21 May 2014

Life More Abundant

I was 16 when I found out there are websites which promote anorexia.

even if the one person is yourself

Girls (and the rare boy) called these websites "pro-ana." They shared "thinspiration" images: slim, high-cheekbone girls with swaying hair, calorie-limiting diet plans and words which cut the mind more than hunger ever could.

I was shocked by these websites, to say the least. Once over the initial shock, I was determined to change the lives of these people who had let eating disorders become the focus of their lives. I would bring them hope. I would show them there was more to life. I would save them from their problems.

It was one of the more naive plans I've ever concocted. You can't go into the thick of battle without armor and expect not to get scratched. Not long after I made my "heroic" decision, I began to catch my reflection in the mirror a little more frequently. I ruminated on what I had eaten on a given day. I would think my jeans far too many sizes too large.

Like many life-changing things, I found myself in the middle before I knew I had begun. I started by skipping or severely limiting meals. No calories in, no calories to worry about getting rid of, right? However, you can't just skip meals all the time without consequence. So I found myself tearing through the the pantry, grabbing handfuls of whatever snack was closest. Part of me urged, "Yes. You need more. More. More!" while another part of me pleaded, "No. You shouldn't be doing this. Just stop. Stop. Stop!" It wouldn't take long for the guilt to settle in. When it did, I would be on the floor of my room doing every imaginable ab exercise, researching tricks to lose weight more quickly and making plans to only consume 300 calories the next day.


I knew enough to know that my actions weren't healthy, but it was like I switched off that "smart" side in my mind in favor of confusing my body. Why did I need to be reasonable when other people seemed alright enough who were in my same situation? We all knew it was wrongmaybe we even prided ourselves in still being able to point that fact out because we weren't completely "lost." We could somehow get away with not really having a problem, especially for people like me, who didn't have the obvious physical signs. I could always say I technically wasn't anorexic because I was at a "normal" weight. I could always say at least my throat wasn't burned up from forcing myself to vomit like some people did.

It was a bizarre justification system I worked with, but it worked for me. Anyway, it worked until one time I found myself in the bathroom ready to put my fingers down my throat, one voice in my head saying, "Do it" and another saying, "Stop." Until this point, my "purging" had only been through exercise: I was afraid of throwing up and hated to be sick. Forcing myself to do so was always out of the realm of possibility. Now, however, staring down the toilet as if it could bring me salvation or destruction (maybe both), that switch in my mind flipped back. 


I retreated to my room, asked a friend if they weren't too busy for a hang out (before I could convince myself to back out) and, not long after, walked out the door. As we drove around, I opened a purple folder full of my own "pro-ana" paraphernalia: those oh-so-inspirational images, diet charts, lists of "good" foods and "bad" foods.... I tried to explain why and how I'd gotten to this unbelievable point in my life, almost not believing the words I was saying. How did I get to this point?

She was unbelievably kind and tactful in her responses to what I imagine was my own hysteria. We talked, she brought me home making me agree to call her whenever I needed and we met with the pastor of our church later that week. At this meeting, he urged me to look through Scripture and note how it said we should treat our bodies. The first verse I found was: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Way harsh, right? In one way, I felt guilty reading these lines. How could I have treated myself so poorly when I am supposed to be a temple of the Holy Spirit? I should make myself a good place for God to dwell. I should respect what He has given me. Why despise such a gift? In another way, I was floored. How incredible that God could want to be with us so closely. Of course, the thought of our bodies being a temple for God is even more exaggerated when I think of the Eucharist...

The next verse I found restored my hope greatly. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17) [St. Paul's pretty much a genius with these letters to the Corinthians, no?] This verse became my favorite verse, which I recited to myself whenever I was tempted. I had taken a wrong turn, but God, by granting me some crazy amount of undeserved grace, was bringing me back. I could offer Him all of my self-centered thoughts, self-deprecating words and self-harming actions and He would give me life. I could be new because of Him.

