She was so thin that friends were telling her she would die. After collapsing in the middle of the street, she began to really believe them.
I went on my first diet at 14 at the suggestion of a friend who noticed I had gained some weight. I honestly had never thought about my weight or really looked at my body critically prior to this point because my family had never put any kind of an emphasis on body size or weight. I figured I could try anything for a week.
And thus began my descent into the dark world of eating disorders.
Don't know when I decided that life would be better
If I was in control of it
But I went on a journey, and I didn't know whether
I would ever return from it.
It's not that going on a diet will necessarily cause one to struggle with an eating disorder. The thing is, though, that was the result in my life.
I don't have many memories of what it was like having an eating disorder in those first few years. I hadn't yet realized that everyone else in the world wasn't as focused on food and weight as I was, so I didn't take much note of what I was dealing with. It seemed to me, with all the dieting advertisements and bone-thin models and actresses, that most women probably spent their days as I did: obsessing about what they would eat next and when they would eat it and how much of it they would eat and whether or not they'd gain or lose weight as a result of that eating experience.
I think my eyes were really opened when my dad's girlfriend found me passed out on the kitchen floor shortly after I graduated from high school. I was very thin and very sick, and I was beginning to realize this was neither normal nor healthy. I think it must have been she who introduced me to the few books that had been written on the topic of eating disorders at that time. I became particularly intrigued by the concepts of compulsive eating, getting in touch with your hungers (whether they be physical or emotional) and the anti-diet movement.
As a result of what I learned from the anti-diet movement, I began to eat whatever I wanted whenever I was hungry. However, there was a problem with this methodology: I thought I was hungry all the time. As a result of this, I gained 50 pounds during my freshman year of college. Now, some of that was definitely weight I needed to gain, but some of it definitely wasn't, and I went from being too thin to being too heavy. I stayed at that weight for about a year, at which point I got into an unhealthy relationship and once again descended into the downward spiral of weight loss.
This became a pattern for me. I would become very physically ill, and decide I should eat again. I'd gain weight, be happy temporarily, get myself into a situation where I couldn't handle my emotions, freak out, and stop eating again until I passed out. And then I'd eat again.
This cycle continued through two years of college, two years off from college, and the summer leading up to transferring to a music school in Boston. Once I had moved, I sought help. The doctor I saw didn't take me seriously. Years later, I read my medical chart, and he recorded "patient claims to be anorexic — seems dubious." There I was, standing in front of him at my lowest weight ever. I was thin, but not skeletal. I rarely ate, and yet I didn't meet the strict criteria for anorexia nervosa.
Since that time, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has a new category of eating disorders for people like me; it's called ED-NOS, Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. My healthy body weight is on the high end of what the medical charts deem as "normal." In order to be diagnosed, one's weight needs to be less than 85% of that seemingly random number on the chart. I came pretty close, but not close enough to be taken seriously.
Over the course of my eating disorder, I would see four different therapists who were specialists in eating disorders. I saw many doctors, dieticians, nutritionists and nutrition therapists. I tried group therapy, Overeaters Anonymous, religion, "self-help".... At one point, I think I owned 95 percent of the books ever written on eating disorders. I tried almost everything, and none of it provided any permanent help.
It began oh so slowly and I tried to ignore
That I was so caught up in it
But I realized so quickly like never before
That I couldn't escape from it
I came to the point where my body just couldn't take it anymore. After over nine years of off-and-on starvation, my body was ... hungry.
When you don't eat for long periods, your stomach is empty and growls. Eventually, your brain overrides your stomach, and instead of feeling hunger, your brain causes you to think about food all the time. Suddenly, you find yourself ordering a meal at a restaurant, only to remember you're trying to have an eating disorder. It's too late at that point, and you have to do something with this food in front of you, so you eat it, trying to figure out how you will live with the food you just ingested.
My inner monologue went something like this, "I should throw up — but I'm studying to be an opera singer; I can't possibly throw up! How could I ever do that to my voice? Besides, throwing up is just disgusting. Maybe I should take laxatives." This is a perfect example of how illogical my eating-disordered mind was. Though I couldn't fathom ever forcing myself to throw up (oh, how disgusting), taking handfuls of laxatives seemed like a perfectly logical alternative.
So I started taking laxatives, up to 30 a day, and became sicker than ever.
