In 2009 I went to the doctor for a check-up and was told if I didn’t stop running and start eating more then I was going to die by the time I was 35. I found a therapist who diagnosed me with anorexia (NOS)—not otherwise specified; something was certainly wrong and it looked closest to anorexia. With some help from the counselor I allowed myself to put on a couple of pounds, and then I spent the next 4 years in therapy learning how to cope with stress, and working very hard to stay thin, convincing both myself and my therapist that I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I just wanted to “maintain.”
To do so, I exercised all the time. I controlled my intake and output of calories, fat, and sugar. I punished myself on the days I “gave into” cravings; I swelled with pride and accomplishment when I stayed disciplined in my workouts, especially if I pushed myself a little further and a little harder each time.
In 2013 I started experiencing health problems with my stomach and skin. It turned out I was suffering from celiac disease. But while investigating what was going on, I was losing weight because it was hard to eat. I liked losing weight. I liked not eating. It felt good. People said I was “looking great” and wished they could be skinny like me. I liked that too. I am a girl who needs affirmation. I wanted people to like me. Depend on me. I wanted people to believe that I had my life together. I worked really hard to make sure I was acting, thinking, and looking the way people wanted me to in order to be accepted.
But I was never 100% confident that I was truly acceptable to people. It’s impossible to please everyone, yet I didn’t want to let one single person down. I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed in me; I didn’t want anyone to think I was less than what they expected either of me or from me. I needed to be perfect in all my ways and in all areas in my life so that whatever part of my life people connected with, they would regard me in good favor.
Between maintaining perfection and managing newly diagnosed celiac disease, I was overwhelmed internally. I was anxious; uptight; scared; insecure. To cope, I was barely eating. And what little I was eating was strictly regimented with lots of rules and regulations. At the same time, I also feared food to the point that I experienced panic attacks in public. I stopped meeting friends for lunch and dinner. I hated eating in front of my husband and family because I felt obligated to eat when I simply didn’t want to.
Hunger became comforting to me. If I was hungry then that meant I had everything under control. In our culture, if you look the part then people trust you. As long as I looked perfectly together (evidenced by my thin stature), then people would still opine me as valid and acceptable. So there was this domino effect in my brain—if I’m hungry, then I’m acceptable.
I was also over-exercising as a way to both release stress and to control my body. If I didn’t get a run or a workout in, I was angry. Depressed. Anxious. I weighed myself constantly as a way to support and confirm my control.
Finally in 2014, my therapist, who by the way didn’t specialize in eating disorders, noticed I was dropping weight to the point she was concerned and referred me to an eating disorder center. From there I faced an intervention I wasn’t ready for. No one is ever ready for an intervention, by the way. Intervention doesn’t feel good for anyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.
Through the intervention and evaluation, I was told multiple times I was dying. I had a choice to make. Either continue to die a slow, hungry death or get help. I chose to get help.
Early recovery was excruciating. Because I had restricted for so long, my metabolism was totally broken. I had to follow a meal plan at first and because my metabolism was broken, my body didn’t know what to do with all the food. It felt like I was eating Thanksgiving dinner six times a day. I was nauseous, bloated, sick. Depressed. It took two months for my metabolism to even turn on and then another several months before it found its homeostasis. My brain had to be retrained to understand hunger and fullness cues. I had to relearn what foods I liked and didn’t like. I had to relearn how to eat in public. I had to relearn how to eat and enjoy food again.
Here’s the truth about anorexia: We (as in culture) tend to define anorexia by its physical symptoms—skeletal body, hair falling out, loss of period etc. But eating disorders are not about the weight or even the food. Eating disorders are diagnosed by the compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that stem from distorted beliefs about the body and food and overall self. I wasn’t in recovery because I was too thin (in fact, you can be a healthy weight and still be diagnosed with anorexia). I was in recovery because of the severe anxiety and subsequent behaviors I had in response to what I believed about myself—I believed I was unacceptable; ugly; slow; invalid. So I agonized over calories and fat; weighed myself constantly; experienced panic attacks over food; controlled my food and everyone else’s food; became angry when I couldn’t work out; isolated—all in order to achieve the perfection I believed people needed from me in order to accept me.
Anorexia recovery isn’t about getting rid of the disorder. Recovery is about finding and growing the healthy voice so it overpowers the eating disorder voice. I live with the anorexia voice in my head every day even though I am in a healthy and stable place right now.
On a physical level, recovery retaught me how to reconnect with my body and its biological cues regarding hunger, food, and even body movement. But much more and far deeper than that, recovery taught me how to sit in my feelings of inadequacy and invalidity… without trying to run from them or starve myself out of them. It wasn’t until I sat in that pain that God could show me truth about my identity—I am His daughter. I belong to Him and not the world. Fat and skinny don’t even exist in the kingdom of God.
I live with anorexia in my head and I use the truths and tools I’ve learned in recovery and from God to keep it quiet. I’ve learned (and I am still learning) I don’t need to rely on the disorder anymore to be perfect or acceptable or valid. Because I don’t answer to the world; I am here for God and he’s made very clear my value, my worthiness, and my perfection as I am to Him.