You can be going along, perfectly fine, and then WHAM, it sneaks up behind you and clubs you over the head, and the wound is fresh again. Tonight I found myself blindsided with grief for a dear old friend. We were supposed to raise our babies together and grow to be snarky old ladies. We were going to be the Golden Girls. I miss her so, but I thought I had entered Acceptance. Then tonight out of nowhere, I felt that same gut punch as if the loss had just happened. And in my hurt, God sent a friend with unexpected words to comfort me. This friend was a beacon of hope in my hour of need, a reminder that life goes on and old hurts do heal.
I still wore make-up off and on. Still restricted, but not as severely. The eating disorder still lived in me, but no longer controlled me. I stopped trying to win the unobtainable prize.
A few months after I graduated the outpatient program, I went off of the antidepressant. I got a job that I enjoyed, started dating, and regained most of my privileges. I generally liked my life. A while later I got an internship in my dream career with my target company and took off across the country. Finally, I moved on with My Life, whatever that was.
The internship required a lot of hard physical labor, so naturally my appetite matched my activity level. So I ate. And ate, and ate, and ate. I savored every bite without giving my figure much thought. Food was fuel, and I needed lots of it to work. It was the healthiest time of my life, physically and spiritually. I found a local church and attended regularly. I joined prayer groups, faithfully did devotions, and served the poor. And God began to touch me, teach me, heal me. When the internship ended, I returned home a new woman. Though I still experienced unhealthy thought processes, I lived out a healthy relationship with food and exercise for the first time in my life. Since then I have had a couple of relapses, but nothing close to a full-blown disorder. Right now I’m in a pretty good place and have been for about a decade. I try to eat a reasonably healthy diet, but I allow myself treats sometimes and don’t feel bad about them. I still have an occasional slip-up. Eating disorders are kind of like alcoholism; I will always be “recovering” and will have to remain vigilant for the rest of my life.
The greatest healing came only a few years ago when I got pregnant. For the first time, I loved my body. I felt like I looked “normal” for the first time. I had a perfect little bump, and all the wonders of pregnancy gave me a whole new perspective on my body. I had already landed a husband, and while he found me attractive he certainly didn’t marry me for my looks. I had a beautiful birthing experience and my self-worth, self-respect, and respect for my body skyrocketed. I felt like a rock star. Now, I have saggy, stretch-marked breasts; a saggy, stretch-marked stomach; and stretch marks in places I never even knew one could have them. After subsequent pregnancies, even my stretch marks have stretch marks! And I love them. I love my body. It made the most amazing little people, and it STILL turns my husband on. Through my wonderful husband and the way I see my own children, God gives me glimpses of how He sees me. How He loves me. Through counseling, adulthood, my marriage and motherhood, I have begun to learn about real emotions. My children are allowed to feel whatever they feel and to express those emotions appropriately (ie, in non-violent ways). I still have great difficulty expressing my own needs and emotions, but parenting my children is helping me to learn.
I liked my shrink. He seemed trustworthy, but I didn’t trust him. I couldn’t trust anybody. In our sessions, I held back. He put me on an antidepressant, which made me feel either flat or saccharine-happy all the time. Like plastic.
Most of my treatment consisted of group or class-type therapies. I felt so out of place in group. I was the youngest member, and my peers were SO much more messed up than me (in my mind, at least). Some came in during the day like me, others stayed at the facility. A twitchy bipolar woman kind of scared me. A big older man in recovery from drug addiction did too. But I liked the others well enough. I still wonder about them from time to time. I felt like God had placed me in that group to help the other people, the really messed up ones. I didn’t make much personal progress in group, didn’t talk about myself very much. But I brought my meager offering of compassion and God’s love. I hope that in some way, I did some good there.
My favorite part of the program was art therapy. I didn’t have to talk about hard things, I just got to express myself freely in a way that made sense to me. Some days we did directed projects with themes or a specific medium, but most of the time we had access to any art supply we could possibly want and could create freely from the heart. I worked some things out in art that I couldn’t express verbally.
