When I was about 17 years old, between my junior and senior years of high school, I was thin—very thin. Much too thin for the body shape my Creator has given me. Like most teenage girls, I wanted to be trim—certainly not “fat.” This desire started out innocently enough and initially led to a healthy exercise routine. But then, it became obsessive.
I obsessed over how much food I consumed, counting calories to the smallest fraction, and strictly observing serving sizes. Each week, I watched the numbers on the scale. I judiciously exercised six days a week. Soon, I became obsessed with food. It was no longer just a preoccupation but a full-fledged eating disorder: I was a binge-eater.
The Biography of an Eating Disorder
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recognizes eleven different types of eating disorders, although it is not uncommon for a person to have a combination of two. The most common of these are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating. They can manifest in various ways, depending on the person and his or her anxieties and compulsions. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating disorders occur most often in teenagers and young adults, and are defined as an excessive focus on the amount of food consumed, as well as one’s body shape and weight. This focus leads to unhealthy behaviors that impact a person’s nutritional intake and, among many other effects, can “harm the heart, digestive system, bones, and teeth and mouth, and lead to other diseases.”
There are myriad risk factors associated with the development of an eating disorder, but since an eating disorder is also multifaceted and affects each person differently, the risk factors, related signs and symptoms listed here are not all inclusive, and may or may not be part of every individual experience.
NEDA states that a tendency towards perfectionism is one of the biggest risk factors for developing an eating disorder. In addition, other prominent risk factors for developing an eating disorder include a history of dieting and trying different weight-loss techniques; dealing with mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder; struggling with addiction; having a close relative with an eating disorder; enduring stressful situations; feeling “weight stigma” and discrimination; experiencing teasing and or bullying; and/or dealing with a lack of social systems or support groups.
Some guidelines for identifying warning signs of an eating disorder are the following: fluctuations in weight; preoccupations about food intake, meal times, weight, and exercise; frequent dieting; excessive exercise routines; mood swings; refusal to eat certain foods and or certain food groups (i.e. breads, desserts, fats, etc.); small portions of food at meals; and overall behaviors that indicate that dieting and body image are becoming primary concerns,
According to NEDA, binge eating is “characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort); a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards;” it “is the most common eating disorder in the United States.”
That was me.
Hiding in the Pantry
I remember hiding in our kitchen pantry many afternoons and evenings, eating anything and everything that sounded good at the moment, and desperately hoping no one would open the door and find me.
One night in particular, I sneaked into the kitchen, grabbed a spoon, and ate cake icing by the spoonful out of the tub.
Then, my mother found me, cowering in the darkness of the kitchen with a heaping spoonful of icing. I was humiliated. We sat on the couch in our living room and had a long talk that night. I remember feeling so ashamed of myself. I cried and told her I didn’t feel as though had any control over the situation; I just couldn’t stop myself from eating.
It felt hopeless.
Satan can use an obsession with food to control us and to destroy God’s plans for our lives.
I remember my mother, with tears in her eyes, telling me that Satan was using this obsession with food to control me and to destroy any plans God had for my life. But, she also said that it didn’t have to be this way. We talked some more and finished our chat with prayer. She promised to keep me accountable.
Now, I can’t say that my obsession with food, my “disorder” went away easily. Nothing psychological heals quickly. I actually struggled with some of this through my freshman year of college, and even persuaded myself to schedule a few counseling sessions. It was not an easy journey of recovery.
You Are Not Alone
The reason I am sharing this is to give someone hope. Maybe there’s a lovely friend reading this who is experiencing a similar situation. Maybe it’s parents who are concerned about their daughter’s (or son’s) recent behaviors. Thankfully, my problems were discovered before they could worsen. As someone who has experienced the shame and guilt of having, and hiding, an eating disorder, this is the best advice that I can give:
Be honest. This may be the hardest. Being honest about a struggle with an eating disorder requires much courage and vulnerability. It’s not easy. It hurt everything inside of me to explain to my mother everything that I was doing. All I wanted to do was run and hide from her and the reality I was living. However, success in this battle with yourself—and yes, it is a battle—requires that you hold yourself accountable to someone (possibly a counselor) or maybe even multiple people. Accountability fosters growth. Although it’s hard, it gets easier with practice.
