Oftentimes I'm still embarrassed to have struggled with an eating disorder. I thought anorexia only happened to teensI was in my mid-twenties with a great husband, steady career, and strong Christian faith.
Looking back, I recognize I had many traits of a typical anorexic. I was compulsive, a perfectionist, and a people-pleaser. As a special education teacher for severely disabled children, I labored to satisfy my supervisors and students' parents.
During my second year of teaching, I got married. Although my husband, John, never had unreasonable demands about our relationship or home life, I expected to become an ideal wife and homemaker. Plus, John and I volunteered for many church activities. Within these roles, I tried to be disciplined, successful, perfect. I never suspected my perfectionism would drain my spirit and impoverish my body.
I was aware, however, that I was eating more, probably because of stress. I'd gained 10 pounds in the 10 months since our wedding. One stressful day, I ate an entire pan of brownies. So I responded to this binge by joining a gym and forsaking sweets. But my perfectionism took hold there, too, as I started exercising two hours a day. Magazine articles that promised "Lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks!" engrossed me. I developed a fat-phobia and forsook any food other than fat-free products. By depriving myself and exercising compulsively, I finally felt in control of something in my life, since I couldn't control how others perceived how I kept up with homemaking, career, church, and relationships.
Soon my weight plummeted. Fearful of consuming more than 1,000 calories a day, I limited my diet to carrots, cereal with water, and lots of liquids to fill my stomach. I was simultaneously alarmed and pleased about my gaunt appearance. My ribs and cheekbones jutted out, my hair fell out in clumps, and my skin became dry and thin. I shunned anyone who expressed concern over my rapid weight loss. I even turned away from God when I felt him convicting me of the truth!
After two to three months I'd dropped about 30 pounds (from my beginning weight of 125), and within a period of two days, the gym manager forbade me to return, my boss ordered an immediate leave-of-absence, and a physician-friend implored John to seek medical intervention. John pleaded with me to get help, so I reluctantly let him take me to a clinic. There the physician weighed me in at 79 pounds. I felt deeply ashamed to hear what I already knew: "You have anorexia."
It's been more than ten years since that diagnosis. Recovery's been slow, but not elusive. During one dark moment, I recalled a sermon in which my pastor lit a candle to illustrate Isaiah 42:3: "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." Yes, God, I realized, You keep my light burning; you still believe in me! I knew God would heal me if I'd release my need for control to him. When I went to God for help, I found such Bible verses as "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones" (Proverbs 3:7-8).
I started working with a caring dietician who helped me understand my need for food to cure my malnutrition. She required me to eat a minimal amount of calories2,000and record them in a food diary. At first I exaggerated my calorie count because I was afraid I'd return to overeating.
Breaking down my resistance invoked a lot of prayer. I struggled with fear and shame, and when destroying thoughts came, Do you need to eat dinner? Remember those four jelly beans from this morning?, I quoted James 4:17, "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." Each day, I had choices: Either follow my fears, perpetuating the struggle, or surrender to God's power and freedom. Even today, I still must consciously choose to follow Christ in every decision.
But I've learned to accept rest, balance, and vulnerability as good things, and I've become honest about my limitations. I enjoy my job at a seminary working with people who care about my physical and spiritual well-being. Desire, rather than obligation, motivates me to volunteer for different activities. My relationships are much deeper because I can share myselfweaknesses and allwith others. My husband, parents, family, and friends have loved me generously and persistently.
I'm so thankful Jesus offers his grace, acceptance, and love to everyoneyoung girl, daughter, wife, mother, career womanwho needs significance, purpose, and understanding. The world urges us to be attractive, profitable, and totally capable in every role. Yet I've discovered while it's desirable to succeed, God's grace covers our abilities, our needs, and even our shortcomings and failures. I'm God's daughtertotally accepted, pleasing, and loved in his sightjust as I am.
RENEE RATCLIFFE works as a research specialist and disabilities coordinator at Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual Campus, and lives in North Carolina.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.