My therapist was a pleasant older lady. Through her gentle, knowing questions, her shocking compassion and understanding, she became a maternal figure in my healing. With her I went deeper, but still held back. Inside of me I held deeply disturbing things that no one could know about. I pushed them deep down, a little ball of hurt in a dark corner of my soul. Those things belonged to me, to pull out alone in the dark of night, to consume. I knew my survival hinged on confronting the eating disorder, but I held tightly to anything I deemed unnecessary to getting out and getting back to My Life, whatever that meant. The skilled professionals on my treatment team did manage to pull a few other hurts out of the darkness, but I “graduated” from the program far too soon.
A thin veil shrouds the twenty-four hours after my stomach pumping (Food for Thought, Part VI). I remember a hazy snippet of green scrubs mumbling something; my parents, crushed, talking to a white lab coat. I signed some papers. Someone tried to explain them to me. What I can piece together follows: None of the private mental health facilities nearby could take me. In my parents’ minds, state facilities resembled giant prisons filled with neglect and rape. Out of the question, the hospital could send me there over their dead bodies. So my parents signed me out Against Medical Advice, into their protective custody and on the condition that I would enter an intense counseling program. I signed papers agreeing not to attempt suicide again and that if I did, nobody could sue the hospital.
I slept a lot over the next few days as my system tried to recover. My parents received instructions on keeping me as safe as possible at home: No internet, no phones, no visitors until my new counselor approved them. No closing the bathroom door. No driving. No preparing my own food. No belts. I found all this ridiculous, I didn’t want to hurt myself. Yes, I took the pills on purpose, but I didn’t do it to die. I don’t know why I took them. No, I’m not crazy (newsflash: I was.)
Mother finally found an intensive outpatient program (or IOP) at a nearby hospital for me. I understood that it looked like I’d tried to kill myself. I needed to jump through some hoops to get my life back. Piece of cake, I thought. I’ll show them I’m not crazy, I’m not going to try anything stupid. It never even occurred to me that I might need to investigate what caused me to take the pills so that it wouldn’t happen again. I pushed the whole thing out of my mind as something that had happened to me, outside myself. I didn’t really do it. I boxed the whole experience up neatly in denial and taped it shut.
I easily complied with all the rules, ate whatever I got. I spent a week or two high as a kite. I read an explanation once that when depression culminates in a suicide attempt, it sometimes resets the brain’s chemicals, resulting in a euphoria-like state. This state can end suddenly, resulting in another attempt, or wear off gradually. By the grace of God I experienced the latter. I felt kind of like a happy robot for a long time. I could do what I needed to without much thought or personal responsibility. Run the program. Jump through the hoops. No thoughts of what I’d do with the rest of my life after, just comply. Go with the program. Get life back, whatever that meant.
How fitting, I thought as I entered the cold, gray facility that cold, gray morning. The lobby seemed cheery enough: pale yellow walls and burgundy carpet, green chairs, art, cheery lighting, plants and polished wood. Large, beige steel doors with skinny windows, metal mesh between the glass panes. A card reader and number pad beside them. Looking through the doors, I saw a cold gray hallway with sterile tile floors and white hospital chair rails. People in wheelchairs, slippers, and drab robes, pushed by sterile white orderlies. Fluorescent lighting. I didn’t want to go there. It looked like the kind of place that eats you alive and never spits you out. I shuddered and looked away.
The receptionist looked pleasant enough. She smiled sadly at me and handed me a clipboard with several forms on it. Some of the questions confused me. Eventually I got through them all and returned them to her. I sat down and waited. Studied the billows of my giant white tee shirt over my stomach and sweat pants. Studied my shoes. A man with a clipboard came and called my name. He smiled, shook my hand firmly, introduced himself as Dr. Smith. We turned away from the big metal doors (OH THANK YOU JESUS) and went down a long, yellow hallway, around a couple of bends, and finally entered his corner office.