Give yourself grace, liberally. You are not perfect, humanly speaking. You will never be perfect this side of eternity. You are going to make mistakes. You may have some relapses. It’s okay. It’s all a part of the process. The most important part is that you learn from the mistake and continue moving forward. To prevent slip-ups, know your triggers. Know which types of environments (e.g., buffets, parties) bring higher temptations, and which types of foods make it especially difficult for you to practice self-control. Understanding our individual boundaries is crucial, but if you do cross those boundaries, seek God’s grace, and extend some grace to yourself, then get back on track! The key to ongoing triumph over any addiction is the ability to get back on the wagon.
Isolation only intensifies a disorder. Stay connected and involved with those in the body in Christ.
Surround yourself with a good tribe. A support system is vital. God created all of us as relational beings. Relationships were designed to bring joy and encouragement, to bring others alongside of us on both the good and bad days, to both celebrate and cry with us. There will be hard days. You need people who will listen to you vent your frustrations on this journey, who will hug you tight, and then remind you that God is still in control and knows exactly where you are. Since an eating disorder is often a highly personal and private matter, it may be that no one other than a counselor and one or two family members or friends will know. That’s okay. Not everyone needs to know or should know about your struggles; however, it is important that you don’t allow yourself to hole up. Isolation only intensifies a disorder. Keep yourself busy. Stay connected and involved in your friendships, especially with those in the body in Christ.
Get help — quickly. There is no medal for procrastinating to send out an SOS call. When you notice signs and symptoms that may be indicative of an eating disorder, address them. NEDA states that “the chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected.” Eating disorders are extremely complex conditions; therefore, swift professional intervention is often required. Eating disorders are considered a subtype of mental illnesses and should be handled accordingly. Please, do not try to figure it out on your own. Consider seeking help from a professional counselor. Counseling is an effective way to overcome an eating disorder.
Embrace who your Creator says you are. This knowledge is essential and will invigorate everything else in the process of recovery. It is easy to become so focused on an eating disorder and our lack of control over it that we begin to become frustrated with ourselves—thinking of ourselves as worthless and dumb for not being able to “simply” control our eating habits. We know that our body is called to be a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), but we have difficulty caring for it in healthy ways. We may think that God has forgotten all about us. What kind of God would allow you and me to go through such misery? Surely, God can’t love someone who is unable to…. However you finish the sentence, these thoughts are not true.
You are of more importance to our Heavenly Father than you will ever comprehend. He sees those tears you’re crying, and Psalm 56:8 says that He bottles up our tears. His heart hurts when you hurt and feel lost and ashamed yet again. He knows your deepest secrets, your darkest shame, and He still loves you, immensely, unfathomably so. He hasn’t lost track of you amidst all the hiding and sneaking. Remember, He even takes note of how many hairs are on your head (Matthew 10:30), and that number is ever-changing. He cares, deeply. Don’t believe those lies that the Great Deceiver is sowing in your thoughts. Our God is a loving father who does all things perfectly and whose ways are always good and for our best.
The Story is Not Over
“God is going to give you a ministry where you can use this. You can’t see it right now, but He will.” My mother said these words to me that night as we sat on the couch in our living room. She was right; I didn’t see it at all, and I didn’t see an end to the emotional conflict within myself.
Surely, God can’t love someone who is unable to…. However you finish the sentence, these thoughts are not true.
Now, eight years later, I see that again she was right. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 that we comfort others with the same comfort we have received ourselves. It’s true. God often gives us opportunities to use our experiences to help and encourage others; this is just one of the beautiful ways in which He redeems our brokenness. Our stories of hopelessness can become lifegiving to our brothers and sisters. Your season of suffering will pass, and then only God knows how many lives your personal story will impact.
We all are loved deeply. We all are created uniquely. We all have God-personalized plans for our lives, plans that have been preordained by the One who knew each of us from before the beginning of time. No matter how hopeless your story may seem right now, it is not over. The next chapter of hope can begin today.
This article was reviewed by a licensed mental health counselor.