Eating Disorders Kill, But Relationships Heal

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Fall 2009

Charlotte: Five years ago, the story was much different. Numbness and deprivation had drained my body of life, and vacancy replaced life in my eyes. Every night, I would pray that my heart would keep beating another night. I was spiraling into darkness, snowballing so fast that I wondered when and where I would crash. I eventually did crash, and landed on a ranch in Arizona, of all places. I had no hope but also nothing to lose by giving hope a try at residential treatment.

Janine: For over twenty years, anorexia had been the albatross around my neck. I had attended a long list of hospitals and treatment programs that seemed like one failure after another. As a last chance to evade death, I exchanged the towering evergreens of the Canadian west coast for the Arizona desert. My thoughts were jumbled in a fog of starvation and self-hatred. Anorexia had promised me everything, yet it had left me barely existing.

***

It sounds like the beginning of a bad, if not odd, joke. So this Canadian and Michigander walk into a ranch in Arizona… We, the writers, Janine and Charlotte, would never have met outside the confounds of one specific time and place: residential treatment for our eating disorders in 2009-2010. While our backgrounds were very different, in nationality, interests, and phases of life, we did share the same desperation for something better than living in the torture of anorexia. So we, along with others in our program, embarked on a journey that involved nourishing ourselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically. We cried with one another but also laughed and read books for pleasure. We ate pie on Thanksgiving and talked about identity and God. It wasn’t easy, or remotely close to easy even, but we healed together. We could see the tangible changes in ourselves. We could feel that we were no longer lifeless bodies anymore. Leaving treatment, we had hope again.

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Christmas at treatment 2009

Five Years Later:

Janine and Charlotte remain best friends. In many ways, our lives are so different now, now that we are less marred by our eating disorder scars. We are no longer treatment friends: we are just friends. We enjoy having adventures together. We have gone ziplining in Whistler, British Columbia (much to Charlotte’s terror/ chagrin) and to Disneyland (twice). While 1000+ miles separate us right now, we are intentional in maintaining our relationship through the wonderful development of Skype. Our eating disorders left us hopeless and incapacitated, but slowly, sometimes at a snail-pace, we have found freedom. In our respective ways, we want to help others out of their struggles within our spheres of influence. We would never have chosen to meet how we did or have anyone suffer in the ways we have, but we would never have changed the fact that out of the living hell of an eating disorder, an amazing friendship blossomed.

janine and i recovery

Charlotte: Treatment was a beginning of a new life chapter for me; not one filled with rainbows, unicorns, popsicles, and the end of all struggling forevermore, but one filled with real emotions, thawing, pain, and joy. In treatment, I felt unconditionally accepted and loved during one of the worst points of my life. I never believed that anyone could love all of me, even the ugliest parts. The abundant love and grace I received helped me emerge out of deep shame so I could deal with the factors that had led to my eating disorder in the first place. In the last five years, I moved across the country and then back to the Midwest and somehow earned two master’s degrees in the meantime. Although I still struggle with eating disorder behaviors at times, I believe there will be a day when that won’t be the case. I am so blessed by loving friends (such as Janine!) and a therapist who deserves an honor. I couldn’t be on this journey without them. Relationships don’t inherently heal eating disorders, but support is an integral part of recovery. While I wouldn’t wish my wild, roller coaster journey onto anyone, it is my story, and I am thankful for the beautifully chaotic mess. It is my story to own and love.

Janine: I catch myself once in a while realizing how different my life is now. A moment during work when I can’t believe I’m back doing what I love. I’m able to bring energy and enthusiasm to my job working with children that I couldn’t possibly have done when my eating disorder ruled my mind. I don’t think twice about eating cupcakes with my little nieces or laughing with friends over dinner. I am no longer numb and terrified all the time. I’m able to feel the amazing and wonderful parts of life and no longer attempt to dissolve into oblivion when the guaranteed challenges arise. Recovery has not made life perfect for me, but I am able to make plans for my life that I never thought possible. Nothing about recovery has been easy but I know it has been made easier by my unexpected and unlikely friendships.

50 Shades of Disordered Eating

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Marya Hornbacher writes, “I look back on my life the way one watches a badly scripted action flick, sitting at the edge of the seat, bursting out, ‘No, no, don’t open that door! The bad guy is in there and he’ll grab you and put his hand over your mouth and tie you up and then you’ll miss the train and everything will fall apart!’ Except there is no bad guy in this tale. The person who jumped through the door and grabbed me and tied me up was, unfortunately, me. My double image, the evil skinny chick who hisses, Don’t eat, I’m not going to let you eat. I’ll let you go as soon as you’re thin, I swear I will. Everything will be okay when you’re thin. Liar.”

