Thursday, March 01, 2012

Admitting A Disorder (More Thoughts on the Body)

On Monday I started talking about a new journey I've been walking with Jesus the last few months, surrounding my relationship with my body, and my relationship with food. I wasn't planning to get this intense this quickly in sharing some of my journey with my body and food, but then I discovered that in the United States, February 26-March 3, 2012 is Eating Disorder Awareness week, and I knew it was time to tell this piece of my story.

Food and I, well, we have a conflicted, love-hate kind of relationship.  I love food, but my body has often hated it.

If you ask my family about me as a child, they might tell you the story of the time my cousin (five weeks younger than me) was crawling around the house, eating a cracker, when I spotted him.  Apparently my immediate response was to follow him, and eat any crumbs or bits he dropped.  I grew up thinking of myself as "chubby" and this fit with the family lore.  There are comments about my love of food, and my weight that were made by male members of my family burned in my memory permanently, causing an ache, and helping me define myself.

Years as a synchronized swimmer meant that I never developed the "I look horrible in a swimsuit" complex that other girls dealt with.  I knew I didn't look great, but I loved the water, and the sport, and, well, you couldn't participate without a swimsuit.  I was comfortable standing in front of a crowd in my one-piece, or teaching a class, while continually aware that my figure was far from the cultural ideal.

It didn't help that the women in my family are tiny.  In case I've never mentioned, I'm the only girl in my generation on both sides of the family, so the women I had to compare myself to were parents, aunts, and grandparents.  My mom's generation in particular is comprised of tiny women.  The fact that as I hit puberty it became clear that my body was a throwback to my grandmother's generation, with, well, curves, did not help.

But mostly, I didn't worry too much about it.  I was continually aware of those extra five or ten pounds I needed to lose, but I spent almost no time on a scale, and just chose not to focus my thoughts there.

My first bout with food problems came in eleventh grade, and it started a pattern that continued for the next fifteen years or so, off and on.  Nearly every day I'd throw most of my lunch away (this after eating minimal or no breakfast), because I felt ill.  It fluctuated, and eventually passed.  (It should be noted that somewhere in those years was the onset of my battle with severe depression, and all the spiritual questioning that came with it.)

I lost probably 10 pounds that year, without trying.  I just couldn't eat.

The weight came and went for the next few years, my ability to eat nearly almost diminishing to nothing during the more highly stressful periods of my life.  I subsisted on cookies, bread, crackers - anything and everything that was loaded with carbs and generally fit into the sweet or bland categories of consumption.  The rare times I was hungry, it was sweets that I craved, and my body wasn't satisfied unless I ate and ate a lot.

It was manageable, though, with more weight gain than loss (though never anything excessive), until I traveled to Malta about four years ago.  When I think back on that trip, and my relationship with food around it, what stands out to me is that the moment the trip became real, the night I went out for a goodbye dinner with my family, I became instantly sick.  I returned home from that meal, vomited unexpectedly, and ultimately ate almost nothing for the next five days.  The first food I consumed was on the airplane.  I also spent those five days begging God to quiet my notoriously picky stomach for the next month or so, knowing that I wouldn't make it through the trip if my stomach and its aversions acted up.  He did, and I ate comfortably (for me anyway!) until the day I boarded a plan in London to return home.

In the months following my return, my life began to fall apart - a process that altogether took more than a year.  Relationships shattered and my emotions shattered with them.  My body couldn't cope.  I spent days and weeks and months fasting, in an attempt to please people, to please God, to bargain my sacrifice for some sort of relief that never came.  Over the course of that year, I lost somewhere between 25 and 30 pounds.  I worried silently about the weight that slipped off without me ever trying, but always silently, because it was nice to have this newer body, this tinier body that people were noticing.  It was a conflicted thing the noticing.  I was sick, ill, broken all the time, emotionally shattered, but my body had never looked better.  I'm nothing if not often described as bluntly honest, and I spent a lot of time that year answering compliments and questions about my weight loss with the honest truth "no, I haven't been trying to lose weight, I've just been really sick."  Ironically, when I looked in the mirror, my body looked the same through my shattered eyes.  I didn't see my waist-line, I saw the tired and sad eyes, the soul that was always out of step.

I was afraid to say it out loud, but I began wondering if I was fighting a new battle with mental illness, this time with an eating disorder.  When someone in my life challenged me specifically on eating habits, on embracing life, I grasped at it, and immediately implemented a strict regimen of meals.  For months I used stickers on a calendar to display the fact that for maybe the first time since I was a child, I was eating three meals a day.  It worked for me, this grasping for control.  The weight loss stopped, and I even gained a little.  I still didn't have to worry about what I ate, since my emotions were still in shambles.  I never said the words "eating disorder" to anyone, though deep down I knew that this was what I was fighting to control.  I'd had years to make peace with admitting that I suffered from depression, but adding other diagnoses to the list felt overwhelming.  I carefully avoided questions from my doctor at annual physicals, skirting the issue of eating habits without ever lying - working the system just so.  And I managed it.  No more fasting, no more excuses to starve myself - just a strict three sticker a day regimen - one on the calendar for each meal I consumed.

