If you’re just joining us, we are in the middle of a four-week Series on Suffering. We’ve heard from a dad of a disabled girl and a woman who miscarried and adopted a son who was later diagnosed with hemophilia. The original Series on Suffering was created back in 2012 and appeared on my first blog. I’m posting those interviews with these brave people this whole month, but I’m including an update — written by each of them — on how they’re doing in 2016.
Also back in 2012, I published a series on body image. Today’s story — Julie’s story — was actually part of that body image collection rather than the Series on Suffering. It fits well here, though, among the stories of suffering, and for some reason I felt strongly compelled to include it for you all at this moment in time. May God’s story of redemption reach even the most hopeless of situations… including those plagued by anorexia and bulimia.
Be sure to return to Repurposed tomorrow, for Julie has prepared an honest and vulnerable update on all that’s unfolded since her first interview.
Even if you’ve never wrestled with an eating disorder, many of Julie’s wounds might be mirrors to your own. We just respond to pain differently. Read on, my brave friends…
The Pain Is Born
I grew up in a family with both parents and was the middle of three daughters. Because my parents had high expectations for their children, we always felt the pressure to perform. Perform perfectly. I grew up thinking that to be loved I had to be perfect. I desperately wanted my mom and dad to love me and to be proud of me. Looking back, I now understand they did love me, but they didn’t show love the way I needed it — through words of affirmation or physical touch. They never gave hugs or said “I love you.”
My sisters felt the same pressure, but I never felt I measured up to them — especially my older sister. She’s quite intelligent and performed exceptionally well in school. Really, in all she did. I discovered in fourth grade that my younger sister was also especially gifted. While I was smart, I wasn’t as smart as them. And because my family put a lot of importance on intelligence, grades, and success, I felt like I was always the one behind. As a child, I decided that if I couldn’t be the smart one, I would be the “good” one. I followed all the rules and did everything my parents told me. And I was very successful at this — all the way through high school. I played the role of peacemaker in my family and tried to be perfect at being good.
But I was empty inside. I had no genuine relationships. All my worth hinged on the fact that I was “good.” In high school, I realized I had gained some weight and was slightly bigger than my older sister. I wasn’t okay with this, so I began to diet on-and-off. I even tried diet pills. I’d lose a little weight, stop dieting, and then gain a little back. For two years.
The Pain Becomes an Expression
I went to college and was so lonely. Loneliness was the most terrible feeling in the world. I joined a sorority but didn’t fit in. I didn’t make friends, and I was miserable. At this point, I started eating for comfort. I’d consume large amounts of food and then over-exercise to compensate. I really hated exercising. And for a while, I gave it up, which led to weight gain. Back home my mom was on a diet of her own (a really unhealthy diet and exercise program), and she lost lots of weight. I’d compare myself to her and to my sisters, and I felt huge.
I was still desperately lonely and actually thought, “If I had an eating disorder and got really sick, then my mom would come and rescue me. And I would know I was loved.”
My parents were fighting frequently, and I realized I had no one to talk to about this. My loneliness was so desperate that I started wondering if life was really worth living. I didn’t want to be alive anymore, but I really couldn’t act on that feeling. Food continued to be my comfort — almost a friend. Eating numbed my feelings of depression. I didn’t want to gain weight, so I started forcing myself to throw up. I figured that if I could vomit regularly and lose a little weight, then I’d be happy and eventually could stop.
That never happened.
The Expression Becomes Flagrant
My eating disorder became a full-fledged addiction. I could not give it up. I used it to numb my feelings. I didn’t feel pain, but I also didn’t feel joy.
I felt completely ugly, both inside and out. But even though I wasn’t “pretty” on the inside, I could control how I looked on the outside. My disorder enabled me eat whenever and whatever I wanted without gaining weight. I felt a sense of power and rebellion against my mom (and her diets) in this.
But in reality, the eating disorder had complete control over me.
Eventually my illness got so bad that I would binge and purge every single time I ate. It was during this time I met a new friend named Abbey. She pursued me and cared enough to actually confront me about my eating disorder. I talked with her, attended a Bible study she recommended, and attended church with her. And I became a believer in Christ.
This was a wonderful time of growth and love for the Lord, but I still was unable to give up my eating disorder. I was afraid to let anyone in and to actually experience true emotions.
I would try to stop binging and purging, but I’d always fail. I felt terribly guilty that I was a Christian yet could not stop this addiction. After a while, I allowed myself to believe I was always going to struggle with an eating disorder. Although I wasn’t binging and purging everything I ate, I was still throwing up every day. I wanted to control my weight, but it was also a way for me to control the pain I still felt.
This lifestyle went on for six years.
The Pain Impacts My Marriage
While dating Josh, I told him I had struggled with an eating disorder in the past. We dated long-distance, so he never really knew how bad things were, and I convinced myself that it really wasn’t that bad.
Our first year of marriage was a complete shock to both of us. I was good at first at hiding my bulimia, but Josh eventually came to know the truth. I fell into a deep depression again and struggled to want to keep living. After that first year, my depression was a bit more under control, and I realized how damaging my illness was to Josh and our marriage. I agreed to go to counseling.
