i remember about 4 1/2 years ago when a leader of the food issues group at a celebrate recovery group i was co-leading highlighted how little people understood about eating disorders. you see, after every one of our meetings we had something called “solid rock café” where there would be all kinds of food and music and a time to hang out with people afterward. she pointed out the weird contradiction for her group members by saying, “yeah, isn’t it interesting that every single week we put out in front of us our drug of choice like it’s nothing.” her job was to make us aware of how little we understood about real struggles with food. food addiction and eating disorders are so complicated because unlike alcohol or drugs or porn, we need food to survive. there’s no way around it. and for those that struggle with issues around it, that can mean living in a private hell.
meet my beautiful friend “audrey.” she has met her eating disorder head on with strength and courage. she has helped me learn more about my own struggled in this area and inspired me to be more honest and in touch with my real feelings instead of trying to hide them. listen in on a bit of her journey toward greater freedom from an eating disorder’s grips.
- describe a little bit about your family and early spiritual experiences were like?
I was raised Catholic. My mother used to say, “Once a Catholic always a Catholic, but you may not be a practicing Catholic.” So, according to my mother I am still a Catholic. Actually, my upbringing in the Catholic church was very positive and I had several people in the church who were great role models to me during my teenage years. My parents divorced when I was five and while staying with my dad (holidays and five weeks every summer) I attended his church, Assembly of God. I first understood who Jesus was during children’s church at my dad’s church when I was about seven and accepted him into my heart.
- you are very brave to be willing to talk about your eating disorder. what has it looked like, felt like for you?
I began using food as a coping tool when I was nine. I would be upset with my mother or one of my siblings and I would sneak food and eat it in the bathroom. It made me feel better. By the time I was in High School my disorder, which I’ll refer to as ED (Eating Disorder), began to morph into anorexia. I would go a couple of days without eating, while exercising for two to three hours a day. Pretty soon ED helped me get though anything that presented a challenge.
In my mid twenties an illness that I had struggled with since I was fifteen began to become increasingly difficult to live with. As the pain and treatment options dwindled, ED was there to rescue me with over-exercising and a daily calorie cap of 1,000. During this time I lost nearly 100 lbs. People were very complimentary of my weight loss, which fed ED’s ego and further cemented our relationship. The 100 lbs was never enough, I always needed to lose just 10 more pounds. Unfortunately, ED could not cure my illness and neither could the doctors. I ended up having to have all of my female organs removed. I added to my ED portfolio with a run of bulimia, eating as much as I could and then following the binge with laxitives for dessert. How I felt? Numb, completely numb.
- describe what the cycle of shame looks like for you.
I feel sad, glad, mad, scared…I eat too much…feel disgusting…throw up, over exercise, not eat, make rules about what I can eat and can’t eat…the high wears off and I feel sad, mad, glad, scared…it all begins again.
- what are some steps you have taken to pursue healing in this area of your life?
I told someone I had a problem. I sought help and found a group of women who shared my problem. I learned how to speak honestly about my feelings and actually let myself feel my feelings.
- what are some things people have said to you along the way that they had no idea how much it hurt?
“God never gives you more than you can handle.” – I’ve been molested, physically and emotionally abused, grew up dirt poor, lost my ability to have children, endured countless health problems, and a lot of other things that I don’t have time to list. Don’t give me some platitude, just say I can’t imagine how hard your life has been and leave it at that.
“You’ve lost so much weight…you look so good.” – I guess I looked bad before I lost weight…and the shame cycle begins.
“It’s just a choice. Just choose to stop eating.” – Really...that’s like saying just stop breathing.
- what are some of the things you have said to yourself over the years as you’ve struggled with your eating disorder?
If I could be my ideal (unrealistic) body size then all my problems would be solved.
I have earned a binge because I have not eaten all day or because I exercised for three hours.
All of my rules around food are very ‘healthy’…no animal products, no sugar, no fat, no carbs, no…
- what are some hidden (or out on the table) assumptions that sometimes get put out on the table in the christian world about body image?
That weight loss is every ‘good’ christian woman’s goal. I’ve never met a ‘good’ christian woman who wasn’t on a diet or in search of the perfect body. What about being happy with our bodies, what’s wrong with that?
- what are you learning about God? what are you learning about yourself?
He doesn’t really care what size my body is and I’m trying to learn the my worth is not based in what my body looks like.
- share a little bit how safe community has helped you on the journey.
Through my recovery program I have made a couple of friends who know what I go through on a daily basis and who can identify with me. However, on the whole my friends cannot identify with my struggle which has lead me to have to do a little education. The important part of my community is that they are open to learning and that’s makes them safe.
- do you have suggestions for people out there who want to learn how to journey with others who struggle with eating disorders in some shape or form? what should they be aware of?
The first thing that comes to mind is that the weight loss or weight gain of someone with an eating disorder should not be commented on. Any comment, even if intended to be a compliment, can be misconstrued by someone with an eating disorder. If you want to encourage them, remark on their character, their heart.
Weight is often a conversation in groups of people, especially groups of women. If you are in a situation were this topic comes up I would suggest trying to shift the topic to something else. The likelihood that someone in that group struggles with some type of eating disorder is pretty high.
- what words of hope do you have for someone out there who is keeping their eating disorder in the darkness?
There is another way, a way that doesn’t involve ED. Please know that your life is worth saving. There are people out there ready to assist you in discovering what that way is for you.
thank you audrey for your honesty. i am continually aware of how much conversation and focus when women get together (and men, too) becomes centered on body image and food issues. no one ever seems to be satisfied. eating disorders go far beyond anorexia and what’s obvious. when i think of audrey’s story i reminded of how sensitive we need to be in community with each other, to not assume anything, to remember that all of us struggle in different ways and there’s sometimes more going on underneath than meets the eye. what’s important, i think, is that the struggle can be brought into the light so we can become more honest we can be about what’s helpful, what’s not, what hurts, and what brings hope.
* * * * *
ps: i am almost done with this round of out of the darkness interviews but still have a few more coming in the upcoming month or so–“the “A” word–abortion” & “the other side of abuse: men in abusive relationships.” i have some other justice-women-freedom-church thoughts brewing that i need to get down while they are fresh, so look for those in the next couple of weeks. hope you’re enjoying your summer!