The counselor was a petite woman dressed very conservatively, but I remember the color of her shirt really brought out her eyes. She had frizzy hair and wore no make up, but was attractive nonetheless. Every once in a while, you meet a person who you can practically feel love and compassion radiating from, filling the room like exquisite perfume. This woman was like that. She just shone. And she had such concern in her eyes. It was beautiful, and it terrified me, because I knew that there was nothing I could hide from someone like her. The Holy Spirit’s presence is so strong with people like this, if you can manage to lie to them it breaks your heart while you are doing it and the guilt eats away at you. You feel as if you’ve defiled something pure. They are just so filled with love and genuine goodwill towards you, and their sincerity is completely disarming. She asked me a few questions, gently, kindly. I answered honestly, heart pounding and sweating, without making eye contact. We set up the time for our first session.
In the days leading up to our session, my inner monologue changed from very controlled and demanding to one of great fear. I desperately wanted to cancel and just disappear, pretend it never happened. But I knew the memory of the counselor’s overwhelming care for me, a total stranger, would haunt me. And I knew I had to get better or die, but I wasn’t ready to relinquish my perceived world where I was DOING something, making a real difference in something. I was accomplishing something real in my body, and I liked the euphoric feelings I got after a “good” work out, or when I’d pushed my body to the limit and begin to black out. I was addicted to starvation. I didn’t know myself without it, or how I would fill my time. It was what I was best at, and hiding it gave me as much of a high as doing it. And I was terrified of getting fat, being seen, having to participate in society. People were cruel, and I wanted nothing to do with them. People let you down, but my highly structured routines and rules remained a constant for me.
The morning of our session, I woke up in a near-panic attack. I gripped my phone, staring at it, willing myself to call and cancel. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I cried. And then, a strange sense of acceptance washed over me. I went through my morning routine with a small remnant of anxiety, wondering when it would change, how many more times I would go through these same motions, and what my mornings would be like after, if I survived. I waited until the last possible moment to walk out of my dorm room, and slowly walked through the cool Autumn air to the health center.
My anxiety increased with each step. I walked in, signed in on the clipboard, and sat down to wait. My heart was pounding. I wanted to leave. And then, out she came with a folder in hand. She smiled, we shook hands and walked back to her office.
She showed me to a very small room. One wall disappeared behind two floor-to-ceiling bookcases, each stuffed with books. Her desk chair, when she pulled it out, sat inches away from the shelves, and my chair was close to her desk, right up against the back wall. Thankfully the room had two large windows (covered with sheer curtains for some privacy) to help keep the space from feeling so claustrophobic. The windows made it kind of cozy.
We spent the first session just getting to know each other. She told me a little bit about herself and her background. I liked her more with each thing she told me, and against my will began to trust, just a sliver. She had some dry questions for me just to get a feel for where I was right then, I’m sure they were partly to determine if she could treat me or if I needed medicinal aid from a psychiatrist, or even hospitalization. She asked about some behaviors and thought patterns, the severity, and the duration. Some of the questions were difficult, but they were really just facts. We didn’t really get into “the hard stuff” that day. I left somewhat relieved, appalled at the things I’d revealed, anxious about the repercussions, yet with a small sense of freedom that the first part was over.
The second session was kind of transitional. We did some clarification and filled in some details based on the results of the first session, but we also started to get into the roots of some of my thought patterns and behaviors. Slowly, my eyes began to open. I learned things about myself and my background that day, shocking things. I left the session in a daze with a lot to process. I walked around in an introspective haze that week, and entered our third session with curiosity. I only felt anxious about what I might learn about myself and my past.
After several sessions, I began to live with a small sense of liberation. I was able to enjoy some small parts of life and truly see and experience them for the first time, or at least the first time in a long time. I gained some tools to deal with some of the thoughts and patterns. Some of the disordered behaviors began to loosen their grip. But then, something went horribly wrong.
