out of the darkness: eating disorders

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!

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

9 Comments

  • Appreciated reading this interview. While I don’t have an eating disorder, I am not able to exercise without pain as I used to in my younger years. Had an unfortunate fall, busted the knee and had to undergo surgery. Lack of exercise=weight gain and further stress on the knees. Very frustrating and depressing!! A vicious circle! Oh, I’ve always been a big gal, but have loved my body until menopause hit and all the changes happened that come with that. The emotional turmoil to now accept it as it is and truly believe that God doesn’t care what size my body is,- is, too say the least,- difficult. I KNOW that my worth is not based on what I look like, but I don’t believe myself!! I KNOW that there is too much self-focus on my part and not enough on Who HE is. There is also not enough gratitude for all the wonderful things this body of mine has accomplished over all the years – in my family, my church, and my community!! Thanks for letting me share!!

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  • Kathy and Audrey–
    Good advice about speaking to one’s character. I think we should do that with all the people in our lives. We never know when our comments about one’s appearance are being made to someone with an eating disorder.
    Being healthy is wise but as I have recently found out being “healthy” can actually mask very unhealthy behavior. A conversation my 17 year old son had with some of his friends was recently over heard by his older brother and then reported to me. In it my son admitted to being bulimic. For the last four months of school we were fighting to get him through a day without coming home sick or just going to school for part of the day because he was exhausted. (We home tutored him the last month). For years I thought of him as my healthy son because his eating habits at home were so good–fruit, vegies, lean meats. I did not know he was making himself throw up, throwing all his lunches away, not eating when I was not around, and exercising like a crazy person at school (before, during gym, during lunch, after). We’ve talked to him and I think he should probably see a counselor but I am a little reluctant as my experience with counselors 20 years ago was bad and I don’t know how to find a good one. We have also decided to home school (with his complete blessing) next year and probably his senior year as well. Any suggestions or advice?

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  • For me, there is such shame associated with being overweight. With everything, and I mean everything – tv, music, movies, and magazines – screaming at the overweight and/obese, it’s a wonder how we manage to survive at all. Society has told me over and over and over that because I’m fat I have no right to exist. Do the world a favor and stay out of sight sort of thing. And because I hear the message I stay home. And eat. And perpetuate the cycle. Nearly three years ago I summoned all the courage I had and ventured to church to try to alleviate this loneliness. I figured these were people of God. They weren’t perfect either. So I’ll take a chance. Do you know what one of the first and only things someone said to me? They said, “oh, it so nice you came – we can hook you up with our TOPS (weight loss group) class and get you whipped into shape in no time”. Nothing about me as a person. Just the weight. I haven’t been back to church since. I try my best to stay in the fringe so I don’t have to justify my existence.

    I appreciate the truth behind what Audrey says. I wish I lived closer to your church group. I wish there was a safe place for those of us on the fringe of normal. I wish…I wish…

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  • Karin – While you don’t have an eating disorder per say it sounds like you understand the frustrations of food issues. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Minnow – First I must say thank you, as it sounds like you are keeping the lines of communication open between yourself and your son. Talking to him is the best thing you can do. Second, below are a list of resources for you and your son to check out. I know that bad experiences are hard to overcome, but you will need someone who deals with this disorder on a regular basis to help both you and your son through this. I would highly recommend ‘shopping’ around, and make sure that they specialize in treating eating disorders.

    The Eating Disorder Foundation

    http://www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org/
    The Foundation engages in education and advocacy initiatives together with timely support and help in identifying appropriate treatment options for individuals with eating disorders and their families.

    Something Fishy
    http://www.something-fishy.org
    This extensive page provides numerous links and lots of information about eating disorders and body image issues.

    Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center
    http://www.edreferral.com
    Provides links to sites which provide additional information on eating disorders and related topics.

    Gurze Books
    http://www.bulimia.com
    Provides an eating disorders resource catalogue of self-help books, professional texts, and educational videos.

    Eating Disorder Recovery at Poppink.com

    http://www.Poppink.com

    Support, inspiration, education and treatment opportunities for people with eating disorders and those who love them. Contains: recovery issue articles; on line self-help program; DSM-IV-TR; research references; links; discussion forums; employment, internship and educational opportunities; in-patient programs. Q & A.

    The Elisa Project

    http://www.theelisaproject.com/

    The Elisa Project is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes healthy living and awareness of the signs of disordered eating through educational programs and resources.

    National Eating Disorders Association

    http://www.NationalEatingDisorders.org

    About the National Eating Disorders Association The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is the largest not-for-profit organization in the United States working to prevent eating disorders and provide treatment referrals to those suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder and those concerned with body image and weight issues.

