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When Dieting Spells Danger

How one family found healing after an eating disorder nearly killed their son.

"Mom, I'm so dizzy," Ben groaned. "I feel like I just can't make it."

For days I'd been brushing off my 15-year-old son's complaints of not feeling well. In the crunch of freshman finals, I suspected, he might be over-anxious or simply worn down from the frenzy of the school year.

But exams were over, summer was coming on, and Ben was worse. His skin felt coarse, and his hair and eyes looked dull. My normally strapping six-foot son suddenly looked fragile and frightened—on the verge of collapse. I knew I'd been wrong to brush his symptoms aside.

It had started in March with the high school chorus preparing for a competition aboard a cruise ship. Like everyone else, Ben was excited. Also like everyone else, he was nervous about wearing a bathing suit in front of friends. He wanted to look his best.

To Ben, that meant losing weight. Never mind that he was already handsome and charming and never lacked for female attention. But Ben compared himself to his two older brothers who were upperclassmen and also in chorus. He made no allowances for differences in age or body type. He just thought that if he tried hard enough, he could look like them.

So Ben decided to slim down. He joined a gym and worked out daily. He also began running laps around our five acres of land, going farther and faster each day. He spent evenings in his room sweating through hundreds of sit-ups.

We were amazed by Ben's dedication. Although he'd played football and joined the swim team, he quit them years before to concentrate on drama, music, and art. He'd always been enthusiastic about his pursuits, but we'd never seen him go after something so vigorously.

Now, as I packed him into the back seat, it suddenly seemed obvious: what his dad and I had perceived as self-discipline had somehow crossed over the line into obsession. At some point Ben's drive to control his weight had begun to control him.

That explained so much. Like why even as he quickly shed pounds and inches, Ben agonized that it wasn't enough. "Do I look thinner, Mom? I need to lose 20 more pounds. How long will that take me?"

It explained why after the cruise, instead of relaxing, Ben continued to make weight loss his No. 1 priority. It explained why in the middle of dinner we'd realize Ben had slipped away from the table (not hard to miss with ten children at the table) to exercise alone while we were still enjoying our meal.

As we rode to the doctor's office, Ben and I pieced together the rest of the puzzle. Dieting became easier as he went along because he soon lost the desire to eat. By the time exams came around, he knew he was in trouble. He couldn't concentrate and had headaches and dizziness all the time.

"Ben's developed an eating disorder," I told the doctor.

She took his heath history, then asked to speak to Ben alone. In my research later, I learned why: parents often are part of the problem. Other times, a teen has endured a trauma he is not ready to reveal to his parents. At this critical time, the doctor wanted Ben to be able to be completely candid about what was going on with him.

When I came back, the doctor took Ben's vital signs. His blood pressure was alarmingly low, and he was severely dehydrated. The doctor sent us to the hospital for IV fluids.

Ben's undernourished veins were almost impossible to find. When found, they collapsed. A parade of nurses and lab technicians prodded and poked for 90 minutes before downsizing to an infant-sized catheter to begin a teeny drip.

At some point I slipped out to find something to read to Ben. The book I stumbled on at the drugstore was just what the Great Healer might have ordered. Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul (Health Communications) was filled with stories by teens about experiences with their families, their friends, their changing emotional landscapes, and—thankfully—recovery from eating disorders.

I took Ben home and we started reading the book together. Those stories nestled deep in Ben's heart as he saw that he wasn't alone, that others suffered doubts and insecurities, that they made mistakes, recognized them, and found the courage to move on. I reminded him that he could count on God for that courage—as surely as we could trust him to use this experience for good.

As Ben started on his road to healing, I began my own journey, determined to find out what had gone wrong and how we could guard our other children from suffering the same emotional and physical pain. So I did some digging. I thought I knew quite a bit about eating disorders, but I was surprised by what I found.

Now that I have the facts, I believe I'm better prepared to catch the warning signs before any of our other children sink into this self-destructive pattern. Here's what you need to know to keep eating disorders from creeping into your family.

What Eating Disorders Look Like

There are two main types of eating disorders:

  1. Anorexia: Haunted by the fear of being fat, the anorectic obsesses about his weight, eats only mini portions of food, and engages in extreme exercise. Even after losing too much weight, he still thinks of himself as fat. You may notice him cutting his food into teensy pieces or avoiding eating in front of others.

  2. Bulimia: The bulimic gets caught up in a compulsive cycle of bingeing (eating huge amounts at one sitting) and purging (through self-induced vomiting or mega-doses of laxatives). Often she is not underweight. You may notice her making a beeline for the bathroom after meals or see that her cheeks look swollen due to overactive salivary glands.

Who Is at Risk

Sadly, eating disorders do not discriminate. But there are some kids who are more prone to the problem than others:

  1. Perfectionists and high achievers can fall prey to anorexia. The desire to be the best leads to an obsessive need to be the best at controlling his appetite and mastering his body.

  2. Bulimics tend to be impulsive and outgoing. Their lack of impulse control often generalizes to shoplifting, promiscuity, and alcohol and drug abuse.

  3. Dancers and athletes involved in sports where weight plays a role, such as wrestling, figure skating, and gymnastics, are vulnerable. These kids are under tremendous pressure to maintain a certain size, which is almost impossible when their bodies are growing and changing rapidly.

  4. Siblings of individuals with eating disorders often follow suit. They see both the results and the attention that the problem brings. In addition, if there are family dynamics that factor into one child's eating disorder, those same issues typically affect other children in the family. Children with an over-controlling parent or a parent who is anxious about her own or her child's appearance can seek approval through an eating disorder.

