- The Problem - I'm Jenny, I'm 27, and I have an eating disorder. O.k., several eating disorders. Even though I've written about my sin / idols and my eating disorder many times before on this blog, it's never super fun to write about. So, although I've been feeling the Spirit press for me to expand on my struggles in more detail, I have put it off for over a month. It's that very shame and awkwardness of all of this, I think, that makes it so important for all of us to openly talk about our struggles with food.
Not so long ago, I was part of a girl's book group / bible study that was reading through Elyse Fitzpatrick's amazing book "Love to Eat. Hate to Eat." (As a side note, if you haven't read this yet, you definitely should. It's not just for people with eating disorders. It's really much more about humanity's perspective toward God and our own gratification. You can get it for the Kindle for less than $8 here.)
So here we are, a group of Christian women reading this wonderful book and sharing all of the things the Spirit is revealing about our own idols of food and the opinions of others. Throughout our discussion, I notice one girl hasn't said a word. Our group leader asked her if she had any observations about the book. The girl's heated reaction blew me away.
She was extremely angry, spouting off about how she is just a picky eater, she doesn't have an eating disorder, and she's so incredibly sick of people always talking about food and their bodies. I remember mentally shriveling at that moment, tucking further into myself and thinking, "Man if believers think this, there's no one I'm ever going to be able to talk to about my sin and struggle with food." I left that group (which, incidentally, never met together again after that outburst), feeling defeated, worthless, and riddled with problems that were too distasteful to others to confess.
I don't want you to think that I am angry with this girl or that I even think she was wrong. As women, we do talk about our bodies too much. We obsess over food and diets so frequently, reducing our significance to just a body. My issue was instead 100% in response to her timing and approach. ALL SIN needs to be uncovered for what it is: robbing us of our greatest joy and unity with the Father. That's why small groups seek to create an atmosphere of transparency and confession. In these intimate moments, it's very important to remember that we don't all struggle with the same sins.
Here's my point: my sin needs to be confessed and sometimes you need to listen, just as yours needs to be confessed while I extend the same loving grace to you.
Believe me, I know sometimes listening to another person's struggles can churn up wounds in your own heart, particularly when sin / circumstances intersect (e.g. One friend struggles with anorexia while the other struggles with weightloss). Still, just because it's hard to hear about other sister's / brother's sin, doesn't mean we shouldn't listen.
Rejoice with me in my success, friends! Weep with me in my failure. I'll seek to do the same for you.
With all of that said, I think you can see why I've felt the need to spend more time in both discussing my personal battles with food and the tools God has given to me to struggle well. I hope this encourages those of you with similar addictions and gives you others insight into of the deep scars and pain involved in this sick cycle.
1: Anorexia - I used to literally love not eating. I was an olympic competitor at "sprint" starvation. For hours, I'd watch the clock, thinking proudly "I haven't eaten at all! If I do this for the rest of the day, I could maybe loose 3 pounds!" Notice I said "sprint" starvation. That's key here, because like most anorexic/bulimics, I was (Thanks to God's mercy!) far from true, full-fledged anorexia. If "dieting" for most women includes caloric stipulations not exceeding 1,200 a day, then I was on a permanent EXTREME diet, holding back from even reaching 1000. Most days, at my best / worst, I could go on a mere 600 calories, carefully separated into tiny partitions of an apple, 2 grain bars, and 1 latte. I'm not sure why others struggle with self-starvation, but mine has always been rooted in my idols of perfection / acceptance and control.
Perfection / Acceptance: I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in complete isolation. Every time I made friends my family would a) move, b) get into an awkwardness with the kid's family, c) move AND get in an awkwardness with the kid's family. For all practical purposes, I grew up with only fleeting impressions of what it means to have close friends, birthday parties, and inside jokes. This led to some crazy ideas about friendship and acceptance. I started to believe that one reason I couldn't make friends was because I wasn't good enough. At 18, this coupled with my devastation over a not-really-but-kind-of 4 year relationship, fostered a poisonous belief that only through physical perfection could acceptance be achieved. How obviously silly this seems now, but you must remember how half-reasoned these things were then. Scripture held roughly the same weight as Hallmark cards: cute, a sweet thought, but life-changing? Please. That's just something people said; no one actually lived that way, right? I was drowning in rejection abandonment and clinging to anything that promised an easy out. I vividly remember my first week flirting with anorexia / bulimia, claiming big tests while really avoiding the cafeteria at all costs. When I did eat, it was a pathetic mockery of meals: celery, an apple, and a cup of milky coffee.
Control: I want to feel safe and assured that "everything is going to be all right" and that I'm completely in charge. Wow, what a LIE. I am never in charge. Not now. Not ever. I'm not even in charge of my own body, whether my heart will function properly or seize up in an instant and fail me. All control is a complete illusion used to satisfy my sinful desire for my way.
Some days, my eating still resembles those first years, though now its almost always due to stress-induced stomach aches or insane scheduling sans a lunch break.