    Life Without Ed

    http://www.jennischaefer.com/

    Inspiring, compassionate, and filled with practical exercises to help you break up with your own personal E.D., Life Without Ed provides new hope for the disorders that plague millions of people — regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. Beginning with Jenni’s “divorce” from Ed, this supportive, lifesaving book combines a patient’s insights and experiences with a therapist’s prescriptions for success to help you live a healthier, happier life without Ed.

    Pale Reflections

    http://www.pale-reflections.com/

    Pale Reflections is a complete online community for everyone affected by eating disorders. Whether you are looking for support for yourself, help for a friend/loved one, or simply browsing for information, you have come to the right place. You will find lots of information here on anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder (compulsive overeating), depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and much more.

    Reply
  • sorry for the late responses, had company, been up in the mountains, lots of refuge partying and then got the flu! fun.

    karin – thanks so much for sharing. i connected with what you said about the amount of self-focus that goes into the equation, when weight and food control us. i also love that you recognized all the ways your body has served you well. one of the things audrey has really helped me think about as a friend is how to treat my body well. that is so hard for me. i abuse it and deprive it and then over-do it and am very rarely kind to it. there’s something to that kindness that is worth learning and feels very God-inspired to me…

    minnow – thanks for your honesty, too, and i am glad that audrey responded to this. so much in this area can be hidden. i am glad you are considering what are some good options to keep walking through this with your son, whatever that looks like. his story also addresses that this struggle is not unique to women; i know many men who also wrestle with eating and food issues and there is just as much shame with it. peace and hope to you from afar..

    audrey – thanks for sharing and for these excellent resources, too.

    amy – wow, thanks for your honesty and for highlighting what can so easily happen in so many church circles. the assumptions are just so dangerous and damaging and just make me horribly sad. it is the anti-thesis to God’s unconditional love. the isolation-shame cycle is so hard, and way too hard to do alone but it is hard when the options for community feel scary and risky. thanks for bravely sharing here.

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  • audrey, thanks for sharing. you are so right. it is character and heart that counts. and you, my friend, have both.

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  • As I read this I have to admit I just don’t get it. It is something that I have difficulty trying to put the other persons shoes on regarding.

    Thank you for sharing this makes me desire to understand and be a safe person for those with these disorders.

    As a read this I find myself thinking that such a thing must be the product of a superficial, self-indulgent society that puts so much emphasis on physical appearance and on freely indulging ourselves on the things that we want.

    For me self-indulgence has shown in accumulation of things and of body fat and in the past using women for my own gratification and ego.

    When I’m bored I eat and seldom tell myself no and when it time to eat I eat to much.

    For me its a simple case food gluttony.

    Its strange, but it seems to me that much of the “disorder’s” in society come from unwillingness to say no to anything and yet expecting that there no be consequences for it.

    I could be way of on this, but this is what comes to mind as I consider this.

    I even as a man feel responsibility for this as a I have been know to ogle women who meet societies ideal of beauty and body type and to ignore those who do not.

    Father forgive us/me and deliver us from evil.

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  • audrey thank you for sharing.

    I get it. Being on emotional overload and being so despirate for reprieve you binge.

    I just wanted to be around people again. I be connected with another person spiritually, emotionally, physically. So I set my mind on going to a church meeting.

    Church…the invisible trip wire of bouncing betty’s and IED’s. The PTSD trigger for alot of us who have been spiritually abused. The place I *think* I need to be to feel connected but end up being dismembered and blown apart before I even hit the door.

    I drove about half way there and began melting down. I all the words from the past came rushing over me like high tide on a full moon. I went under.

    Taco Bell here I come! Pulled into taco and ordered 40 tacos. It was the safest place to order mass food to binge on… so many ppl order tons of tacos to bring back to family. (in my mind this is how I reasoned) with 40 tacos as my co pilot I drove five miles down the road to where they sell outdoor sheds on the side of the road. Its a gravel lot with all these outdoor sheds.. you can pull up alongside a shed and not be seen.

    oof.

    I binged. drove home tossing the random taco wrapper out the window so that my crime wouldn’t be so obvious to family.

    I’ve lived like that for nearly 20 years. severely obese now. I refuse to hide with my food behind a shed anymore. There are more people like me that need help. Need loved. Need to know that they aren’t invisible. That abuse is abuse even when its spiritual.

    I’m stepping out from behind the shed and sayin enf is enf.

    How do you deal with it? food is like air. our drug is something we need to live. I have a family with special needs and special dietary requirements… how the heck do you keep from going back? I’ve tried before…but not quite like this. I am determined to change. determined to heal. Determined to take some people out of the hole with me as I climb out.

    Thanks sooooo much for sharing.

    seriously
    thank you.

    Reply

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