Over time, I worked to re-wire my brain. I threw away all the images I printed off. I blocked the websites I had frequented. I made myself think of the things for which I was thankful. Very slowly I told others about my experiences, maybe to serve as a warning, maybe as "proof" to say I at least partially understood someone else's situation, maybe because sometimes I just needed to talk to someone.

In at least one way, having had this experience was good for me: it encouraged me to study psychology, to understand why and how people think, to learn how to actually be of help to someone. In other ways, it remained a struggle. After months of counting each and every calorie, I could accurately estimate the calories in nearly anything I ate. It took a long time for me to not automatically start calculating whenever I had a meal in front of me. I made myself quit counting as a penitential act during Lent of 2011. I wasn't even seriously considering Catholicism then. I'd gone to Mass a handful of times by that point and when I heard the real point of "giving stuff up" (making sacrifices which bring you closer to God), I knew what I needed to give up. I continued to stop counting even after Lent and haven't counted since then.

So what's the deal? Am I officially cured?

I certainly wouldn't say that. I experienced emotional breakdowns at college which came from bottling up my thoughts and worries until the only thing left to do was burst. While I never faced serious physical problems with my eating disorder, the psychological effects were very much present. I think the psychological effects are worse: they can pop up unannounced at any moment. If I let myself get to a certain point, I will get that "nagging feeling" in the back of my head, a serpentine suggestion to eat too much or eat nothing at all, as either route can kick-start the old routine. While I am sometimes able to tell the minuscule voice to mind his own business and back off because I have no time to entertain such thoughts today, thank you very much, other times I need the help of someone else to tell me I am better than this. Every time, I try to remember that Someone has much better things planned for me.

J.K. Rowling, smart lady that she is, once said: 

"'Fat' is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.
Is 'fat' really the worst thing a human being can be? Is 'fat' worse than 'vindictive,' 'jealous,' 'shallow,' 'vain,' 'boring,' or 'cruel'? Not to me..."
Not to me.

Maybe you're one of these young girls I met on those websites. Maybe you're older. Maybe you aren't even female. Maybe you're worried about your weight. Maybe you have bigger life issues that are just too stressful right now to handle, so you've found a coping mechanism, like some of my psychology courses said you do. Maybe, like some of the other courses I took said, you are more disposed toward these thoughts because of your genetics and now you just have to work with the hand you've been dealt. Maybe other people are telling you you aren't good enough, directly or indirectly. Maybe you've been compared to other people for too long. Maybe you're making those comparisons yourself. Maybe you just wanted to help some people but you got yourself stuck instead.

Whatever the case is, living a life depreciated by a psychological disorder does not need to be the end all for you. You don't need to listen to the voice that says "more" when you're in the middle of a binge. You don't need to listen to the voice that says "do it" when you're facing one of your biggest fears. You don't need to keep quiet about this disease because "technically" you "don't count." You don't need to keep quiet about this disease because of your shame. You aren't alone.

The statistics once said 10% of teen to mid-twenties aged girls suffer from an eating disorder (I'm thinking the stats are a bit worse now, but that's only a hunch). The best way to start the healing process is to tell someone. You don't have to tell everyone you know and you don't have to go into all the gory details (you can if you want).


What you do need is a support system. You need someone to tell you that you are valued and that value comes from more than a number on a scale or a measuring tape. You need someone to tell you that you do not have to wrestle with your mind while pretending everything is fine externally. You need someone to tell you that you are so loved. You need someone to tell you that you will never be truly happy by your current method of comparison. You need someone to tell you that being healthy is pretty.

Maybe I am that person. I do hope you have someone better than I am to tell you all these things, but if I am the only one... I suppose that's another part of the hand you've been dealt. ;) Maybe the help and hope I tried to give to several people years ago is for a single person reading this blog right now. There is so much more in store for you than the anxious thoughts, the impulsive actions and the rotten seed of guilt in your stomach. There is so much more in store for you than this hurt. There is so much more.

"I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly." (John 10:10)

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