I was proud of this success, and I shared it, celebrated it.  I didn't tell anyone about the fears that haunted me.  I didn't tell anyone about how I wondered what would happen when my body would again fail me by rejecting food.  I didn't talk about and tried to ignore the fear of waiting and expecting another of the usual onslaught of a week or so where food would just not be an option.  I just forced myself to eat those meals, and celebrated with stickers and with pride every little milestone - a day, a week, a month, three months, six months - I had this under control, or at least that was what I was telling the world.

After life finally seemed to hit bottom, I spent some time with a friend who rather forcefully (though gently) pushed through my objections to seeking professional help.  I found a therapist and began the work of piecing a life back together, but I never mentioned the challenges with food.  After all, I still had them under control.  I may not have had an appetite, but I didn't have trouble eating three small meals a day anymore.  I still craved mostly sugar (likely the calories my body simply wasn't getting), and indulged those cravings.  My weight had stabilized - I wasn't gaining, I wasn't losing.

And then, somewhere in the process of therapy, Jesus and I started talking about medication to help my ongoing battle with depression and anxiety.  I never wanted to admit that need.  I wanted to do this on my own terms, and admitting a need for medication felt like a failure.  Feeling defeated, but convinced this was something Jesus was inviting me to try, I landed myself in my doctor's office and described what I'd been dealing with.  She listened, addressed some of my fears and concerns, and then handed me  a prescription.  I started taking it about nine months ago now.

Medication in combination with ongoing therapy has made all the difference in the world in my emotional, mental and spiritual health, but it highlighted my issues with food in new ways.  When I started the meds, I spent a week in bed.  My body reacted strongly to this sudden onslaught of chemicals it had learned to live without, and the period of adjustment was rough.  I didn't eat that week, lived on 7-Up (the only thing that sounded good, and the only time in more than 10 years that I'd been able to drink a carbonated beverage), and slept for hours and hours at a time.  The next month wasn't much fun.  The nausea passed, but my appetite was gone, and I was back to forcing the issue with eating.  My fears were back in force, as I felt my carefully controlled world slipping.  And then? A month in we adjusted the dosage, and on the first day of the new dose I woke up feeling truly good for the first time in probably five years.  I didn't look back.  My appetite was back in a real way for the first time since high school.  I ate anything and everything, without considering consequences.  My body didn't seem to be changing, so I didn't worry.  I wasn't battling the nausea I so often had with emotional stress.  I was HUNGRY, and that was huge.

Except that last November I tried on a dress and it didn't fit.  A couple more incidents over the holidays landed me on a scale, and I discovered that the medication and appetite had had consequences.  I'd gained 25 pounds, because I'd never learned to manage my eating habits.  They'd been broken so long that I didn't understand the way "normal" worked.

And that has left me here.  Today I'm saying out loud that I have an eating disorder.  Not the typical kind you think of, but there is unhealth in relationship with food, and I think that this is something that's important to say out loud.

As the new year began, I came up with some goals for handling my newfound appetite, and for losing some weight, and I'll talk about those in posts to come, but today, in this week where awareness of eating disorders is being raised, I'm going to say it out loud - I suffer from a mild eating disorder.  And in the invitation to say that out loud, in the invitation of that honesty that I've felt from Jesus over the last couple months, I am finding freedom, and a renewed invitation to heal.  I am finding healing in the new ways I'm managing my diet, and I'm finding freedom in not needing to fear my body.  And I'm going to walk through some more emotional healing, starting by reading this post to my therapist the next time I meet with her, and inviting her to help me work through this part of my life as well.

So, again, I invite you to journey with me, but today I also feel Jesus smiling at each of you, offering his presence in these journeys with our bodies, and with food.  Offering healing and His delight in each of us.  Offering to let us step more fully into the light.  Won't you step into this in your own journey today?


Merissa said...

thank you for writing this, Lisa.

Anonymous said...

Proud of you, LP. I know you know that.

For going to counseling all that time ago now, for this bold blogging (as much as I hate that phrase thanks to you-know-who) - who'd have thought there'd come a day you'd mention the eating/food issues, Malta, counseling, and medication on the blog - let alone all in one post!

Love you.

lois said...

You are walking this journeying beautifully Lisa, thank you for sharing your heart. Blessings, Lois

Anonymous said...

Thank you for telling your story and for being so honest, Lisa. It's amazing to read how Jesus is guiding you through your journey to healing!
A friend of mine who was struggling with anorexia once told me, that it's important to repent and say to God that you're sorry for what you did to your body (his creation) and saying that you need help to see yourself as God sees you. A long way to go, but so worth it!!
It makes me really angry and sad to see all the young (and also older) girls struggling with their self-image and eating disorders because of the body image that the society/media/men,... are saying what they have to look like... I know a song with the following lyrics (don't know, who wrote the song) and it really spoke to me in my teenager years and still does:
"You have made me in your image, and you saw that it was good. Help me Lord to live this image, and walk in your ways as I should. Though I know I will do wrong, when I'm weak, you always will be strong...."
I hope you understand what I wanted to say... ;-)
Have a wonderful weekend!

Lisa said...

Thanks for your encouraging words, ladies. I'm glad to have you all along on this journey.