Thursday, September 3, 2015

Learning An Eating Disorder

We’re now heading back to school. It’s a precarious time, especially for young people off to their first encounters with adult independence, known as college.  During this time, eating disorders can start to occur.

91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”

25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders, Incorporated:

Used with permission.

Like anything in life, it is possible to learn how to have an eating disorder. Young people, especially in a college dorm or apartment setting, can learn and even teach all manner of eating disorder behaviors. It can come disguised as weight management, self-improvement, coping strategies, competition or achievement. I bought into those disguises myself. But, I believed the eating disorder was harmless, innocent and within my control. I discovered, however, that it wasn’t. It doesn’t announce itself, nor give you the horrible consequences of its presence in your life. It’s slower, more gradual and sinister than that.

“For precept must be upon precept…line upon line; here a little, and there a little.”

Isaiah 28:10

No, eating disorders don’t happen overnight; it often takes years of subtle thoughts and beliefs which, added up, one day manifest as a full-blown crisis. For me, a childhood and adolescence of being “the fat girl,” on diet after diet, indeed, finally took a more destructive turn once I hit college.

And it is precisely this time of year which reminds me of my own education with my eating disorders. I discuss it in my book, “Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder,” which chronicles my metamorphosis from mere dieter to eating disorder sufferer.

The following excerpt from my book highlights some of those subtle sign posts as I, unfortunately, learned how to have an eating disorder.

 “The summer after my senior year of high school became my ‘put up or shut up’ summer. As I prepared for college, I had a lot to prove—to myself, to the haunting jeers of classmates, to the boys who had not been asking me out. I had to prove that I was a worthwhile, beautiful girl. During my entire adolescence, I had been the fat girl, the ‘good friend,’ the funny sidekick to the beautiful girls. But that would all change this summer. So I started another diet. At eighteen, I’d had years of failure at diet and exercise programs. But this time I was determined—determined to re-invent myself for my new life at college…

…I drank diet drinks that tasted like chocolate-flavored chalk. I started exercising on a stationary bike, a real bike, and a mini trampoline. The exercise sped up my success. I started losing weight and keeping it off! I felt exhilaration and power. I started exercising an hour every day, pedaling on my bikes or jumping up and down on the trampoline to music in my family’s basement.

            For the first time in my life, people appreciated my body, my looks. People now referred to me as ‘tiny’ and ‘cute.’ People were now coming up to me, saying things like, ‘Keep it up,’ ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and of course, (with a happy smile on their face) ‘You’ve lost weight!’ I’d had years of people complimenting me for my talent, mind, ‘good personality’ and ‘sense of humor,’ but these new compliments were intoxicating! …For me, being thinner qualified me to be loved and accepted by others…I could step on a scale, fully dressed, including shoes and a coat, and only register 120 lbs.

            Each comment, lost pound, and lost inch gave me more of an incentive. As I lost weight, I found myself always in need of a new goal. If 115 lbs. looked this great on me, why stop there? I eventually became convinced that death—at least the look of starvation—was beautiful...

            …Ah, at long last, control over something in my life. I couldn’t control who loved me or what was going on in my family, but I could control this! I could control my body! And soon this control did turn into something I’d hungered for, craved my entire life: power, power in the beauty, the newfound thin beauty I was discovering. College would be a new beginning for sure, I thought. I was the Sheryle I always thought I wanted to be.

            Competition grew between me and any thin girl or woman. Mirror, mirror: I had to be the thinnest one of them all. It was life or death importance, anything less than that was unacceptable. Gaining any weight, whatsoever, meant failure, simple as that.

            So, to keep going on my quest for perfection, a thin body deserving of love and approval, I increased the amount of exercise and decreased what I ate...

            …And as I studied myself more and more in the mirror, I felt that the weight, the fat wasn’t coming off quick enough.

            What I didn’t realize at the time was that my eyes and mind were incapable of seeing anything but a distorted image. Each time I looked at myself in the mirror, all I saw was a fat baby picture of me with fat arms, legs and double chin. I’d spent most of my young life being that photograph. I’d do whatever was needed to make sure that it wasn’t the case now…

“A sound heart is the life to the body: but envy is rottenness to the bones.”

Proverbs 14:30

My 120 pounds became 115, which then dropped down to 110. I could feel my hip bones, and it was uncomfortable for me to sit in chairs. But I was succeeding. That’s all that mattered. And besides, I wouldn’t go too far. I’d stop when I was satisfied. Yeah, when I was at my “right” weight, then I’d stop. After all, I was in control.    