  5. Children with a history of abuse, homosexual activity, or mood disorders might use an eating disorder to gain a sense of control over their lives.

Like most people, I had always assumed that eating disorders only affected girls. If one of my daughters had been pushing a few peas around on her plate, I might have noticed. I might have gone into a long discussion about distorted media images. But a guy who exercises a lot and wants to get in shape? Isn't that normal?

But research from Johns Hopkins Eating and Weight Disorder Clinic revealed that, of those affected by eating disorders, 10 percent were men. Other research indicates that—at least among girls—the average age for a child to develop an eating disorder is between 11 and 15. These years are marked by excruciating self-consciousness, rapidly changing body contours, and an intense need to gain a sense of control.

What's Really at Stake

Losing a little weight can seem harmless, even desirable, especially to a teen who is a little heavier than his or her peers. But eating disorders can take a horrible toll on growing bodies. Consider these side effects of eating disorders:

  1. For anorectics: dehydration; headaches; dizziness; inability to concentrate; anemia; hair loss; brittle fingernails; dry, yellow skin; swollen joints; loss of menstrual cycle; feeling cold (loss of body heat may lead to growth of soft body hair called lanugo); severe malnutrition; and death.

  2. For bulimics: constant stomach pain; damage to esophagus, stomach, and kidneys; tooth decay; "chipmunk" cheeks; potassium loss; which can lead to heart problems; and death.

  3. For both: being as little as 15 percent underweight can have a devastating effect on the body, particularly during the teen years. Excessive weight loss can damage the heart, brain, liver, and kidneys. The body goes into survival mode, causing a drop in blood pressure and pulse, irregular heart rhythms, and breathing problems.

In addition to the physical dangers, eating disorders often take a spiritual and emotional toll. Because eating disorders are often caused by underlying issues, the child's use of food to gain comfort or control becomes compulsive—dominating her thoughts and behavior and diverting attention from the true emotional or spiritual problem she needs to face. Each day carries her further away from the truth of her situation and the truth of God's love for her.

Ben didn't die or come close to it, yet I feel we had a close call. The safety net of good family communication rescued Ben, even though I hadn't realized what a dangerous wire he had been walking. I know God was there filling in the blanks, bathing our ER hours with his grace. I didn't blame Ben for his mistakes, and he didn't blame me for mine.

Ben came home with the understanding that there was no quick fix for this problem. Balancing his diet would take care of the symptoms, but the longer term solution demanded a spiritual overhaul.

We went back to a favorite verse, the second one he ever learned: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Ben understood that his obsession with what others thought had caused him to forget the way God sees him—as his wonderful, worthy child. And as Ben began to truly accept the comfort and security imbedded in this simple verse, he began to truly accept himself as God created him.

Ben's Story

I asked Ben if he wanted to tell his story in his own words. This is what he wrote:

I need to accept myself, I thought after my fourth lap. I can't just keep going like this. I'll die of exhaustion. Still, every day something pushed me on, until I wound up struggling in the ER. I had pushed my limits.
For three months I ran five laps around our property every day without breaks. Going to the gym and exercising in my room became my priority. No matter what got in my way, whether it was school, drama, or friends, I remained constant. Even then I wasn't satisfied and began skipping meals. But it all ended with me defeated by my own goals and an IV in my arm.
I became so caught up in myself that I forgot others. I forgot that I was loved. All that mattered was me. It was like trying to find something I already had. I forgot that people loved me for who I am, not my physical appearance.
Once I realized that I was appreciated and no one cared about my appearance, I was stupefied by my actions. People did like me. I did have friends; I just forgot. I became too self-absorbed. The realization was like a slap in the face.
Now I am comfortable with myself and enjoy life. My family helped me through, and my friends were always waiting. Most of all, I want to thank God for his patience and his forgiveness of me.

What You Can Do

While there are no guarantees, there are steps you can take to protect your children from eating disorders.

  1. Realize your family is not invulnerable. With today's stresses, even kids from the "best" families develop eating disorders. In fact, sometimes the very things that make a family appear high functioning—kids who excel at everything, a family emphasis on being the best, the veneer of perfection—can contribute to a child's slide into an eating disorder.

  2. Deal with your own anxieties about eating and weight gain. Eating disorders often originate in parents' hyperconcern with their own or their children's food intake. Avoid talking about what your family eats, the calories or fat grams you're consuming, or the amount of exercise you get. Instead, focus on feeling good and taking care of your health.

  3. Teach your children that beauty can't be rigidly defined. Evaluate media images and teach your children to do the same. Try to see people of all shapes and sizes as God sees them.

  4. Emphasize the lasting value of inner beauty. Talk about the people your children value. Ask if their love is based on the way that person looks or on the person's character. Praise your children's character more than their accomplishments or appearance.

  5. Avoid creating "issues" around food. Don't use food as a comfort. Don't force dieting. This is another area where it's essential for parents to check their own attitudes. Food is never "good" or "bad." Encourage healthy eating, but don't make food the focus of your day.

  6. Keep your lines of communication open. I believe this is what saved Ben. Our family talks about everything, and this was no exception. If you have a pattern of open, honest communication with your children, it will be easier to start working toward a solution.

  7. Pray for and with your children. Ask God to fill your children with a solid sense of his love for them. Praise him for the people he's created in your children. Thank him specifically for the gifts he's given your children.

Barbara Curtis is a writer, homeschooler, grandmother, and mother of 12 children.

Summer 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 40

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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