After I wrote Anorexia, Racism, and Defining Beauty, a number of moms e-mailed me, asking for more details about my struggle with anorexia. This is the letter I wrote in response. It’s long, and there are a lot of details, and I didn’t edit it, except to remove any identifying details and add in some subheadings. Publishing un-edited work is scarier than almost anything else for me. But this way you get the feel of my original letter, straight from my heart to yours. ~Elizabeth
I was 14, going in to the 9th grade, and a friend from church gave me some Teen magazines (honestly, at the time, they were the most “innocent” of their kind, and she was a good Christian girl). I had never looked at any before, and I distinctly remember a pop in my mind. Something shifted inside me, and I didn’t know what.
At the same time my parents got a stair stepper/weight machine. I tried getting on the stair stepper to see how I did. I was really out of shape! I had never been athletic, and I spent most of my time with books. But, being the good first-born that I was, I now had a challenge. I wanted to increase the time on that thing. But it didn’t have anything to do with weight loss, as yet. I had never ever before in my life thought about my body size, anything about my appearance, or about what I ate. But as I started to exercise every day, I did start to lose weight. Now, beginning at 110 pounds and 5 foot 3 inches, there wasn’t very much to take off. So very quickly I got very skinny.
After I started to lose a little weight, I started reducing what I ate. It wasn’t planned, it just seemed natural. I’m not even sure I knew I was obsessed, until I was OBSESSED. Eventually I exercised an hour a day (which if you’ve ever climbed a stair stepper, is just insane). I was also making straight A’s at school, and doing all the necessary study hours.
Because I reduced my food intake slowly, and because I was still eating at regular intervals, I didn’t realize I had a problem, and I also didn’t feel incredibly hungry. (I only remember a few times of hunger, and although I didn’t like it, the thought never occurred to me that I could solve that discomfort by eating.)
But I was determined to lose ever more weight. Why?? It’s not like there was fat on my body. I thought I had to be always losing weight, or else I was gaining weight, which was unacceptable. I thought my thighs needed to be concave and have space between them. I thought my cheek bones, and rib cage, and collarbone needed to be protruding from my skin. I thought any layer of fat was evil.
Some research shows that as you dip beneath a certain weight, your thought processes become skewed — this was done on pacifists during World War 2. All you can think about is food, no matter the reason you’re underweight. When the patient reaches a normal and healthy weight, the thought processes even out again. It is for this reason that Laura Collins wrote her book “Eating with Your Anorexic.” She maintains that the anorexic must eat, that as a parent you must eat WITH your child. When the weight increases, the thought processes are more reasonable. I don’t think this is the only approach, but it’s a starter approach, to get your child healthy enough to survive.
My mom didn’t know I had lost a dangerous amount of weight till she saw me changing clothes sometime that December 1995. I think my lowest weight was after Christmas time, hovering around 90. Scary, I know. I can’t even imagine it now. Mom took me to a doctor. All that doctor had to say was, you need to gain weight, or we’re going to have to do something about this. What she would do, I don’t know. I had visions of being taken away somewhere.
Of course I knew about eating disorders, we learned about them in school. I knew about Karen Carpenter. But when one happens to YOU, you don’t think about it as a rational choice. But, being the perfect people-pleaser that I was (ahem, perfectionism was part of my problem in the first place), I decided to follow orders. I would eat. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I would eat, because I didn’t want anyone paying attention to me like that. I wanted to keep my head down.
Starting to Gain
I was very sad as I gained weight. I was depressed and wanted to die. This is different from wanting to kill yourself or being suicidal. I never wanted to do that. I just wanted to stop living. My whole life was tied up in that number on the scale, although I couldn’t have explained why then, and I can’t explain why now. My mom was there for me during that time. She gave me hugs. She knew I was sad. She couldn’t fix it, though. She herself was going through a difficult time, unrelated to me, but also affected by me.
I had stopped menstruating. Probably October was my last period, a very light one, and although I ate and ate and ate, I didn’t menstruate again till May. I was still probably underweight at that time, but stable, about 105.
Although the danger had passed, my struggle was just beginning. It was almost as if when I heard those words telling me I could eat, I went crazy. I ate a lot of food. It wasn’t calculated or measured, just whatever I wanted. I was very particular, and followed many rules about which kind, but no rules about how much. Mostly, low-fat. And not much, if any meat. No donuts!
Those ideas stayed with me for years. I counted calories religiously, for years. On paper at first; later I was so good, I could do it in my head. Even if I ate what I thought was too much, I still had this compulsion to know the amount, just so I could feel miserable about it. Incidentally, now, I couldn’t count calories to save my life. I can’t remember how, nor do I want to. But it lasted into my marriage, for sure, and into childbearing, I think.
Isaiah 52:4 describes it this way: For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them.” It really felt that way. I went down into Egypt, a land of LACK, but then I went into Assyria, a land of LUST. I loved to eat, and I struggled with my love of food for many years. At one point after I was married, I would say it this way, the way I heard my good friend describe her struggle to lose weight and stay in a healthy range: I still have food issues, but I’m not in bondage. I think that would have been true most of my 20’s. Most of my teens were pretty obsessive though.
In my 30’s it’s even better. I don’t really even feel issues. Yes, I bloat before my period. Yes, sometimes I want too much dessert or eat too many helpings. But I feel, normal. Normal weight, normal desire for food, normal if I do overeat. My worth isn’t tied up in my eating or my body. Now I’m pretty balanced in eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full. (That was my problem for years, I couldn’t stop. And when I couldn’t stop, I would feel so guilty and icky. Then sometimes I would vow not to eat again for some set amount of time.)
