Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Story 3

As the last submission for the week, I thought that this story had a great message to end on. Eating disorders can feel like mountains that are impossible to climb, but as someone who has recovered, the view from the top makes all of the hard work worth it.

Many emotions are surfacing as I sit down to catalog the unfolding of the last few years.  Writing about my disorder demands honesty and introspection--two things I don't always feel comfortable applying to one of my biggest secrets.

Several years ago I was on a study abroad in the UK.  At the time I was really out of shape, meaning, physically incapable of doing much.  One day, our group set out to scale the one of the highest peaks in Scotland, Ben Lomond.  At base camp I was certain I wouldn't make it.  I prepared a list of socially acceptable excuses to quit halfway through: a sprained ankle, dehydration, accompanying another quitter back to camp; reaching the summit was honestly not even an option in my mind.  Well, as the ascent got vertical and hot and windy, my escape plan surfaced as an easy out, but as I looked around at my friends I could see they were struggling too.  Sensing their strained efforts on the same road gave me the courage to be seen panting and gasping and pausing at every switchback.  Eventually I could see the final climb and knew I was going to make it--as sure as I had been that morning of the impossibility of setting foot on that summit--there it was!  In reach!  I huffed up the jagged incline with an energy and confidence I'd never felt before, and when I finally stood overlooking the shadow-dappled valley sprawling long and deep below me, I wept in disbelief.  For the first time in my life, and in a beautifully physical, tangible, calculable way, I could look behind (or in this case, below) me and see a great distance covered--proof of progress--of leaving something far from me and walking toward a greater goal. 

My eating disorder isn't a mountain I've conquered just yet--but I am on my way and tonight as I plunk out my story, I feel much like I did on that mountain.  I can look back and see that despite my doubts and fear about the future, I have come a long ways from where I've been, and that gives me courage to press on.  I hope something in my experience is a thread of connection for someone who needs it.  I'll begin at what I think is the beginning:

I started gaining weight in the third grade.  I remember sensing my mother's concern at my rounding figure and resenting her efforts to curb my food intake.  I began comparing myself to the slender girls at school.  Soon my weight began affecting my athletic ability in PE; I felt great shame in that and began avoiding physical activity and its accompanying embarrassment.  I'm not sure when but it was around this time my binge eating began.  I ate for comfort, for entertainment, and perhaps in rebellion.  My weight skyrocketed and my confidence began a downward spiral I'm still in the process of calculating. 

Junior high and high school were particularly painful.  By this point my weight and eating habits were out of control.  My parents took me to concerned doctors and diets were administered, but I never stuck to one.  I ate in secret, I binged at school, at home, probably every day.  I was miserable, but I don't think I was fully aware of how sick I was.  I longed for social acceptance, for attention from boys.  I developed a moral superiority complex around the slender girls at school, placing myself above them by degrading their 'vanity' or their 'immaturity.'  I made them into the classic mean girls in an attempt to make me feel better about my miserable self.  That's had a lasting effect on me and I wish desperately I could undo the damage I authored to myself and my view of others during those years. 

My junior and senior year I got more serious about losing weight.  My parents sent me to a weight loss camp.  I joined the track team (a self-inflicted humiliation that I look back on with great tenderness and self-love; I am proud of doing something hard, physically, emotionally, and socially).  Track season was the first time I ever slimmed down.  The weight came back and by sophomore year of college, I was at my highest weight ever.  Half way through sophomore year I deferred college to serve an eighteen month volunteer mission for my church.  I spent some time at home with my family in the months leading up to it and my mom and I went on a pretty restrictive diet together.  While the diet was effective, I developed an unhealthy relationship with food and became well-practiced in deprivation.  Understandably, the weight loss and the resulting confidence gave me a high that was hard to come down from.  I left on my mission determined to continue my weight loss, no matter the cost. 

Over the next year the weight slowly came back.  When I recognized this I snapped into a control mode that scared me.  For so many years of my life I had no self-control whatsoever, but in those few months at home I had replaced my addiction to food with an addiction to weight loss and the lengths I went to in my rebound were scary.  I began purging--something I had never done before and I got very good at it.  In a very short amount of time I lost all the weight I'd regained and more. I lied to everyone around me about what I was doing.  I was deep, deep in self-deception, refusing to admit to anyone, let alone myself what was going on. 
By the time I went home I was thinner than I had ever been.  These habits continued and intensified as I began dating my future husband.  During our engagement I lied about the obvious weight loss and secretly engaged in purging, restricting, and more.  What I didn't see then was how transparent the situation was to everyone around me, especially my fiance, and how hurtful it was to him that I not only refused to share my struggle with him, but that I lied about it too!  Not a recommended way to begin a marriage. 

Dress fittings sucked me into dangerous depths of deception and self-abuse.  On my wedding day I was smaller than I had been for decades.  I'll say it again, it was a high.  An unstable, self-consumed high.  To his everlasting credit, I married a man who cared enough about me to call me out on my lies and destructive behavior.  Those first few months of my marriage were full of painful conversations and realizations about what I was doing and the damage it was breeding.  That was the beginning of honesty.  For me it was hard.  I wasn't ready to give up my desire to be thin.  I felt justified in chasing a dream I'd been deprived of for my whole life.  But soon the charade caught up with me and I was forced to give up my secret vices and tools one by one.  Sadly this surrender wasn't by choice.  I wish I'd had the courage and the love for my husband to trust him with my struggle without being caught in lies first.  But slowly I let the walls be knocked down and then with his encouragement, I sought help in a recovery group for women with eating disorders. 

I remember hearing some of the women speak about being on the other end of recovery.  I scoffed at their evangelical testimonies that they were totally healed-completely free of the chains of the disorder!  I knew better. This monster will haunt me for the rest of my life--sure I might learn to hide him away in a closet and eat and be healthy, but you can't kill him.  You just can't.  Well, I was wrong.
As I attended meetings and grew in humility, I began to believe that recovery, in the truest sense, is possible for me.  I saw a genuine light in the eyes of the recovered women I befriended.  I began to trust the confidence they exuded and became willing to abandon my fears and faulty thinking.  Hope came pouring into my life. 

I'm still insecure about my body and their are days I fall back into old patterns.  But I've been blessed by the influence of amazing souls who point me to my true identity and worth.  I am surrounded by true beauty:  it is not perfection or idealism.  It is the love that redeems and values broken things, making them whole.  I'm okay with my imperfections; I'm in the process of embracing them, and the miracle of it is that as I do, I become better able to embrace others as they are.  I guess that's joy of ascending out of the lowlands of personal struggle--for we all travel those dark and lonely valleys, whatever they may be.  Climbing out and up gives us a perspective that can cheer and strengthen others--to see their potential and love them in their low places. 

I'm a better person for working through this challenge.  It's given me a chance to look myself square in the eyes and conquer demons in the darkest corners of my heart.  It's bred compassion and charity for others.  I'm happier for separating counterfeit beauty and enduring beauty. Life has become very bright with hope as I climb to higher ground.  

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