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I Couldn't Stop Dieting

My fears of inadequacy were fueling an obsession with thinness—and destroying my marriage.

Iam solely responsible for the destruction of my marriage. I stared at the words I'd written in my journal and felt the sting of tears. After five years of marriage, Stan* would leave me. I'd be alone with my scale, my exercise, and my calorie-counting. It served me right—didn't I love my addiction to thinness more than I loved my husband?

Stan and I had met 10 years earlier while teaching at the same Christian high school. I'd been frighteningly thin, but Stan had ignored my emaciated appearance and befriended the person inside. He was a good friend, someone safe with whom I could talk. Early in our friendship, I told him about my history of anorexia, my two hospitalizations for the disorder, and the years I'd spent in therapy trying to get well. He was kind and understanding. Still, I couldn't bring myself to reveal the whole truth—that a childhood of verbal and sexual abuse had led not only to anorexia, but rebellion and promiscuity. Though I knew Stan cared for me, a little voice in my head insisted I wasn't good enough for him, and that I'd eventually lose him.

We began dating exclusively, and with Stan's loving support, anorexia seemed to loosen its hold over my life. I prayed that one day I'd be completely free of it, that it would be nothing but a disturbing memory.

Letting go of the disorder that had become nearly my whole identity was a frightening prospect. How would I deal with all my worries?

By the time he proposed three years later, I'd gained nearly 20 pounds. My gaunt face and body had become muscular and healthy, and my counselor assured me that I'd progressed to the point of no longer needing therapy. Soon, Stan and I were married.

Several months after our wedding, as I was striving to be the "perfect" wife, the anorexia re-emerged. Though I'd prepare hearty meals for Stan, I carefully restricted what I ate, panicking any time I hadn't exercised "enough." Stan's career change only added to the stress, and my weight, the only thing I could control completely, slowly began to drop.

As I started to wear baggier clothes to hide my weight loss from Stan, I knew I was treading into dangerous territory. "God, heal me," I pleaded. "Keep me from this distorted thinking." Feelings of guilt enveloped me; I felt sure this weakness was all my fault.

One day Stan caught me changing clothes and saw my thin frame that was beginning to resemble a pre-adolescent's. "Why are you doing this?" Stan asked me. "I married a warm, laughing woman. You're acting like a child; all you can think about is yourself and what you want. You're even beginning to look like a child!"

A vicious cycle

As much as I wanted to please my husband by maintaining a healthy weight, exercise and food restriction had become my sole means of coping with stress. I wanted to trust Jesus with my worries, but the thought of life without anorexia was terrifying. Whenever Stan and I would have a conflict, I'd add minutes onto my daily workout, or skip a meal. The anorexia gave me a twisted sense of control over my life.

By our second anniversary, Stan and I had fallen into a cycle: I'd proudly announce any time I gained weight, and Stan, buoyed with hope, would be encouraging. For several months, everything would be fine. But inevitably, I'd either fail to gain more weight, or I'd lose several pounds, dropping back to my ultra-thin state. Our social life suffered, since I refused to accept any meal invitations and we rarely had guests.

Often, I'd lie to Stan if he asked if I was losing weight, but he didn't believe me.

"I can't trust you anymore," he snapped. "You say you're trying to get better, but nothing changes. Obviously, being skinny is the most important thing in your life—much more important than I am!"

"You don't understand!" I said, dissolving into tears. "You don't know how hard it is to fight a disorder I've had for 15 years."

"All I know is I have a wife who's trying to kill herself. Is that what you want?"

These encounters made us miserable, but seemed unavoidable. Stan didn't know how to help me. Regardless of how he responded, with compassion or with anger, nothing changed. And I was too ashamed to confess my problem to family or friends or to return to my counselor. Many times each week I'd pray, asking God to save my marriage and my health by healing me. I read the Bible and Christian self-help books; I designed all sorts of meal plans to help me gain weight and eat normally, but nothing worked. Often I'd gaze in despair at my reflection in the mirror: ribs protruding, frail arms and legs, a nearly flat chest. I avoided looking at my eyes because of the emptiness I saw there.

One night five years into our marriage, I was pushing food around on my plate instead of eating it when Stan stood abruptly and left the room. I found him lying on our bed, staring sullenly at the wall. When I reached for his hand, he brushed mine away.

"What's wrong?'' I whispered.

"I'm so tired of this. It's always the same thing with you, Lisa. Instead of coming to me with your worries, you shut me out and resort to losing more weight. It doesn't matter what I feel, if I'm hurt or angry; the only thing you care about is being thin. I'm fed up waiting for you to get better. I don't even want to stay in a marriage like this."

A cold feeling spread over me.

"Do you want out?" I choked.