I never struggled with bulimia though, and I can’t offer insight on that other than what another friend tells me: When her mom found out in high school what was happening, she did the whole “eating with your anorexic” thing. They ate a meal together, and afterward, they would sit on the couch, for an hour or more. She would cry. She would want to go throw up, she could feel the fat growing, she said (I had said similar things). Her mom would hold her, and she wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. It helped with the physical vomit-reflex, and the behavioral pattern.
But I would be lying if I said I never starved myself again. 9th grade was a dark year. 10th was a happy, sunny year. In the 11th grade, it was dark again. I’m not sure what triggered it, but I started losing weight again, and was skinny again (I don’t remember numbers this time, maybe below 105?). I do know I skipped a couple periods. I can’t even remember if mom noticed it, or what stopped it. But I do know I don’t remember much from that year, even what we studied in school, and 9th grade was the same.
12th grade was better again, happier. After 1st semester I thought I was getting fat again, and started losing weight. I think I may have skipped one period. Then something happened, I can’t remember, but it was before Jonathan and I started courting, and I started eating again. I ate too much, and when I went to college I gained even more. But it wasn’t the same that time. It was like the normal freshman 15. It wasn’t disordered.
I was pretty stable after we got married, weight-wise. I would say I was fairly happy in my life, although still dissatisfied with my weight. After my first baby, I had gained a lot of weight, and I had to work really hard to get it off again — what I consider “normal” mom stuff. After my second baby, though, my father-in-law had died, and I was tired of being always fat and pregnant, with 2 babies close together, and I lost too much weight. It was very cold and calculated. I never let myself get into a legitimately low BMI. I controlled it “perfectly.” I wouldn’t have admitted I had a problem, I could only see it in retrospect, with all the family stress of the cancer and death. Then I couldn’t get pregnant when I wanted to, and I had to admit I had a problem and gain a bit of weight. I want to share that with you so you know that even if the initial symptoms dissipate, some of the leftover problems can remain for a long time, although until that point I had never gone to counseling.
I also want you to know I no longer feel those feelings, so you can have hope for your daughter. It took many years, but I am healed. I no longer feel in a tug of war between Egypt and Assyria. I feel happy about my body. (Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding can do wonders for your esteem for your body, as can a loving marriage in general, as can a healthy exercise regimen and healthy eating. Those things have helped me, over the years.)
It goes without saying that I think those magazines are bad. I think they triggered something in me. I think we are all waiting to be triggered with those images. I was afraid of exercise for a long time, afraid it would trigger me back. But it turns out I need those happy endorphins, and exercise is addictive for its happy qualities, not for its weight loss, if you do it reasonably and are at a healthy weight.
For years I couldn’t pass a mirror without analyzing and criticizing parts of my body. Now, I often pass mirrors and think little of it. But, it did take me years to get to this point. Time in front of the mirror is bad.
Reflections on Recovery
I’ve read a lot about eating disorders since that time, in an effort to help teenagers I thought were struggling with it. It’s so vast and confusing, and such an individual journey. But I can share with you what was helpful to me, or what I think could have been more helpful.
My mom hugged me. We didn’t talk about stopping when you are full, though. I totally destroyed that instinct, and I wish I would have gone through the eating thing more slowly, to learn that sooner. Mom was very kind and bought my special, no sugar, no fat food. And that’s not a problem, but it made it easier to box myself in to type of food. I just wish I had better practice in amount, in the beginning. I think she was so nervous about me gaining weight that she didn’t think about that aspect. Avoiding calorie counting, and focusing more on portion size and fullness, that would have been helpful to me.
I had to get to a place where I knew, if I was eating relatively well and exercising relatively frequently, I could be ok with my weight. I had to live in my body a long time to get to that place. I had to know I was loved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, no matter what. I had to give up some perfectionism (THAT took years). I had to find other pursuits. An eating disorder is a pursuit. College was a great pursuit, putting all my energies into learning. Marriage and youth ministry were great pursuits. And now, motherhood, homeschooling. You have to fill that time devoted to the eating disorder with something else.
I also saw a counselor, but not in high school. (I think Mom assumed if I gained weight, everything was fine.) Only after Mark died, and I think I addressed some of the issues that contributed to it. Later, we went to marriage counseling, the same place Jonathan went to for counseling training, and it addressed even more issues. Years of life can be good to us. They can teach us these things, and we can relax. Seriously, being able to relax in God. It’s great for treating all manner of soul sickness.
In counseling I learned that my eating problems were a feeling problem. I had feelings I probably couldn’t understand as a young lady, so I ate them. Or I didn’t eat them. Now I understand my feelings so much better, but that takes time (which is why young girls having eating disorders is so sad, they are not emotionally/intellectually mature enough to understand all their issues, but the issue is thrown in their face by way of the addictive eating disorder, if that makes any sense).
I also had a perception problem — judging other people, not wanting to be judged poorly myself, wanting to measure up, wanting to earn God’s favor, and everyone else’s, including my own. That contributed greatly to it. But it still takes years of concerted effort not to believe those lies about what we should look like. And I would say, those brain paths get trodden again and again, with the viewing of magazine images, or the criticizing in the mirror, the negative thought patterns. That’s the part of the battle that we have to fight ourselves.
Some of it we have to let God do.
An edited version of this article was featured at To Save a Life in September 2015.