A Weighty Issue

Eating disorders seem to affect every victim in virtually identical ways. I talk to a lot of recovering anorexics and bulimics, and every one of them asks the same questions and deals with the same fears and anxieties.

They want a formula. They want to know what-plus-what equals recovery. But every thought that arises from the distorted mind of an anorexic has its roots in one central idea: weight.

Eating disorders aside, weight is a prominent issue in our culture for both men and women. Whether we think we are too big or too small, the number on the scale holds the power to change our mood and alter the way we perceive ourselves.

Of course for someone with an eating disorder, weight means a lot more than staying away from the cookie jar for a few days or investing in a gym membership.

Weight-loss corresponds with short-lived feelings of “accomplishment,” “purpose,” and “satisfaction,” while weight-gain gives rise to waves of guilt, self-hatred, and disgust. Anxiety and depression creep in, and the anorexic automatically does the only thing he or she knows to do in order to alleviate the tormenting thoughts…lose weight.

No matter how much weight is lost, the need to lose more never goes away, and the horrendous cycle continues. Eating less results in losing more weight which results in peace of mind, however temporary it may be.

However, things get (even more) miserable and confusing when this cycle is interrupted. When your only choice is whether you want to gain weight at home or gain weight in a hospital with feeding tube up your nose. When you can’t stand to live in eating-disorder-hell another day and you’re desperate to be the healthy, happy person you used to be. Your soul is longing for freedom but your mind is screaming that hope is dead and the only way to be happy is to lose. more. weight.

And that is why recovery is so difficult. That is why eating disorder individuals stall their recovery and give in to the urges to restrict, over-exercise, binge, and purge even though they genuinely desire health.

That is also why I hear this question so often:

How did you cope with gaining weight in recovery?

The answer is, I didn’t. Allow me to clarify:

My recovery journey started exactly one year ago when my parents forced me into a nutritionists office and gave me the choice to do what she said or pack my bags and move to an inpatient treatment center. As much as it hurt all of us, they knew that unless I was dragged kicking and screaming, I would never be able to emerge from the hole I was quickly being buried in.

So for the next six months, my life revolved around 3 meals and 2 snacks every day, and my parents’ lives revolved around making sure I ate those 3 meals and 2 snacks.

Every pound that I gained brought up waves of negative emotions that I had suppressed throughout the years of my eating disorder. I had panic attacks on a regular basis, pulling out my hair and clawing at the fat on my stomach in rage and disgust.

I couldn’t cope with gaining weight any better than you can. But that’s what recovery is all about. Dealing with irrational thoughts and emotions and facing your fears, including weight gain.

Unfortunately, there is no formula to achieve healthy body image and painlessly gain the necessary weight. But there are a few things you can do to stop sabotaging your recovery and ease anxiety:

1.) Stop allowing your body-image to dictate your recovery. This is important. If you continue to put off recovery until you feel more “comfortable” with gaining weight, well, you’re never going to recover. Whether or not you eat should have nothing to do with how you feel about the person in the mirror or the number on the scale. Instead of wallowing in negative emotions towards your body, recognize that those emotions are founded on lies. Basically, suck it up and follow your meal plan.

2.) Stop weighing yourself. Throw away the scale. Allow someone else (a parent, nutritionist, or doctor) to keep you accountable and monitor your progress. Focusing on numbers will only prolong your recovery and make you more miserable.

3.) Be aware of your triggers. If looking through magazines, watching certain television shows, or looking at pictures of yourself is triggering, don’t do it. You have to guard your heart and mind during this process;; only expose yourself to things that are going to encourage and uplift you.

4.) Challenge your thoughts. Don’t accept negativity and allow it to take over your mind. For every negative thought that enters your mind, counter it with a positive, truthful one.

5.) Separate who you really are from how much you weigh. Know that you are more than your outward appearance. You are a child of God and you have a unique personality and purpose that will shine through no matter what size you are. Ask God to help you see yourself the way He sees you.

