It’s hard to start a story when you don’t know where it starts.
I didn’t wake up one morning with an eating disorder, like waking up with a stomach bug or a migraine. Nor was it a conscious decision, like, “I think I’ll get a haircut today,” or “I think I’ll watch Parks and Rec tonight,” or “I think I’ll start psychologically abusing myself when I eat a french fry from this point forward.”
For me — and for most, I’d guess — it happened gradually.
Simply not liking photos of myself was probably one of the earliest signs — my eyes bypassing some smiling memory to trace the lines of my own body for any hint of imperfection. Refusal to wear a bathing suit around anyone but family followed close behind (“Oh, man, can you believe I forgot a swimsuit for a pool party, guys? Again? Ha ha, wow, crazy, right? I’m, like, so stupid. I’ll just sit on the side with your mom, no worries.”) Any comment made about my physical appearance, intention regardless, stuck to me like Velcro.
My high school sports career ended after my junior year (long story), and with basketball and soccer and volleyball went my body confidence. Sure, I had the beginnings of a body image problem; but if I was an athlete, I couldn’t, in my mind, be “fat.” I was constantly in motion, whether in practice or in games. My body was judged on what it accomplished on the court, not what it looked like in my (very cool) pleated uniform skirt.
On top of that, sports gave me a built-in excuse to prioritize health and fitness. Without them, I feared family and friends would question the motivation behind eating and exercise habits.
Looking back, the fact that I was so terrified of those questions should have told me that my motivation was all wrong. After all — and this deserves (and will someday get) a post of its own — health and fitness are not problems.
Eating healthy and working out does not an eating disorder make. It’s much more mental than it is physical; a warped mindset that eventually warps actions, not the other way around.
And though my actions stayed even while at home (I simply began subbing running and working out on my own for basketball, and my family was already dabbling heavily in the paleo diet for health reasons with my youngest sister), mentally I continued to slip.
Once in college, 1,500 miles away from home, outward expression followed. Academic, work and social stresses provided fuel to my perfectionism fire; and the more anxious I was about any area of my life, related or not, the more consumed I became with hating my physical appearance.
Not only did my efforts affect my quality of life; they didn’t even get me the results I wanted. I had panic attacks after eating out with friends and found myself going for late-night, guilt-driven sprints around campus, but I never saw positive change in my body.
Instead of questioning my methods, I simply chalked it up to lack of commitment to them. I needed to go farther, try harder, do better. I drifted into more drastic territory every time I looked in the mirror and failed to measure up to my own critical eyes and cruel voice.
I spent breaks at home smuggling pancakes and other treats (even paleo ones) my mom made to the garbage. I skipped out on precious time with good friends because I had to work out or didn’t want them pressuring me to eat their food. If I ingested anything other than a lightly cooked vegetable, I felt deeply guilty and exceedingly stressed. My best friend’s boyfriend once called me out, bewildered, on my frenzied workout habits; and I got into a heated, teary, awkward tiff with my grandpa at a family birthday party when he refused to let me skip cake.
Thanks to my irrational fear of puking (seriously), I never went the bulimia route — though I did seriously consider it, and even felt jealous of those who could.
Anorexia, on the other hand, simply involved way too much hunger for me. I always caved to my growling stomach eventually. That didn’t stop me from trying, though; in bits and pieces, just one meal a day, until my stomach got more and more used to being empty.
And so I lived my life; skipping meals when I could, eating full ones only in the company of others to avoid judgment and then ravaging myself mentally and physically afterwards in guilt. I stressed a lot, and I cried a lot, and I went to great lengths to seem normal in the meantime.
The breaking point came when, in my final year of college, my younger sister arrived on campus as a freshman. After a semester’s worth of observing my obsessive eating habits, manic workout tendencies, self-deprecating comments and general anxiety from an insiders’ perspective only she had, she confronted me.
We were studying at the library for finals and I admitted to being hungry. A quick walk downstairs to the coffee shop, and I reluctantly ordered the lowest-calorie wrap on the menu. Five minutes later, the barista called my name.
They were out of that wrap, he apologized, but had made me the other veggie-only option — 200 calories more.
I smiled politely, took the wrap, began crying and threw it away.
Wide-eyed, my sister finally called me out and laid down an ultimatum: either I tell our parents I had a problem, or she would. I had until the end of Christmas break.
The resulting conversation with my mom was one of the hardest I’ve ever had.
I’d never allowed myself to see my problem for what it was. I told myself a lot of lies for a lot of years, but nothing surpassed the meanness or the power of that one that repeated itself any time I dared to call my obsession by its name:
If you had an eating disorder, you’d be skinny.
That’s how I rationalized burying it for years.
I didn’t look like I had an eating disorder, therefore, I didn’t qualify for one. I wasn’t skin and bones; I had extra body fat and problem areas and wore a double-digit jeans size. I didn’t have an eating disorder, I told myself; I was fat, and I was taking the necessary, if harsh, means to a legitimate end. If I did have a problem, I didn’t deserve to have it — or to get help for it.
Voicing that lie exposed it for what it was, but not without unending waves of shame for not recognizing it sooner. Nor was it easy finally speaking aloud any of the other thousands of things I’d spent years telling myself. Finally doing it, though, even at a whisper, was the first step in combating them.
Lies — no matter how crazy, no matter how cruel — begin to sound true when they play uncontested in your mind.
It was time to go to battle.
One of the first and most obvious steps was counseling. My mom suggested Carol Godwin (who I will refer to from this point forward as Ms. Carol because that is what I have called her since I was in kindergarten and I’m from the south and raised to employ respectful prefixes), a dear and endlessly wise family friend and experienced counselor.