This week marks the National Eating Disorder Association’s annual awareness week, and the theme this year is, “I Had No Idea.” Fourteen years ago, I didn’t know anything about eating disorders. I was creating dances to Five for Fighting songs, eating Mackinac Island fudge (it’s a Michigan thing), and reeling from loneliness alone in my room.

I knew that I was miserable, that I needed middle school to end. I knew that there was a void that hours of studying a day and my endless quest to be good enough would not fill. There was a hole in my heart, and I believed that if I could fend off my age-appropriate weight gain, maybe I would feel better inside.

What I did not know is that starting on a seemingly harmless diet would turn into a rabbit hole of misery that would continue into my late 20s. I did not know that my personality traits, perfectly suited to anorexia’s grip, genetics, and my social context would culminate into the perfect storm that would change me so much, so fast, that I barely would recognize myself.

I have a picture of myself on a Florida beach on my 13th birthday, my eyes squinting at the sun. I am rocking a one piece turquoise suit, and I look… happy. I wonder if I could talk to that 13 year old now, what I would say. I wish I could hold her hand and tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about overeating at the breakfast buffet the next day. And that middle school is horrible for a lot of people. Far too many raging hormones and mean girls.

Just 2 months later after I turned 13, I have another picture of myself in a state of complete starvation. I still thought I was “fine” at that point, but my eyes tell another story. They are vacant and lifeless. My life had changed drastically as well. My Saturday morning choreography sessions had shifted to compulsively reading cookbooks and taking naps from starvation fatigue that zapped away all my energy. I was drifting farther and farther from reality.

Over a decade has passed since my eating disorder’s initial onset. I have been through more than 50 phases of restricting, bingeing, and overexercising. Here is the difficult part– I am extremely hesitant to mention the specific behaviors that I’ve done and the abuse I’ve put my body through, because I don’t want to have anything be a “how to” or trigger.

I’ll let’s put it this way: my eating and exercise over the last decade and a half has been a play in the theater of the absurd. I’ve done figure 8’s with my cyclical behaviors and manipulated people and reeled in physical pain. There have been compulsivity, vegetables, and bizarre safety foods. Revelation of the remaining 47 shades can be left to one’s imagination, or preferably, dismissed entirely. The details are irrelevant, really.

The end result has been pain for me and others… financially, relationally, physically, spiritually.

I wouldn’t have put the last 14 years onto anyone, even my worst enemy.

Sadly, I did not receive adequate early intervention for my eating disorder. Instead of hearing about eating disorders in my health class, I learned about nutrition from my liposuction, weight-loss obsessed nutrition teacher. In gym class, instead of hearing a single thing about eating disorders, I was subjected to public weigh-in’s (can we just all agree that those are shaming?).

When my eating disorder was in its infancy, I saw a therapist who stared at me for the majority of our sessions… awkward for both of us, I’m sure, and definitely not therapeutic. I lied outright to my first (okay, first few) dietitians. My doctor told me I would be sick for the rest of my life.

That is why NEDAW’s 2015 theme of early intervention is near and dear to my heart (take a free screening for ED’s here).

I implore you: take this week to educate yourself about eating disorders. You never know who you know who will thank you for the information you have. And I’m not just talking about learning only about anorexia and bulimia… read about binge eating disorder as well! It was only just “officially” recognized in the DSM-V, but it still lacks recognition but is more prevalent than anorexia and bulimia, and it can be very dangerous.

The bottom line is this:

Eating disorders are not sexy, enviable escapades. My stomach hates me (despite my profuse apologies to it), I have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be here and alive writing to you today, I am constantly at risk of relapse, and I can no longer remember a time when I was completely normal about food because I’ve lived longer with an eating disorder than without it.

Early intervention and education are so important. I wonder still if I were 13 right now reading these words, taking an online screening, and hearing about eating disorders in health class instead of liposuction… would things have been different? Would I have had fewer years of suffering?

I don’t know. But I will do anything I can to prevent others from going down that road.

Nobody wants 50 shades of disordered eating. I mean how much more horrible (and less sexy) of a movie would that be? I would not see that movie. I have lived that movie. And it sucks.