            Soon 110 pounds gave way to 100 pounds. I was great. I was fine. I had to wear two or three layers of clothing all of the time just to keep warm, but it was a small price to pay, right?

            Then the comments started to change. Instead of the usual, ‘You look great,’ I started getting more questions like, ‘Are you okay?’  ‘You’ve lost weight’ was now said with a concerned look and worried tone, not a smile. I started getting the question, ‘Are you eating?’ A former high school classmate who had been anorexic became concerned. Within a span of four months, she approached me three times and asked me if I was anorexic. I defensively denied it each time. She terrified and infuriated me. Did any of these people asking these dreaded questions understand that they were trying to wreck everything I’d been striving to accomplish? I made up my mind. They were my enemy. They were trying to stop my success, my victory. But I wouldn’t let them. I intended to keep going.

            One hundred pounds dropped to ninety pounds. By this time, I wasn’t feeling so hot at all. I was constantly freezing, now wearing three to four layers of clothing, despite the fact that it was a hot and humid mid-July. I was ‘feeling worse,’ but believing that I was ‘looking better.’ At ninety pounds, my skin was crepe paper and just hung off from my bones. It didn’t have enough muscle tone or fat to support any kind of shape. Of course, I saw this as ‘fat flab.’ I started losing hair in patches at my temples. My teeth were thinning, the enamel wasting away. I could count all of my ribs. I still wasn’t thin enough; it wasn’t good enough. I looked at myself and all I saw was the fat girl: disgusting, unworthy, not perfect or lovable…

            …I was determined to reach my perfect weight goal of eighty pounds. At this point, I felt shame. Guilt increased every time someone questioned me. I was ashamed. I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I still kept going. I had to. Progress—just a few more pounds, then I’ll be done...

            …Every morning, my heart and pulse would pound and race. I could feel throbbing from veins that were sticking out on the backs of my knees and the crooks of my elbows. Every morning, I would stand up, shaky, dizzy already, only to then have everything go black. And then, I’d wake up, lying on the floor. Passing out was now a regular part of my day…I was hiding, feeling nothing but fear and shame.”

And that was just during my freshman year! Little did I know, in the years to come, I’d also learn and struggle with other harmful lessons, including bulimia. Again, these weren’t lessons I expected to ever learn. But, unfortunately, I learned them all the same.

…line upon line; here a little, and there a little.”

Isaiah 28:10

Eating disorders didn’t just stop at my appearance and weight. They also wreaked havoc on my mind and spirit. I never planned on that either. I thought, naively enough, once I reached my goal, I could drop the eating disorder behavior and have no residue left on any part of my life. Nope.

Indeed, one of the most damaging effects of my eating disorder development was the wrong perception of God’s view of me. My eating disorders and “not good enough” mindset rendered me damned, hopeless, and unlovable. It has taken years to recover from that. God has restored and helped me see Him, myself, my body and life in healthier ways.

I’m now a Christian woman, years into my ongoing, imperfect recovery process. My relationship with God has been vital to my recovery. I’m now learning about God’s love for and acceptance of me, regardless of performance or appearance:

“…Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.”
Jeremiah 31:3

“For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand…Fear not; I will help thee.”

Isaiah 41:13

“I have chosen you and have not cast you away.”

Isaiah 41:9

As I’ve grown in both my recovery and my faith, a quote about sin, often mentioned in the Christian community, to me, describes the harmful descent of learning and living with eating disorders. Feel free to insert “eating disorders” wherever the word “sin” appears:

“Sin will take you further than you want to go, make you stay longer than you want to stay and cost you more than you want to pay.”

I understand that not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder. But, I personally liken the dieting activity to a game of Russian roulette. By playing with that diet, which can potentially develop into an eating disorder, you may find yourself in a place you do not want to go.  

But all hope is not lost; there’s God. He’s been my spiritual answer to the spiritual problem of eating disorders. It’s as simple as asking for help.

“Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise.”

Jeremiah 17:14

And God’s response?

“‘For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds,’ saith the LORD...”

Jeremiah 30:17

Whether or not we’re in school, this “back to school” time of year, in addition to learning about treatment, recovery and the eating disorders themselves, let’s also learn about God’s love, healing and hope for us! It doesn’t need to happen all at once. It can, indeed, be, like Isaiah 28:10 says:

“…line upon line; here a little, and there a little.”

Copyright © 2015 by Sheryle Cruse


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