Weight gain is only terrifying because your eating disorder tells you it is, and remember that everything the eating disorder tells you is a lie. “Fat” is just a feeling, and numbers cannot define who you are. You are a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, individual and there is no one else like you.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  (Matthew 6:25)

“They loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. They they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.” (Psalm 107:18-20)

Just eat: What an ED is not

I remember the first time I ate ice cream in over a year. I remember sitting at the kitchen table across from my mom, hands clenched around a dish of Ben & Jerry’s and feeling as though I was about to swim the Pacific Ocean. Every bite resulted in a fresh round of tears and it took every ounce of strength I had to swallow.

As hard as it was, I finished the ice cream. My mom cried. She told me how proud she was of me. I cried. And we both sat at the kitchen table staring at the empty cup of Ben & Jerry’s…crying.

Yes, I had an eating disorder. Yes, ice-cream was terrifying.

I know this scene sounds completely ridiculous, but imagine taking someone with an intense phobia of spiders, and forcing them to watch as you place a tarantula in their hands.

There is so much stigma surrounding eating disorders. Everyone has their own idea of what an eating disorder is—opinions formed from high school health class, celebrity magazines, and movies about obsessive ballerinas.

I struggled with anorexia for three years, and even I had my own prejudices.

I, like many people, saw my eating disorder as selfish behavior. A weakness, not an illness. A cry for attention, or failure to overcome my own vanity.

For over a year I lived in denial. I couldn’t possibly be as self-absorbed as movie stars and runway models. So I came up with excuses…

No thanks, I just ate.

I’m not hungry.

I’m just trying to eat healthy.

I came up with so many excuses that even I started to believe they were the truth. I refused to admit that I was anorexic. That I was scared of food and obsessed with losing weight. That my life was a mess and that I needed help.

Instead I plastered a smile on my face and pretended I was okay. I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong with staying up until 2am planning meals, counting calories during math class, or stepping on the scale six times a day.

Nope. No eating disorder here.

The fact that I could wear children’s clothes, I was freezing all the time, and my hair was falling out meant nothing.

Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, I was frustrated and angry at myself for being this way. I wanted to change, but I was stuck in a vicious cycle of disordered thoughts and behaviors. Why couldn’t I just eat like a normal person!?

Well, because an eating disorder is NOT simply a perfectionist on a mega-diet. It’s not a “phase,” or a cry for attention, or the need for control. An eating disorder is NOT a choice.

An eating disorder IS a serious mental illness that kills one in five sufferers. Eating disorders can affect anyone—women, men, and children of all ages and nationalities. Yes, there are certain environmental/cultural factors that make people more susceptible, but an eating disorder is a legitimate, genetic illness that I certainly did not want.

An article from The Huffington Post states:

The stigma that surrounds eating disorders paints them as trivial “girl problems,” diets gone awry, adolescent rites of passage, or the acting out of juvenile rebels or “control freaks.” Anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorders are sensationalized by the media as celebrity spectacles. Even the medical profession, by and large, still dismisses disordered eating as a behavioral quirk and thus fails to recognize the serious psychological threat this behavior represents. Stigma suppresses funding and attention to eating-disorder research and is a primary obstacle to adequate treatment and prevention efforts.

And that is why I couldn’t “just eat like a normal person.” And that is also why I am on a mission to remove the stigma and shame that surrounds this illness.

So, yes, I had an eating disorder. And yes, I have recovered. Ice-cream is no longer what nightmares are made of and there are no more tears spilled over a plate of mashed potatoes.

Do I still struggle? Absolutely. But I am no longer a slave to my eating disorder. I could choose to listen to the voice of my past, but instead I choose to listen to the voice of Truth. The voice that tells me I am a beautiful, loved, honored child of God.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, do not let anyone tell you that it’s your own fault, or that you are weak in some way. Don’t be ashamed of what you’re going through and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I’m not ashamed of what I’ve been through because it’s part of my story—and my story is part of God’s big one.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  Jer. 29:11

Post-recovery ice cream