in the bathroom.
As my sickness evolved, SHAME came powerfully swooping in right along with it. I became depressed and pulled back from friends and community. I felt like I needed to hide my reality, maintain the facade, and keep my secrets close. All of this perpetuated the problem.
At the same time, ironically, this is when I would say I came to know the LORD and began a personal relationship with Him. I was surrounded by a loving church community, and I dove deep into reading my Bible and praying. I really wanted to have a different life, longing to know the freedom I heard people describe that Christ offered. So I begged God for it and I waited and waited. But the struggle was still there and very real. I couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t heal me. ‘Surely there must be something wrong with me,’ I thought.
The implosion continued.
By senior year as my college acceptance letters increased, my weight plummeted. With loving attentive friends by my side who tried to keep me accountable (at least to what truths I decided to tell them) I was able to minimize the binge part of my food cycle. That year I’d eat an apple for breakfast, a can of green beans (straight out of the can) for lunch and if I had to eat dinner or anything else because I was with other people, then I promptly threw it up. Dropping down to 82 lbs. I was at my worst but as I saw it, I was at my best. I loved the attention and affirmation everyone gave me. It was working. I was in control. And I liked it.
Continuing to grow in my faith, I helped lead worship for thousands of people every week at a mega church. It was there that I met AJ, a cute bass player who was on staff as their graphic designer and the leader of the College/Career age ministry. I felt safe with AJ. He saw me, more like he could see through me to see the real girl that was buried so deep inside and covered up even I’d almost lost her.
Maybe this was God answering my prayers for healing? It looked nothing like I imagined.
As we fell in love I told AJ everything. I kept no secret from him. I knew he truly cared. It was as if hiding wasn’t an option anymore. Love covered everything. As he held my hand or played with my hair I realized for the first time that I was touchable. My unhealthy shame was being transformed into healthy sorrow for all that I’d done and this sparked a personal desire to actually change. So AJ entered into my battle and disrupted the whole fortress I’d spent years building.
This is intercession at it’s purest form.
AJ held me accountable and we took baby steps together. I remember him saying, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!’ So we did it just like that. He’d say, ‘I don’t care what you do or how you eat all day long but give me one meal where you are healthy this week. That’s it, just focus on one time.’ And as I succeeded in that we slowly increased the ‘one meal’ to one day and that lead to one week and slowly across the course of 2 years I began to walk in freedom, one bite at a time.
There was no overnight miracle. It was years of hard work, intentionality and love mixed with a whole lot of grace.
I had to learn how to eat all over again. I’m still learning how to take emotion out of food. I’ve (arbitrarily) labeled so many foods as bad and in need of being avoided at all cost. But I know this is in my head and it’s ridiculous, even still, it feels real to me. The space between my head and heart (which includes my mouth) is likely the longest 10 inches on the planet!!!
As AJ helped me win the battle against an eating disorder he also won my heart. Not long afterwards we were married. I was really worried after so many years of abusing my body that I wouldn’t be able to have children. We had 9 other close friends get pregnant during our first year of marriage. The thought of our kids growing up together made us want a child too. It took me 6 months of trying to get pregnant with Eli. We wanted him and prayed hard for him - a detail that would later make such a difference in my story. God clearly had His hand on him from the very beginning.
Eli was born a healthy sweet baby boy. For the first time that I could remember life was perfect and not because I had succeeded in building the perfect facade but rather because the facade had been crushed and the real me was beginning to shine through uninhibited, free to love and be loved.
A few weeks later the car accident happened. AJ died and Eli was severely injured.
I'm immensely grateful for my health and want everyone to know how to eat well. Now 15 years later and remarried to Ted he continues to carry the torch of helping me have a healthy relationship with food. And I don’t always make this easy for him! But I am so grateful I’m not alone. Community, accountability, support and inviting others into sharing the struggle is essential to living in ongoing freedom.
Here are some practical thoughts on how to engage someone struggling to have healthy eating habits:
Do not try to reason. Listen.
You won’t be believed and you’ll likely only add to their shame by validating the lie they believe already - that something is inherently wrong with them. Instead, and I know this might sound counter intuitive, but enter into their reality. Maybe even try agreeing with them. Try to see how they see. Bring understanding and empathy. This will help them feel safe with you.
No one wants to feel like a project or like they're trying to be fixed. For a person struggling with an eating disorder this is only exacerbated as they are already likely extremely self-motivated, self-disciplined, driven, goal-oriented and perfectionists. With our strong, capable and likely stubborn personalities this can make it even more challenging to help people like us. But we do need your help, we just don’t want to be made to feel like we’re crazy or dumb in the process. So step 1 is listen. Period.
The solution is not eating more and gaining weight.
That’s more like putting a bandaid on open heart surgery. Lean in with unconditional love and realize healing starts in the heart.
I think being controlled by food is similar to being controlled by a drug. The way it consumes the mind and distorts reality is powerful and real. See it as an addiction before you label it as an illness. I believe breaking the cycles of the addictions and bad habits are key to being free. The way this is broken will look different for everyone. For me it was baby steps with my hand held in a lot of loving accountability.
Once the heart has been engaged, full of genuine love and freedom, then I think practical help with learning how to eat is really useful. It’s essential to learn how to be healthy with a healthy relationship to food.
For me certain foods, smells, feelings or restaurants are strong triggers. Even 15+ years later I know it’s wise for me to stay away from these. Keep the triggers in the light and let others know what they are. Resist the magnetism of shame. There’s no shame in having a trigger and it isn’t a sign of weakness. Be wise and discerning and keep the dialog open.
Just because healing requires hard work, that doesn't make it any less of a miracle.
I believe God did answer my prayers for freedom but it wasn’t without effort on my part. And it wasn’t instant. It took time and looked really practical with lots of help from others. AJ helped me get to a place of initial healing and now Ted continues to shield me and help me stay on a healthy path forward. He loves me so well in this way. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding me to eat lunch!
Ted knows my weaknesses and my story well. I want to continue to keep him fully informed because I want to be well for him and our kids. I’m choosing never to hide again, so when I feel tempted to do something unhealthy related to food I know I need to tell him, invite him in and ask for help. Often the help just looks like him listening and faithfully loving, not condemning. This is usually enough to quench any lie or temptation before it becomes an action and reality.
Don't give up. Keep talking.
Whether you find yourself struggling in similar ways or you care about someone who is struggling, I want to encourage you to press on in this good fight for health. Let me know your thoughts. I welcome any questions or ideas you have to share. This is a conversation I believe we all need to be engaging in together, men and women. This problem is all around us and so crippling.
These are simply my thoughts from my personal experience. I respect how everyone is different and welcome your ideas too. Let us not lose another day or another meal because of being uncomfortable to expose this darkness for what it is. Let’s bring it in the light through dialog together.