My first counselor tried to help heal the eating disorder with behavioral tactics. If I didn’t throw up, then I could do a fun activity, etc. This was not helpful at all! I was completely consumed with thoughts of food and my weight. I truly thought I’d never be able to change.
The Pain Finds Healing
I found a new counselor who walked me through my past and helped me cry — helped me mourn — some of the things I felt as a child. She helped me feel emotions, and this gave me hope that life could be different. I didn’t want to keep hiding my binging and purging. I was spending a lot of time and money on my bulimia, and my thoughts were constantly on food and comparing myself to other women.
At this time, I also met a woman who was two years into recovery from an eating disorder. She gave me hope that, by God’s grace, it was possible to find healing and be free of the control my illness had over me.
I decided then to enroll in treatment for four weeks in Salt Lake City, UT. The first day was the absolute hardest. Much of my independence was taken away. And because I was actually at a healthy weight, I felt like the biggest woman in the room. After the initial shock, I adjusted to life at the treatment center. Recovery started slowly, but I eventually realized I didn’t want to be as skinny as some of the women there.
We were asked to say positive things about our bodies, and I always said I had a good home for a baby someday. The thought of being healthy enough to have children gave me hope for the future.
A lot of healing took place in Utah. We weren’t allowed to watch T.V. or read magazines, so I spent a lot of time reading Scripture, praying, journaling, and doing “homework” for my counselors. Because of the T.V. and magazine restriction, I wasn’t bombarded with air-brushed perfection on a regular basis. I finally started to gain a healthier view of how our bodies were created to look.
I learned to listen to my body. Am I hungry? Or am I sad? For what is my body hungry? I learned to take all restrictions away from food. If I was hungry for ice cream, then I ate ice cream. By breaking down all the unhealthy food rules I had built up, I learned my body actually knew how to balance food on it’s own. I learned to eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. I learned it’s okay to have second helpings, and it’s okay to leave food on my plate.
I also learned that if I ate emotionally every once in a while, it was okay. It didn’t mean I had failed. I learned to live in the gray instead of being black and white, especially in regards to eating and food.
A huge breakthrough for me was learning that each of our bodies have a “set point.” That’s how we are created. When healthy, we’ll hover around this set point. That was so freeing for me. I had been trying to manipulate my body to a size it wasn’t meant to be, to a size that God didn’t intend for me.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This message resonated with me on my road to healing. “Workmanship” can be translated as “work of art.” This means that I am God’s work of art. If this was true, who was I to try to change and manipulate the artist’s work, especially when the artist is the Creator of the Universe?! Who was I to judge what was beautiful and what was not, when God created each of us in His image, making us His work of art?! I felt beautiful knowing that I was created a certain, unique way that was beautiful to the Lord.
This was all very helpful, but I still struggled to feel “beautiful” on the inside. I was engulfed in shame and guilt about my eating disorder. I was also drowning in inferiority, knowing I couldn’t stand up to the world’s expectations of perfection. I didn’t feel smart. And now I didn’t feel “good.”
A counselor told me that those suffering from eating disorders usually let positive comments “bounce off” and only internalize the bad. I realized I had been doing this very behavior — listening and believing all the negative things and disregarding the positive. I sat down and listed all the things that currently made up my self-worth, most of which were negative.
I then listed all the things that should make up my self worth and ended up with “I am a child a God.” That was all. That is what makes me, and you, worthwhile — simply because we are God’s children, His beautiful workmanship. My worth is not derived from what I do or don’t do — it is simply found in the fact that I am a child of God, created by Him.
I also learned to listen to my thoughts and take them captive to the Lord. Without really realizing it, I was thinking awful things. If you eat that, you’ll be fat. You aren’t important and you will always have an eating disorder, so why are you even trying to get better? You will fail. You are a failure — the only way to feel better is to binge and purge. These thoughts were constantly bombarding me, and I was believing the lies. I learned to listen to my thoughts, recognize them, and combat them with the Truth. I memorized some Scripture and would recite it when I caught myself thinking these thoughts.
Recovery has not been a perfect road. There are ups and downs, successes and relapses. But, the relapses are less frequent and less severe as time goes on. It’s been six years since I went to treatment in Utah, and I’m currently in my best place of recovery yet. I realize this is a weak area in my life, and I’m sure I’m in a much better place (emotionally and mentally) because of God’s grace.
To family and friends of a woman with an eating disorder, tell her and show her you love her. Often. Tell her she is beautiful on the inside and out. Don’t make comments about weight and food, but do encourage her to get the help she needs. I needed a firm hand to lead me in that direction because I wouldn’t do it on my own. I needed to know I was hurting my husband, the very husband who was loving me unconditionally.
To those of you who are struggling with an eating disorder, you are precious and loved. You are a beautiful creation who is loved more than you realize by your Heavenly Father. There. Is. Hope. There really can be recovery. And while it’s hard, it’s completely worth it. My prayers are with you.
See you tomorrow, friends…