My Eating Disorder Didn’t Mean I Wanted to Die (I Just Wanted to Stop Living)

“I learned that my eating problems were a feeling problem. I had feelings I probably couldn’t understand as a young lady, so I ate them. Or, as it were, I didn’t eat them.”

Initial Descent

I was 14 and going in to the 9th grade. A friend from church – a “good” Christian girl — gave me some Teen magazines. At the time they were the most innocent of their kind. I had never looked at any before, and I distinctly remember a pop in my mind. Something shifted inside me, though I didn’t know what it was.

At the same time my parents got a stair climber. I tried getting on the stair climber to see how I did. I was really out of shape. I had never been athletic, and I had spent most of my time with books. But, being the good first-born that I was, I challenged myself to increase my time on that machine. It didn’t have anything to do with weight loss, as yet.

I had never ever before in my life thought about my body size, anything about my appearance, or about what I ate. But as I started to exercise every day, I did start to lose weight. Beginning at 110 pounds and 5 foot 3 inches, there wasn’t very much to take off. So very quickly I got very skinny.

After I started to lose a little weight, I started reducing what I ate. It wasn’t planned, it just seemed natural. I’m not even sure I knew I was obsessed, until I was OBSESSED. Eventually I exercised an hour a day — which if you’ve ever used a stair climber, you know is just insane. And I was still making straight A’s in school.

Because I reduced my food intake slowly, and because I was still eating at regular intervals, I didn’t realize I had a problem. I also didn’t feel incredibly hungry. I only remember a few times of hunger, and although I remember not liking it, the thought never occurred to me that I could solve that discomfort by eating.

I was determined to lose ever more weight. Why?? It’s not like there was fat on my body. I thought I had to be always losing weight, or else I was gaining weight, which was unacceptable. I thought my thighs needed to be concave and have space between them. I thought my cheek bones, and rib cage, and collarbone needed to be protruding from my skin. I thought any layer of fat was evil.

Lowest Point

My mom didn’t know I had lost a dangerous amount of weight till she saw me changing clothes sometime in December 1995. I think my lowest weight was after Christmas time, hovering around 90. Scary, I know. I can’t even imagine it now. Mom took me to a doctor. All that doctor had to say was, “You need to gain weight, or we’re going to have to do something about this.” What she would do, I didn’t know. I had visions of being taken away somewhere.

Of course I knew about eating disorders; we had learned about them in school. I knew about Karen Carpenter. But when an eating disorder happens to YOU, you don’t think about it as a rational choice. However, being the perfect people-pleaser that I was (ahem, perfectionism was part of my problem in the first place), I decided I would follow orders. I would eat. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I would eat, because I didn’t want anyone paying attention to me like that. It was too humiliating. I didn’t want anyone to know I had problems of any kind (ahem, perfectionism).

Starting to Gain

I was depressed as I started gaining weight. I felt like my life was over, and I wanted to die. I never wanted to kill myself; I just wanted to stop living. My whole life was tied up in that number on the scale, although at the time I couldn’t have explained why, and I still can’t explain why now. My mom was there for me during that time and hugged me a lot, but she couldn’t fix my sadness.

As I lost weight, I stopped menstruating. Probably October was my last period, a very light one, and although starting in January I ate, and ate, and ate, I didn’t menstruate again till May. I was still underweight at that time, but stable, about 105.

Although the physical danger had passed, my struggle was just beginning. I went overboard when I received instruction (or was it permission?) to eat. I hadn’t eaten in so long, so I let myself eat. A lot. I had a lot of rules about which kind (low-fat, non-fat, and sugar-free, blech), but I wasn’t particular as to amount. I couldn’t seem to stop myself. Then I would vow not to eat again for some set amount of time – it was a very unhealthy pattern.

Isaiah 52:4 describes it this way: “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them.’” It really felt that way, and I found oppression in both places. I went down into Egypt, a land of LACK, but then I went into Assyria, a land of LUST. I loved to eat, and I struggled with my love of food for many years.

I counted calories religiously for years. On paper at first; later I was so skilled, I could do it in my head. Even if I ate what I thought was too much, I still had this compulsion to know the amount, just so I could feel miserable about it. Incidentally, now, I couldn’t count calories to save my life. I can’t remember how, nor do I want to.

For years I couldn’t pass a mirror without analyzing and criticizing parts of my body. Now, I often pass mirrors and think little of it. But it took me years to get to this point – over a decade. Too much time in front of the mirror was bad for my mind. And the fashion magazines were bad for me. I think our brain paths get trodden again and again when we view magazine images, when we criticize ourselves in the mirror, and when we replay negative thought patterns. So it took years of concerted effort not to believe the lies about what I “should” look like.