"A lot of times I do." His tone rose in anger. "Last night I was late coming home because I kept driving around. I wanted to be anywhere except with a woman who loves her bathroom scale more than her husband."

I left the room, too stunned and hurt to reply. I knew at that moment that our marriage would be over if something didn't change.

That night Stan slept in the guest room. As I huddled alone in our bed, I wrote the words: I am solely responsible for the destruction of my marriage.

My addiction to dieting was costing me my husband's love. I decided finally to get help.

Facing my fears

For the first time in our marriage, I went to a Christian counselor. During our first session, I tearfully described my situation. "I know this is my fault," I said, "but why can't I stop? No wonder Stan hates me—I hate myself!"

"Lisa, healing comes in the context of relationships: your relationship with God and with your husband," the counselor told me. "Why not have Stan alongside you in the process?"

That night I approached Stan about joining me in counseling. He agreed, and we began weekly sessions. The counselor helped him see that, as frustrated as he was with my anorexia, it was even more frustrating and discouraging for me to battle it daily. Stan began to realize that his anger only drove me deeper into the disorder. It was helpful to have the counselor mediate, and I gradually felt safer telling Stan of my constant feelings of inadequacy and my fears that even God wouldn't accept me.

"When you get angry at me because of the anorexia, it just reinforces my self-disgust and increases my fears," I explained.

"What if I am angry? What am I supposed to do with my feelings?" he asked.

I shook my head, not knowing the answer.

Letting go of the eating disorder that had become nearly my whole identity was a frightening prospect. How would I deal with all my worries? I told Stan how my fears of not being good enough could escalate into panic if I didn't cope by exercising or dieting.

We continued counseling sessions for nearly a year, and I learned gradually to see my anorexia in a new light—as the scar from a painful childhood that led to the shame and fear I'd never be loved for who I was. Because of this, I found it difficult to grasp that God—and Stan—could accept me in spite of my failures.

One night while I was reading Ephesians 3:17-19, I began to cry. "What's wrong?" Stan asked.

"Listen to this: 'I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.' I never understood I could be loved that way!"

His look of surprise changed to compassion. "That changes everything for you, doesn't it?"

"Yes, everything."

Slowly, I became convinced that only Jesus Christ has the power to transform our hearts and lives. I had to begin with honesty. I could no longer be deceptive about the anorexia, nor could I hide my past. With trepidation, I finally told Stan everything about my troubled past, including the abuse, rebellion, and promiscuity. To my amazement, instead of being disappointed or disgusted with me, Stan held me tightly.

"Why didn't you tell me before?" he asked gently.

"I was so ashamed! There have been so many times I've lied to you. But I was afraid if I told you the truth, you'd leave me."

"But you're not lying to me now, Lisa. And look—I'm still here. I still love you."

I felt a surge of hope: maybe we could build trust again.

Throwing away the scale

Even though I'd spent years in counseling prior to our marriage and countless hours on my knees begging for emotional healing, it wasn't until I quit deceiving Stan—and myself—that God brought restoration. Eating disorders are fueled, at least in part, by shame and secrecy. As the Holy Spirit worked in my heart, I gradually made choices to speak and act truthfully.

With renewed hope for my marriage, I began to watch for patterns between my emotions and my responses to food, and, with my counselor's encouragement, I threw away my scale. Later, I asked a close girlfriend to keep me accountable in the areas of food and exercise. Being honest with her in our weekly phone calls has been instrumental in the maintenance of my physical health.

Because I believed fully God's desire was to transform my heart, the more I obeyed him in living a life of truth, the easier it became to make healthy choices.

God's also worked in Stan's heart. One day when I was feeling discouraged, I took my husband's hand and leaned against his shoulder. "I'm sorry that I've put us through this."

He turned and wrapped his arms around me. "You're finally letting me know the real you. Even if this is a struggle for the rest of your life, we're in it together."

I realized then that God had not only provided his Holy Spirit as my daily comforter, he'd given me a partner who would walk this road with me.

We've now been married seven years. As Stan and I continue to share openly with each other, I've become more secure in his love and in our marriage. My eating habits have improved and my shape has changed from gaunt to womanly; anorexia is no longer a wedge between Stan and me.

Transparent honesty was the first step, and I've learned that I'll be accepted for who I am, first by God, and then by my husband.

The Bible consistently reminds me that this is a battle of the mind, and that I must take captive every thought (2 Corinthians 10:5). The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery."

It's an amazing thing to taste freedom from this bondage after so many years, and to see recovery in my life and in our marriage.

Lisa McCabe is a pseudonym for an author living in Michigan.

* names have been changed

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

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Diet; Eating disorders; Food; Health; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2005
Posted September 12, 2008

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