When I was 18, I spent a year as an exchange student in Italy. That year I developed a life threatening eating disorder. People who haven’t experienced an eating disorder often respond, “It’s your own fault. Why should I feel sorry for you?” You shouldn’t feel sorry for me, but there are a few things you should understand. I was:
- thousands of miles from home. Learning the language and adapting to the culture was exhausting.
- severely depressed. It’s hard to say which came first, but the depression and eating disorder fed each other.
- in a relationship with a boyfriend who was on medication for an eating disorder (I didn’t find this out until it was too late)
- ostracized and mercilessly teased growing up, so I never had a healthy self-image
- already struggling with rejection after being abandoned by my father.
- in a culture obsessed with (and infamous for objectifying) the female body. Every conversation, every print and broadcast image, and all the “advice” I got reminded me of how I didn’t measure up.
It was a perfect storm. I lost the ability to see my body as it was. Even though I could do the math, and I could see the way my clothes fit, I reasoned there was still weight to lose because there was still fat on my frame (much of this “fat” was muscle that had atrophied and was being digested by my body). Different bodies respond to starvation differently. Some swing to the opposite extreme, bingeing in an attempt to find balance. Others adapt to scarcity as the new normal and implode on themselves. I imploded. Once you pass the tipping point, you can’t just decide to eat normally again. Your body won’t let you. Portion sizes get smaller because they too are distorted by your emaciated brain. Tablespoon size quantities of food grow before your eyes until you fear they will consume you. Your shrinking stomach can handle less, and you have no energy for digestion. Ironically, the ketones released by the body when it’s burning muscle deliver a burst of energy. Reality is flipped on its head: you feel exhausted when you eat and energetic when you don’t. More than just feeling energetic, you experience a feeling of buoyancy. And power. It’s addictive really. But you can’t sense the danger, because you can’t see your body accurately. And it’s not just perception that suffers; every system of the body is severely impaired. Your brain, heart and other organs all lose mass. Then there’s the hunger. That gnawing ache was the only constant in my life. I remember lying in bed some nights feeling my body metabolize itself. I honestly believed I would die in my sleep if I didn’t get up and eat something. Even then I couldn’t. Eating was somehow more terrifying than the thought of dying. Even years later, I still felt that gnawing every waking hour. Loved ones would hear my stomach growling and say in exasperation, “Just eat something!” But they didn’t understand. Nothing I ate would be enough. I was a yawning chasm that couldn’t be filled. So if you know me, maybe some things are starting to make sense:
- The way I sing so passionately about the banquet in heaven
- The emphasis I place on nutrition
- The way I wince when someone says, “You’re lucky to be so skinny”.
This isn’t a ploy for sympathy. This is where I come from. I share it as a reminder not to judge where someone is until you understand what they overcame to get to this point. What have you overcome? How have you been misunderstood? I’m alive today as the result of miraculous healing, but I’m not unscathed. When Jacob wrestled with God, God blessed him… and left him with a limp. I’ve wrestled and been blessed. Here I am, limping toward abundant life.