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Most of my teen years were obsessive in both eating and appearance. In my 20’s my food and body image issues started loosening their grip. In my 30’s it’s even better. Most of the time I don’t even think about this stuff. Yes, I bloat sometimes. Yes, I sometimes eat too many helpings or too much dessert. But I feel normal. Normal weight, normal desire for food, normal even when I overeat. I’m pretty balanced in eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full, and my worth isn’t tied up in my eating or body image anymore.

Relapsing

I’d be lying if I said I never starved myself again. 9th grade was a dark year. I don’t even remember much of what I studied in school. Then 10th grade was a happy, sunny year. The 11th grade was dark again. I’m not sure what triggered me, but I started losing weight again, and I was too skinny again. (I don’t remember numbers this time, maybe below 105?) I do know I skipped a couple periods. I can’t even remember if my mom noticed, or why it stopped. I do know I don’t remember much from that year either.

The 12th grade was better again, happier. I remember thinking I was getting fat again after the first semester, and I started losing weight. I think I may have skipped a period. I can’t even remember what happened next, but I started eating again. Then when I went to college I gained weight – just your average “Freshman 15.”

I got married in college, and my weight was pretty stable after that. I was happy with my life at that point, though l was still dissatisfied with my weight. The dissatisfaction was just something I lived with during those years. When I gained a lot of weight with my first pregnancy, I had to work really hard to get it off again – but that’s what I would call normal post-baby stuff.

I had my second baby only 19 months after my first. With two babies back to back, I was tired of feeling always fat and pregnant, and I lost too much weight. It was very cold and calculated. I never let myself get into a legitimately low BMI. I controlled it “perfectly.” I wouldn’t have admitted I had a problem; I could only see it in retrospect. Later, when I wanted to get pregnant and couldn’t, I had to admit I had a problem (again) and gain a bit of weight.

Reflections on Recovery

I no longer feel a tug of war between Egypt and Assyria. It took many years, but I feel healed. In that time, I’ve read a lot about eating disorders. It’s so vast and confusing, such an individual journey. That said, here are some things that helped me – and some things I think could have helped me sooner.

No one talked to me about stopping when I was full. I totally destroyed the hunger/fullness instinct, and I wish I would have gone through the weight gaining process more slowly, so I could learn that sooner. My mom was very kind and bought my special, fat-free, sugar-free food. That’s not necessarily a problem, but I do wish I had better practice from the beginning, in monitoring amount. I think my mom was so nervous about me gaining weight that she didn’t think about that. Focusing more on portion size and fullness would have been helpful to me.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding did wonders for my esteem for my body. I know they don’t help everyone, but for me, what they did was show me my body’s strength and capability. I was afraid of exercise for a long time, afraid it would trigger me back to disorder. But it turns out I need the happy endorphins I get from exercise, and I use it now for its stress-reducing qualities, not for its weight loss benefits.

I had to get to a place where I knew, if I was eating relatively well and exercising relatively frequently, I could be ok with my weight. I had to live in my body a long time to get to that place. I had to know I was loved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, no matter what. And I had to give up some perfectionism (that took years).

I didn’t see a counselor I high school. I think my mom assumed if I gained weight, everything was fine. (I don’t even think I knew what a counselor was back then, anyway.) It was only after my father-in-law died that I saw a counselor, and I think it addressed some of the issues that contributed to my eating disorder. Later my husband and I went to marriage counseling together and addressed even more issues.

I learned that my eating problems were a feeling problem. I had feelings I probably couldn’t understand as a young lady, so I ate them. Or, as it were, I didn’t eat them. Now I understand my feelings so much better, but that takes time — which is why I’m so sad when young girls have eating disorders. They’re not emotionally or intellectually mature enough to understand all their issues, yet they still must deal with this big, complicated eating disorder.

In counseling I also learned I had a perception problem — judging other people, not wanting to be judged poorly myself, wanting to measure up, wanting to earn God’s favor, and everyone else’s, including my own.

Years of life can be good to us, though. They can teach us these things, and we can relax in God. I think resting in God treats more manner of soul sickness than we will ever know. And it’s a peace I wish on everyone, disordered eater or not.

Elizabeth Trotter
After a military childhood, a teenaged Elizabeth crash landed into American civilian life. When she married her high school sweetheart, her life plan was to be a chemical engineer while he practiced law. Instead, they both fell headlong into youth ministry and spent the next ten years serving the local church. When her husband later decided he wanted to move overseas, Elizabeth didn’t want to join him. But now, after three years of life in Cambodia with him and their four children, she can’t imagine doing anything else. Elizabeth loves math, science, and all things Jane Austen. Days find her homeschooling her children, while nights find her eating hummus by the spoonful. Follow her blog at The Trotter Family and visit her corner of Facebook.

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