Every crumb that entered my body consumed me. Every morsel occupied my entire mind before it entered my mouth. Every calorie crowded out the important and the mundane. Every bite required atonement. To live was death. To think about anything real was pain. So I stayed hungry and focused on that. I thought about what I could see and touch: my legs, my stomach, muscle definition and hair and what I could pinch and where and how much. I believed somewhere deep inside that if I could just shrink down small enough, I’d be invisible. And if they couldn’t see me, they couldn’t hurt me. If nobody saw me they couldn’t punish me for crashing through glass walls. Not my parents, not my peers. If only they couldn’t see me, they would just leave me be.
Clinical anxiety is largely misunderstood by those who have never experienced it. An undercurrent of anxiety ran through my consciousness every waking moment. When I had nothing to worry about, my brain would find something. As I went through puberty, the changes in my body became an easy target. I was an early bloomer, and so went from a socially awkward child to a socially awkward adolescent who stood a head above her peers and whose developing breasts were, therefore, at eye level for her pubescent male peers. I went from being a target who could hide behind her books and stay out of the way, to a giant target with acne and frizzy hair with nowhere to hide except in giant tee shirts and hoodies.
I obsessed about my weight and measurements. I weighed first thing in the morning, then over and over again throughout the day, before and after anything I thought might affect my weight by even an ounce. I measured various parts of my body morning and night, and replaced my tape measure frequently in case it stretched out with use. I studied nutrition, gleaning everything I could about what nutrients we require to live and what different ones did. When I ate, I ate things that I thought would not make me gain weight (this was of course the most important criteria), that would help me not starve myself into blindness or hair loss, things that were supposed to be good for my skin and nails and kidney function. I had an extremely strict, very limited diet and all kinds of tricks to stick to it without being found out. I had a trove of tricks for staving off hunger as long as possible and distracting myself from the pangs.
I tried to induce vomiting a handful of times, but no matter what I tried I physically could not do it. I’d gag and gag, but never could get anything to come up. So I gave up on that traditional method of purging and turned to over-exercising instead. I’d sneak in reps of different exercises throughout the day whenever I could get away with it, in addition to my regular after school session and my more private, secret hour-long session before bed. I researched the most effective ways to burn calories and fat. Towards the end of middle school and entering high school when I had been suffering from this disease for several years already, I got careless. I was finally making some friends, and some of them began to suspect and to worry. So I had to reevaluate some of my strategies. If I was making friends and spending time with them outside of school or church, that left me with less time to sneak in exercise and more encounters with food to navigate my way through. But I found that as I began to make some real friends, missed sets and reps bothered me less.
I would read about actresses and supermodels who were taller and thinner than me and think dammit, why can’t I get below x weight and y body fat? I’m just not working hard enough. I don’t have enough self-control. I’m not a REAL anorexic. But I realize now, I just am not built to get that thin. I have hips and broad shoulders, and no amount of diet or exercise will change your bone structure. But even when I could feel my bones, even when some of my unrealistic, unhealthy goals were met, it never satiated. It was a competition, I was losing, and that was unacceptable.
Those friends I mentioned earlier, the ones who began to worry and suspect, they accepted me and liked me for who I was. They were real friends, my first. God used them, among other things, to begin to rebuild my shattered self esteem. Through those friendships, He began to show me His love. Some of the goals, preoccupations, and lies began to slip away, just a little bit at a time. When I went away to college, the health center offered free counseling. I’d known for about a year that I needed help, but I had no way to get it. In college, away from the stresses of home, I found the courage to finally begin the healing process.
I grew up a total Daddy’s Girl. He was big and strong and fun and smart, and he gave the best hugs. I wanted to be just like him. He’d rough house with us, but I always felt safe with him. My Daddy would never let anything bad happen to me. I’d watch him and emulate the way he sat, stood, walked, even his posture when we rode an escalator. I would do just about anything to spend time with him.