I agreed on the condition that she promise not to say a word to my grandparents, with whom she is friends. My goal was for as few people as possible to know about my struggle, extended family included. Other than my parents and sister, the only people that I told were my best friend and the guy I was dating at the time.
Keeping it a secret was a priority to me, because an eating disorder didn’t line up with the image I had for myself: a strong, confident, friendly and capable woman, and deeply passionate about her Christian faith to boot. “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting,” so obviously I should have been eating the free pizza at Bible study and praying so much that I didn’t have time to think about my thighs, not crying while doing crunches before bed every night. The fact that I was crippled by something I considered so petty made me terrified to let anyone know, lest they be as judgmental as me.
Since I could count on one hand those who knew about my eating disorder, naturally, I balked at the idea of pouring my guts out on a regular basis to a familiar face. When Ms. Carol and I met up for the first time at a local Italian restaurant, I was sure I would die either from shame or terror of pasta.
In fact, I survived that first session — and every one after that. We met once a week for months, sometimes texting or making phone calls in between, and dug into the history of and triggers for and causes behind my eating disorder. I was equipped with practical advice and spiritual wisdom, and slowly but surely, I started reclaiming my life.
Honestly answering questions like, “What things do you say to yourself when you look in the mirror?” started out as an almost traumatic experience; like exorcising little one-line demons that lived in my brain. They lost their power out in the open, though, and day by day I learned how to keep the door locked when they knocked, wanting to move back in. I threw their stuff out the windows and cleaned out their rooms and started filling them with good stuff — with Scripture, and kindness, and just plain old science and truth.
It was hard, and it was good, and it was the bravest thing I had ever done and the bravest thing I ever thought I would have to do. I was proud, and I was happier, and I couldn’t wait for the day my little orthorexic demons would stop returning altogether.
One year later, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is, they have not stopped returning. Worse news, even — I don’t think they ever will. (I know — a story with no real start and no real end! What kind of jacked-up story is this, eh? Hashtag writer problems.)
No matter how far I’ve come — mentally, physically or spiritually — or how far I go, this is a personal temptation and tendency that I’ve realized will probably stick with me my whole life. When I’m feeling anxious and dealing with circumstances out of my control, the demands for entry become loud, insistent, and even convincing.
After all, I’m pretty confident in almost every other aspect of my life. I have a good head on my shoulders, my relationships are healthy, I’ve worked diligently to gain skill and experience in my chosen career field, sometimes I can even be funny! So if something isn’t going right in my life, it’s easy to blame the one area where I have never felt sure of myself; and — BONUS! — it’s also an easy area to micromanage and feel in control.
The good news is, I know that now.
I’m no longer surprised by old triggers or negative thoughts. I’m equipped to fight my demons, and I have people in my life to hold me accountable to it. I’ve learned (and am continually learning) how to walk what some days feels like a thread-thin line between pursuing healthy goals and falling back into an unhealthy mindset.
I still love eating healthy and I still love working out, and both are priorities in my life. I run and lift and consume liberal amounts of leafy greens. I finally gave in to the hype and my second home has become the local Crossfit box, much to my sister’s dismay (“You’re gonna be one of those people,” she wails as I talk about the WOD or pull on spandex and knee-high socks); where coaches’ and friends’ expertise and encouragement have brought me fully around to consuming carbs again, sans-panic attacks. (My body has responded by being happier and — gasp — closer to the goals that kept me avoiding them for years.)
Better news, though, is I’ve learned that having struggled with an eating disorder does not disqualify me as a Christian woman.
Maybe, instead of an eating disorder defining me as spiritually weak, it’s simply a testament to the fact that even the strong struggle with this.
Maybe, instead of keeping it a secret so that I can reach others with my ROCK SOLID PERFECT FLAWLESS FAITH IN GOD, I could reach a lot more by sharing it, so that I can rush into the lives of those who share my struggle and help them fight, since I’m familiar with their enemy and battles and have more victories under my belt.
If we’re being perfectly honest, the former is way more appealing to me than the latter. Like I said, I figured recovering from my own eating disorder was the bravest thing I’d ever have to do.
But God and I have a deal. He did that whole come-to-earth-and-die-in-my-place-and-resurrect-and-eternally-save-me thing (and for those of you who may be wondering — yes, I very, literally, 100 percent believe every bit of that), and in return, I do whatever he wants. Anything. That’s the deal.
So as I started dreaming up my own vision and ideas for my site and blog at the beginning of this year, God made it abundantly, loudly clear that while he is a big fan of sports (the Lord is also a Spurs fan, little known fact) and has given me a passion for telling others’ stories well, he wanted me to write my own story, too.
I still see my eating disorder as a flaw in my life, and I still don’t feel wholly victorious in it. I didn’t want to share this part of my story.
But I wrote these words and released them to the world, because if God can redeem my flaws and defeats, hey — why can’t he redeem yours?
2 Corinthains 4:7 says that “we [meaning Christians] have this treasure [meaning the spirit of God] in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."
Listen, one of the main components of my life story is years-long insecurity in and hatred of my own body. If I’m a jar of clay, I’m one of the most cracked and jars-of-claysiest. God still chooses to work in and through me.
So instead of hiding my cracks or flaws or trying to dress up my jar, so to speak, I think it would be best to simply let the treasure inside shine through.
My story does not begin or end with an eating disorder, nor am I defined by my personal victories and defeats. I am defined by a God who loves me and offers abundant life despite my faults and fears; and I want my story to begin and end with telling others he extends them the same.