I share my story openly because I want you to know who I am and the work that God has done in me through my story. I also want to encourage others who are going through an eating disorder or recovery. There is hope! Life free from an eating disorder is incredibly abundant!
Disclaimer: If you are going through an eating disorder or are in the early stages of treatment, this post may be triggering for you. If you are struggling with body image or eating, please do seek professional help.
My story begins when I was in fifth grade. There were many other things in the years leading up to my eating disorder, but fifth grade was a significant time for me. I was self-conscious of my body – it was on the chubbier side, and I was going through the beginning stages of puberty. I was never athletic and was a very sensitive, shy little girl. During fifth grade, I experienced a lot of emotions (puberty hormones I’m sure) and feeling out-of-control. I remember being extremely distraught about how my body looked and at times crying because I felt as I had no control over it. I imagined that I would always be this way, and I would never marry or be anything important because of it.
Finally, the summer after fifth grade I took action. I decided to become “healthy”. Looking back now, I know this is a common route to an eating disorder – trying to lose a little weight, gain control, or become “healthier.” I discovered calories and started limiting those and my fat intake. I don’t remember everything I did, but before I knew it, it was out of control. By the beginning of 6th grade, I had lost over 30 pounds (in less than 3 months). I was exercising obsessively, skipping meals that I could, and eating only the bare minimum. While I was at my lowest weight ever, I still saw a chubby girl in the mirror. My eating disorder skewed how I saw myself and compounded my fears of gaining weight. I was completely blind to the fact that I had an eating disorder.
Later that fall, my parents stepped in to help. At that point, I outright refused to eat many foods because I was afraid I’d gain weight or lose control. I thrived off the feeling of being hungry because it made me feel disciplined and in control. Living in Moscow, we didn’t have access to treatment centers or American therapists and dietitians, so my parents helped as best they could. I started eating 3 meals a day plus snacks, and regained a little weight, but I was still enslaved to my eating disorder.
Over the next seven years, I maintained the appearance that everything was okay. I ate meals and snacks, exercised a “reasonable” amount, and wasn’t dangerously thin, however my eating disorder still controlled me. I was terrified of gaining weight, and did everything in my power to control it through food and exercise rules. Looking back on the rules now, they seem ridiculous, but at the time they were very real. Rules about how much and what foods I could eat plagued me. I would avoid social situations because I didn’t know how to handle food. I made excuses about why I wasn’t eating “xyz” because I wasn’t hungry or I didn’t like that food. Exercise also controlled me. Regardless of the day or how I felt, I had to exercise a certain amount of time every day, and only certain types of exercise counted.
For years I lived in bondage to food, weight, and exercise. They were constantly on my mind, keeping me from enjoying life in the moment. My relationships suffered because I was shy and so preoccupied with my weight. I became so self-conscious about everything I did, and I wanted to be the best at everything.
The funny thing is that even though I was at my lowest weight, it was never enough. I constantly felt that I had to do better – be healthier, more fit, and skinnier. I felt extreme guilt for eating and had extremely low body image. I was terribly unhappy, but wasn’t willing to change. My mother was a constant support at this time. I confided with her my fears and unhappiness. I wanted to be free, but was so afraid that if I let myself eat what I wanted I would be out of control.
During late high school, I went through a period of rejecting God. This was probably in part due to teenage rebellion, but also deep inside me, I knew that if I let God in I would have to let go of my eating disorder. I was not ready to let go yet. This was one of the darkest times of my life. I literally felt the distance from God. Finally, I did turn back to God because I could not stand the distance. Nothing dramatic changed with my eating disorder at this point, but it was the beginning of change.
With impending transitions of leaving Moscow and going to college, I retreated to my eating disorder for comfort and a sense of control. I felt like everything was out of control and that I had become too relaxed about school (I was perfectionistic about that too), exercise, and eating, so I resolved to be even more disciplined. As a result, my weight went down a little more, and I became obsessive about everything.
Throughout these seven years, I was not happy. I felt trapped by my fear of weight gain and going out of control, but I didn’t know what I could do about it. I was afraid that if I allowed myself to let go of control, I would gain an enormous amount of weight and be undisciplined – which I see now as entirely black and white thinking. Finally, at the end of high school, I was ready to change. One motivating factor was my dream to one day be a mother. You see, during this whole battle, I didn’t have a period. I first had a period in 5th grade, but then with my eating disorder it never came back. Your body needs a certain about of fat to produce estrogen and have a period. My fear was that I had ruined my reproductive system and would never be able to have a child.
Around high school graduation, my oldest sister intervened. She lovingly and graciously encouraged me to get professional help. Finally, I was ready to make a change in my life. The next couple weeks involved moving and saying goodbye to the place I called home and finding a treatment program back in Minnesota.
As we looked into treatment options, I remember worrying that they wouldn’t think I was “sick enough.” Maybe the wouldn’t let me into a treatment program or think I needed help. So I restricted and exercised more. Little did I know how sick I was…just right on the cusp of in-patient treatment. That summer, I started an intensive outpatient treatment program 4 days a week. I was so ready for change, that I did what needed to be done – which meant restoring weight. For the next several months, I completely cut out exercise and followed the meal plan my dietician came up with. These months were some of the hardest in my life. Eating foods I hadn’t had in years, feeling full, not exercising, and watching my body change were a sudden blow to me.