As I got older, he spent less and less time at home. He and my mom separated sometimes, and he would still come play with us after work, but then would go wherever he was living after we went to bed. As a child I didn’t understand. I knew that I missed him terribly when he was gone. I found out sometime in my teen years that he had struggled with addiction since before I was born. He left to protect us. Sometimes someone from his community of dealers and users would threaten his family, other times the drugs made him paranoid. For years, he kept the drugs from my mom.
My great aunt taught my mama how to go to war in prayer. They prayed that any bed but his marriage bed with my mother would feel like a bag of rocks. A couple of the times when he moved out he asked her if he could take their mattress with him because he couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep anywhere else!
Near the end of my childhood, he stopped coming home to see us every night. This was new, and I hated it. I felt angry and confused. When I asked my mom where he was, she averted her eyes and made excuses. Sometimes we’d go nearly a week without seeing or hearing from him. I needed my Daddy. I began waiting up for him, sometimes falling asleep in odd places. One day, something happened at school and I really needed to talk to my dad about it, but I didn’t know how to reach him. It had been a few days already since he’d come home, so I hoped all day that he would show up that night. He didn’t. I was crushed. So I wrote him a note. I told him what happened at school, and how much I needed him there to talk to me and help me through it. How I missed him. I poured my little heart out into that note, and solemnly gave it to my mom, asking her to give it to him if he ever bothered coming back. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I handed her that pink envelope.
Since the letter was for my Daddy, I never thought that she might open it and read it first. At her desk she sat, weeping over my words, my hurt, late into the night. In the morning she called him and read him my letter, barely holding herself together as she felt my pain meet her own for the hundredth time. Where her tears and begging met with stony resistance, seeing the pain he had caused his daughter was too much. He came home that night and stayed for a couple of days. Then, he gathered us all at his knee and told us that he had to go on a trip. He didn’t know how long he would be gone, but he promised to call every day and send postcards and letters when he could. My sister and I cried and begged him to stay, but he said this was just something that he had to do and that when he came back, he would see us every day. I believed him. I was willing to part with him again for a while if it meant getting to be a real family again.
For my dad’s “trip,” he spent a couple of days detoxing on the couch with the one “clean” person he felt he could trust. The detox nearly killed him before he finally gave in and let his friend take him to the hospital.
I remember visiting him in rehab. I didn’t like it there. It felt like a weird hotel, not a home. It bothered me knowing he had to sleep there. And I didn’t feel like we could be ourselves there. I wanted him to come home. But Daddy was sick, and this was a special hospital where he could get better. When we visited him, he’d read to us or we could play cards or board games with him. I liked that, it felt more normal. As time passed, he seemed different. I remember feeling hesitant and unsure about the changes I saw in him. Some days, he seemed sad and didn’t talk much. He’d be distracted while we played. Other days he was much as he’d always been, just my happy, fun, big strong Dad. But even on those days, something was definitely different.
I remember the day he came home. It felt like a dream, I was so afraid I’d wake up and he’d be back in the hospital. I wanted to never stop hugging him. But he was actually home, and he never left us again. He’d hit rock bottom and found Jesus waiting to pick him up. He started going to church with us, and soon we got baptized as a family at the church that helped my mother pray him out of addiction without even knowing what exactly they were battling.
My dad doesn’t know how to do anything half-way, so when he met Jesus he dove into the relationship head first and immersed himself in the Bible. After a few years, he felt the need for a solid Biblical education, so he went to divinity school and became an ordained minister. Now, he is my “go-to” guy for questions about the Bible and theology. He and my mother are deeply in love and devoted to one another. They’re that sweet older couple you see still holding hands in public, teasing and grinning at each other like a couple of teenagers. They’ve been that way, with surprising consistency, for over a decade. My dad has ministered to countless addicts over the years, some in prison and some on the outside. He’s performed several weddings and been a guest speaker in churches in three different states, telling his story. As a family, we have seen so many prayers answered, so many miracles. I hope to share many of them with you soon.