I'm thankful that I rarely do this purposefully, but don't believe that doesn't still make the trend dangerous. The enemy has a way of taking any advantage he can get---even though stress starvation isn't purposeful, it's physiological pattern is still alarmingly close to my old habits. Sometimes when the body starts mimicking old ways, those dusty, poisonous thoughts find a path back inside. That's why for me prevention = constant alertness to the danger + extreme honesty with others. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More of that in part 2.
2: Bulimia - There's a crazy kind of shame with bulimia among the eating disorder community. I mean, it has disorder in the name, so there never should be anything to be proud of anyway. But for some reason, anorexia is viewed as "self-control" (a good thing, right?!) and bulimia = "totally losing it." So when I'm in the bulimic swing, the shame tends to be 2x's that of anorexia. Where anorexia produces a sinful vanity and pride, bulimia feeds self-hate and depression. It's the "Plan B" as it were to "not being an obese monster." (Short Aside: It's troubling to me that for years the term "obese monster" was cemented in my mental vernacular. Since when does one's size indicate her inner self? Thinking back, I'm mortified when I remember my sophomore dorm room refrigerator plastered with pictures of curvy women and sharpie-inked comments like "Don't be an obese monster!" or "You're not really hungry! Go run!" The way my roommates and I thought of beauty, food, and perfection now makes me literally ill to my stomach.)
Bulimia was my way of rewinding my poor decisions. "Backup," I'd think. "I can't believe you ate an entire box of girl scout cookies! You MUST get rid of it pronto! Seriously, you're revolting. No one wants to be friends with a pig like you." That's pretty much the entire on-going conversation I've had with Bulimic-me since 2003. Originally, binging looked like binging for me. I would eat food by the container, not the serving. And I would punish myself by bowing down to the toilet instead of God. That's pretty sick and twisted, but as this ritual progressed, the anorexic side of me became such a powerful influence, that my "binging" eventually morphed into eating a regularly sized meal. Sometimes, it had nothing at all to do with quantity and everything to do with category.
Through counseling, I've developed a "Safe" and "Unsafe" list for foods. It is partly based on my awful wheat allergy / intolerance of fried foods stomach issues and partly on my own feelings after I've ingested said food item:
Safe: Fruit, vegetables, grain bars (in small quantities), legumes, water, small amounts of juice, smoothies (not sugary), yogurt, some cheeses, oats, and rice.
UnSafe: Fatty foods, junk foods, anything fried, beef, chips, ice cream, pizza (MY FAVORITE), bread, pasta, fried chicken, chocolate (large / normal quantities), candy, and other generically horrible or "heavy" foods.
As I was saying earlier, sometimes my struggles with food had more to do with what I was eating rather than how much I had. Great example: Funnel Cake. Who doesn't absolutely ADORE funnel cake? No one. Seriously, not a single person alive. It's almost as good as doughnuts.
So although I love, love these delicious treats, I can't eat them without instantly spiraling into bulimic-based guilt and disgust with myself. Obviously, fighting those feelings are a big part of my battle in sanctification, but God gives me other resources too, such as restraint. 99% of the time, it's just better for me to avoid funnel cake all together than to allow myself to be pulled into bulimic temptation.
3: The Eating Disorder Body is Now Disordered - A surprising / distressing side-effect of having nearly a decade of food struggles is my body's damaged state. I can no longer keep large meals down even if I want to. This was made most obvious during the pregnancy of my first son. I gained only 18 pounds through the entire 10 months and vomited nearly everything I tried to eat. With my second son, I was in biblical counseling with the Center for Christian Counseling (Thank you, Randy Rose!).
Through bi-weekly meetings, bible study, and incredible prayer / effort, I gained 25 pounds and kept 60% of meals down. This was great progress, but still discouraging. Even now, I dread Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners since I know that even with careful eating, my body may decide to upchuck most of my meal. I have to constantly strive to eat just enough where I feel almost full, but not so much that I feel heavy or weighed down by food.
- NOW -
I wish I could honestly write that this never happens anymore (e.g. "Wahoo, I'm so amazing!"), but that would be a ridiculous lie. You'd see through it anyway, wouldn't you? You've been around me enough, seen me skip enough meals, have tons of stomach issues, be locked in the bathroom for hours on end, to know that I'm still battling this beast.
That's a good thing, though. What mercy that God would see my obsessive desire to be perfect, accepted, and in control and would use that to remind me of how dearly I need him. After all, I can't, can't, can't heal this thing. It's like a phantom limb: there's nothing to numb, or appease, or even chop off but still I feel the endless pangs of it.
"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." - 1 Cor. 12:9
So that's my problem. That's the "me" that is inside and battling everyday to escape, get out, and wreck havoc on my life. Thankfully, through prayer, gospel-centered friendships and community, constant confession, and the tireless love and effort of my husband, Justin, most of my struggle now is largely mental. For the first time in my life, I can have months go by without giving in to temptation. That's not to say that it never happens, or that I never fall, but I feel so much more victorious each new year than the one before. That's progressive sanctification at its best.
Practically, though, how do I battle it? It's all well and good to speak of God lending endurance and strength, but what does that actually look like on a day-to-day basis? Well, I'll get to that in part 2. . .