In a sense, I was one of the lucky ones. I actually started to believe everyone when they told me I was too thin, that I was going to die. I didn't want to die. Didn't want to gain weight, either, NO WAY, but I wasn't ready to die. I already felt dead. Every day that I woke up, I was surprised that I was still alive. Every day that I walked around in this world and made it home in one piece, I was shocked. I didn't want to die, but I knew that I should have collapsed a long time ago.
I would walk by a store window, catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection and be completely shocked. I couldn't believe that was me. And if that image was indeed me, how was I still standing? Why was I still roaming this earth?
And I remember a time when I woke every morning
Crying "Why am I still alive?"
I should have died long ago, but my heart didn't know
What it was really striving for
I distinctly remember a day in late December of 1998. I was walking down the street, enjoying my thin body, and I said to myself, "I could live the rest of my life like this." Five minutes later, I was doubled over in pain in the middle of a busy street because of what the laxatives were doing to my insides.
This happened to me all the time, but for some reason, the absurdity of my thoughts just minutes before suddenly hit me. That's when I knew something was seriously, seriously wrong. Not only would I not be alive for long if I continued with my behavior, I had convinced myself that what I was doing was OK. I was in trouble.
I had often wondered, during that 10 years of struggling, what I was really hungry for. There was some hunger within me that I could not satisfy WITH ANYTHING, no matter how hard I tried. And it came to me that I was hungry for love. But not just any love. I was hungry for a relationship with my Maker. A real, vibrant relationship with Jesus.
Thus began a long and difficult search for spiritual fulfillment and health.
When I finally accepted Jesus' help in my life in January 1999, my struggles did not end. In fact, they continued for over three more long years as I continued the pattern of losing and gaining weight, despite working hard with a Christian counselor.
This period ended with a major relapse in the fall of 2001 that continued into 2002. A dating relationship I was in was growing more serious, and we began to talk about marriage. I don't know if that was partially to blame for this final leg of my journey toward self-destruction — as if deep in my heart, I knew that if I were to get married, this had to end. I knew I couldn't be fully present and really give myself to another human being if I also held onto my dysfunctional relationship with food.
Yet down I went. I fell hard and fast, and people noticed. I continued to go to therapy and wouldn't allow myself to fall past a specific point. After four or five months, I decided enough was enough. I told God that I was finally willing to truly give Him control over everything — my life, my relationships, my eating, and even my weight. Absolutely everything this broken woman could offer. I had done this many times before — "surrendered everything to God" — but this time was different. This time I knew there was no turning back. It was now or never. Now or never.
Sometimes I found myself holding on so tightly to my disorder, so afraid to surrender it to God because that would bring me to an uncertain path. The pain of my eating disorder was awful, but it was a familiar pain. I knew what to expect with that dysfunction.
But as I more fully surrendered my eating disorder and my life to God, I didn't know where that surrendering would take me. Instead of trusting in my eating disorder and the pain and hysteria I had come to know and cling to, I had to trust that God had something so much better for me, whether or not I could see it at the time. It was terrifying ... but also an adventure into the unknown.
As I held on to nothing, You offered me something
That I'd never thought to ask for
And when I deserved nothing, You gave me everything
That I'd ever needed and more
Five years have passed, and I now consider myself 99 percent recovered. There are other former struggles in my life that I no longer even think about, but I can't say that completely in this case. I no longer consider starving myself, taking laxatives or diet pills, or doing anything else to harm my body in any way, but I still have an occasional piercingly negative thought when I look in the mirror. The difference today is how I react to those thoughts. If I catch myself thinking, "I could stand to lose a few pounds," I am quickly able to set aside that thought — because I'm just not willing to put myself, or my loved ones, through the insanity of what it would take to go down that road again. In fact, sometimes I chuckle to myself when I do have those thoughts because the truth is that the idea of trying to lose weight is not even remotely appealing to me.
God has given me back my life. A life that I had given up hope on. Not only did He protect me from death during all those years, He has now instilled in me a peace and joy that I could never have had if I had held on to my eating disorder.
He has shown me that true surrender, full surrender, is truly worth the risk. When I opened up my hands before God and released those things I thought I couldn't live without, when I came to the end of my rope and surrendered this broken life into His care, what He gave me in return was abundantly more than I could ever dare to hope for.
* * *
Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.
Copyright 2008 Brenna Kate Simonds. All rights reserved.