At the same time, my therapist and I started working through all the emotions and thoughts surrounding my eating disorder. An eating disorder is never just about the food, the food is a coping mechanism or symptom of what is really going on inside. It has taken me years to identify what led to my eating disorder. There was no traumatic event that sparked it or unkind words. I grew up in a loving family and community, and was only ever told I was special and beautiful. I’ve come to see that my need for control and my anxiety and perfectionism played a large role in my eating disorder.
The 3-4 months I was in treatment, I only made forward progress. For many in recovery, forward and backward progress is the norm. Many people get stuck in one stage of recovery or they relapse. I am so thankful that I was able to move forward and make the changes I needed to do. I completely attribute this to my supportive family and mentors, and to God. God gave me strength to keep going when I was enraptured with fear and when I had no strength of my own to keep going with recovery. He was my strength.
Backing up a bit, in high school, I had my life planned out. I was going to attend St. Olaf College, study French and Management, and get a job in International Business. While few of us know what we are going to do with our lives when we’re in high school, I truly had no idea what the future would be. God had a different plan for me. While in treatment, it became clear that I needed some more time to heal and adjust to life in the US before attending college. So, I deferred my acceptance to St. Olaf, and spent the next year at home in Minnesota, healing and working. It was not what I planned at all, but God knew it was the best thing for me.
I graduated from the treatment program in the fall, but continued to see my therapist and dietician weekly. I had restored weight, but had a long way to go. When you struggle with and eating disorder or any type of addiction, the longer you are in it, the longer it takes to heal. Over my seven year struggle, I had developed so many cognitive distortions (faulty thinking) and limiting beliefs. I had to retrain my brain to think in a different way. I also had to retrain myself to eat.
How many of us truly eat intuitively? And by intuitively, I mean like a child – eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough, without any food rules or values attached to food. I was far from intuitive eating. In my eating disorder, I had learned to tune out my body – it was truly mind over body. My mind told me when it was ok to eat and how much. My mind told me I had to exercise and for how long, regardless of how my body felt. My ability to tune into how my body feels and what it needs has taken years to master. Now, I finally feel like I can “hear” what my body needs. And not just that, but I give my body what it needs (most of the time).
It has been eight years since I started my journey to recovery. It was not been easy and there have been so many ups and downs. I wish I could encapsulate all the things I have learned and gone through, but that would take a book. Progress has been slow too. I remember feeling so discouraged that I wasn’t getting anywhere with my recovery, that I still felt so trapped by eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Looking back now, I see all the progress I have made. Early on in recovery, I would never have imagined I would be in the place I am this day. I am far from 100% recovered. Sometimes I still struggle with guilt after eating or I despise my body. There are still foods I am “afraid” to eat and not exercising sometimes makes me anxious. I’m not perfect, but I am making progress. Regardless of the struggle, it is so important to recognize the small victories along the way. Let me share a few with you:
- My body has found it’s happy weight – I’m at a weight now that is easy to maintain. I can eat what I want and move in a way that’s enjoyable because my body does an amazing job at adjusting to my needs.
- My period is back! (Sorry if that’s TMI, but for women, your period is a HUGE indicator of health)
- My definition of exercise has broadened to include so many different levels and types of movement. I love to exercise now because it makes me feel good, not because I have to. And if I miss a workout, it’s not the end of the world.
- I allow myself to sit and rest (sometimes I watch TV in the afternoon! – if Blake is reading, he knows how big of a deal this is, haha). In my eating disorder, I always had to be moving a productive, but now I’m learning the importance of rest.
- A dessert (or two) every day is one of my daily joys! Deprivation is NEVER a good idea! Have a piece of cake if you want it. If you deprive yourself of certain foods, you’re more likely to overdo it in the future.
- I have SO much more confidence than ever! – I am learning to love myself and celebrate what makes me unique. Introvert? Yep that’s me!
- I laugh again – I have fun and enjoy life!
I write these not to brag, but because I want to share all the good things that God has done in my life through recovery. He has been my strength, and He has put so many people in my life to walk the journey with me. I will be forever grateful for a couple therapists and dietitians who led me along in recovery (professional help is key to recovery!), and my family, mentor, and friends who held my hand, challenged my faulty thinking, and encouraged me to choose life.
If you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise, keep loving them! They may not be willing to get help yet, but there are so many ways you can help them. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about supporting a loved one.
The sad thing is that so many women struggle with an eating disorder to some extent. About 80% of women struggle with disordered eating in the US. You don’t have to be diagnosed with an eating disorder to get help for an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. One of the emerging “eating disorders” is orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with health and clean eating – I see this all around me. I will delve more into these topics later, but what I want to hone in is that if you feel enslaved to food an exercise, then you can get help.
If you have made it this far, thank you for reading. My story is not finished, I am constantly learning about myself and challenging the thoughts and behaviors I have developed over the years. I am also learning to combat the messages in our culture that tell us what to eat and not to eat, and how we should look. I am so excited and ready to continue sharing this journey with you all, through my real experiences, thoughts, and lessons. Thank you all for your love and support!