I was in another country when I hit my diet rock bottom, but I felt like I was on another planet. Suffering has a way of making us question our reality like that. At the time, I felt like I was in a daze. Sometimes I still find myself questioning the total whirlwind that was my eating disorder, but most of the questions are centered on “how” and “why” rather than “What is happening right now?” or “When will I wake up from this nightmare?”
The biggest question I find myself wrestling with is “How could that have been avoided?” While I don’t necessarily think there’s an easy explanation for how and why I ended up struggling like I did, I do believe that my situation could have looked a little different if my head and my heart were in a different place. And that’s why I’m sharing this story…in hopes that it might inspire someone to think differently about dieting, and maybe to believe differently about who they are. The pit of dieting and disordered eating can feel like a lonely place, but you don’t have to walk the path on your own. More importantly, there is hope for health and healing, and you can find it too.
My struggles with food and exercise started when I was a freshman in high school. I was newly accepted onto the varsity cross country team, and the pressures of a) high school and b) being surrounded by athletes who were developmentally ahead of me was a lot of pressure to handle as a kid. I was also facing some struggles in other areas of my personal life, and the concept of dieting (for health reasons, of course) was both a very welcome distraction as well as yet another way to manifest my somewhat obsessive personality. But the dieting very quickly stopped being about health (if it ever really was) or athletic performance, and instead became about losing weight and being as skinny as possible.
All was fine and dandy for a little while until it stopped being fine and dandy and I was diagnosed with anorexia at 15. By 16 I was “recovered,” which I type in quotations because although I gained weight, I was far from healthy. Ironically, I declared myself a nutrition guru and became obsessed with clean eating and health trends, which really were just a guise for the same eating disorder. My entire high school experience was just a roller coaster of restricting and bingeing, weight gain and weight loss, relapse and “recovery.”
I struggled even more when I went to college, and the only change was that my ups and downs became even more extreme. My preoccupations with food, exercise, and my body interfered with my sleep, my spiritual life, my school work, and my ability to adjust to life in a new city. While everyone else was hanging out or going out to eat, I was going to the gym or going to the dining court by myself to hide what I knew were extremely abnormal eating behaviors. I missed out on both social and professional opportunities, and even lost friendships because of my eating disorder. The sad thing is that most of my memories between age 13 and age 20 are focused on the food I ate and how I felt about my body rather than the people I was with, the experiences I was having, or the plans and purposes that God had for me. All I cared about was eating, working out, and my weight. It made for a pretty empty life.
If moving to college wasn’t enough of a shock to my eating disordered system, flying to another country most certainly was. What should have been an incredible experience and privilege (studying abroad in Florence, Italy) instead unraveled me. I didn’t know a single person I was traveling with, and I was trying to learn a new language at the same time. But that wasn’t even the problem. Everyone else in my cohort seemed to be managing just fine. No—the problem was that my eating disorder came with me. As if it wasn’t already difficult enough trying to make friends, figure out how to pay for groceries, learn a new language, earn college credit, find my way around a new city, and keep myself together, I was simultaneously trying to hide my eating disorder and all the bingeing, purging, restricting, running, and soul-crushing shame that came with it. The jury’s still out on whether or not I actually succeeded in that.
The day that everything changed was just like every other day I’d spent in Italy. I woke up, packed a “safe” lunch (i.e. vegetables) went to class, at some point ended up eating something I felt like I shouldn’t have eaten (or felt guilty for eating) and started panicking about how I was going to make up for it. That evening, my roommates were taking longer than usual to get ready to go clubbing which meant the bathroom was off limits. So, I laced up my sneakers and ran as far and as fast as I could in hopes of burning off the calories in the pasta—or gelato—or wine—or bread—or who knows what it was that day, that sent me into a tailspin.
I don’t remember when I passed out, but I remember waking up in the middle of the night in a pool of my own vomit, behind an alley dumpster in a foreign country, my knees skinned and bleeding, my vision blurry. As you probably could guess, it’s not a very nice feeling. And it was in that moment that I realized how close I was to killing myself. To be honest, in that moment I wasn’t so sure that I didn’t want to die. So I prayed that God would either take my life or change it, because I knew I couldn’t keep living like I was. And in his goodness and mercy, he saw fit to choose the latter.
I can’t recall how I actually found my way home after all that. I think I ended up taking a shower, drinking some water, and crawling into my bed. That part was all a little foggy. But what I can vividly remember is waking up the next morning with a clear mind, and a renewed sense of energy. My stomach was growling, and by the grace of God I felt no fear about it. Instead of eating the “safe” food I’d stockpiled for myself, I got dressed and strolled out to a corner café. That day, I felt like I was experiencing life—and I mean really experiencing it—for the first time. I noticed the brilliant colors of the sunrise, the gentle breeze rustling my hair, the particular smell of the dust sweeping through the cobblestone streets. I ordered a croissant and a latte…who knows how many calories were in it…and experienced more than just the warm chocolate and the delicate cream. I tasted the goodness of God who had chosen to save me from myself and give me a new chance at life. (Psalm 34:8)
Recovery didn’t happen for me in a single moment. But on that day, God worked a miracle, showing me what life could be like without the darkness of an eating disorder clouding my vision and weighing down my heart. It was that moment of surrender that set me free, crying out to God and truly putting my life in his hands. Previously, all I’d wanted was to be thin, and to feel like I was in control of food. But something about passing out after purging behind a dumpster on another continent really wakes you up to the fact that with an eating disorder, you’re not the one in control at all. I admitted my pain and my suffering in that moment, and if all of it was for the sake of a thinner body, it wasn’t worth it. If I was going to keep living, it had to be for more.
And there is so much more to life. It doesn’t have to be about the food, the calories, or the number on the scale. God showed me that when I admitted my brokenness to him, and it gave me the strength and hope to fight for my life. The following months and years of my recovery weren’t all as easy as that first day. But I always had that memory to fall back on when the dieting temptations resurfaced. Equipped with the actual experience of food freedom (and life abundant), I knew what I was working towards and what I was hoping for. Slowly, God redeemed my relationship with food and my body, and I’ve never been healthier or happier. There are exactly zero things that I miss about my eating disorder, and I think that’s a testament to the emptiness of a life centered around trying to fit into a smaller pant size.
This isn’t a story about rainbows or butterflies, and I realize it’s a little heavier than most of the other content on this blog. But I’m sharing it because it’s reality. It’s the truth about how ugly dieting and disordered eating can be, but it’s also the truth about how powerful and gracious our God is. When he chose to put us on this earth, he had a greater purpose for us than just spiraling along on a hamster wheel of calories in vs calories out. There’s more to life than trying to avoid food or control our weight, and that life begins at the end of ourselves.
God, pick up the pieces. Put me back together again. You are my praise!Jeremiah 17:14
I share more about my journey through recovery in my new book, Fulfilled. In addition to my own experiences, I explain exactly how I walk my clients through the process of surrendering a life of dieting and cultivating a healthier relationship with food, exercise, and your body. Fulfilled is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, my publisher’s website, or any online or retail shops where you usually buy books!