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When an Eating Disorder Doesn't Look Like Anorexia or Bulimia

Three steps you can take toward restoration

I thought I knew what it looked like. I had seen the Lifetime movies and heard the rumors about my high school classmates who had spent time at an inpatient facility for their struggles. It seemed easy to recognize and it felt like a far cry from anything I would ever experience.

Then at twenty-one years old, I was that girl who had an eating disorder—only it didn't look like I expected. I lost a noticeable amount of weight rapidly, but I wasn't underweight according to the chart at the doctor's office. My hair was falling out, but I still had my period. I never went an entire day without eating, although my meals had been whittled down so that what once was considered a snack now paraded as my dinner. I never made myself get sick, but I exercised excessively.

But on paper, I never fully met the criteria for Anorexia and I knew I wasn't Bulimic. I was left somewhere in-between. . .

While serving in my student ministry job, I was overwhelmingly exhausted from malnourishment, increased anxiety, and culminating depression. My brain was fuzzy and my thinking was consumed with numbers—the number of calories I had consumed over the past 48 hours, the minutes until I would eat again, the level of exercise that I would require of myself in order to "undo" my lunch, and then there was the number of ever-growing items on the list of my forbidden foods.

In the beginning of my disorder, friends told me I looked great, and they were in awe of my weight loss. Their praises soon diminished, though, and they were replaced with sincere concern. My hope that someone might comment on my slim figure was exchanged with a fear that someone might point out how pale and emaciated I had become.

But on paper, I never fully met the criteria for Anorexia and I knew I wasn't Bulimic. I was left somewhere in-between and eventually given the diagnosis of an "eating disorder not otherwise specified."

Functional dysfunction

In a culture that criticizes women for being too thin while simultaneously bashing others for gaining weight, and with every new diet or food plan representing "the best" model to follow, it's easy to feel as though there exists a delicate point of perfection on which we should land. It's a lie that suggests health and beauty are found through a narrow gate with little flexibility; and while we set out with good intentions, we find ourselves exhausted and condemned by the extreme lack of grace this definition of "health" has to offer.

Many become trapped in a pattern of dysfunctional thoughts and eating habits while continuing to maintain moderately functional lives. It is death in disguise and it's laced with a series of justifications . . .

But when our minds dwell on what we eat, when we keep scrupulous records of calories or categorize foods into good and bad, when we allow exercise to become a compulsive tool that we use inappropriately, we lower our expectation of what is functional and we abandon the vision of true freedom.

It's not that bad.

It could be worse.

I've got it under control.

The deceit of a "functional" eating disorder is that it tries to draw attention away from itself, and it instead casts that attention onto those around us, those whom we deem need more help than us. Meanwhile, a functional eating disorder praises us for supposedly being responsible—for caring about our bodies—despite the reality that we are withholding from ourselves the basic grace and goodness we shower upon our children. But when our minds dwell on what we eat, when we keep scrupulous records of calories or categorize foods into good and bad, when we allow exercise to become a compulsive tool that we use inappropriately, we lower our expectation of what is functional and we abandon the vision of true freedom. It's imprisonment masquerading as control. We were made for so much more.

The road between healthy and hospitalized is gray and cloudy. How far are you willing to travel before deciding that you want something more? How much are you comfortable sacrificing before asking for help? Each small compromise takes you one step further down that path, until the pit is so deep that crawling out requires putting life on hold. Instead of believing that it could be worse, ask yourself what type of life you want. What messages do you want to send to your children? What vision do you have for your future?

Say no to the lies that tell you this place of in-between is safe. It is not. Say no to the lies that tell you a life in-between isn't that bad. It is. Run from the gray and into the light of Christ's healing and restoration.

Finding life beyond the in-between

Tell someone. Gwen Seiler, founder of Northfield Ministries and a lifelong advocate for eating disorder prevention and recovery, says to "find a safe place where you can receive an objective perspective. Maybe that's a nutritionist, a counselor, or a spiritual advisor. The important thing is to find a safe place where you can be honest and vulnerable with someone that you trust." You cannot recover from any form of an eating disorder on your own. Begin to let others love and support you by telling someone today.

Accept a balanced view of health. If our health is comprised of mind, body, and spirit, we must address the whole picture and avoid abandoning one for the other. Mental and emotional health issues warrant the same level of concern as any physical ailment. Spiritual care, while invaluable, cannot replace the other components of treatment. God's design in the process of therapy is complex and beautiful, taking us through depths of healing we didn't know existed. While Christians are called to pray and have faith that God answers our prayers, God also has given us the tools on Earth for therapy and recovery—and he expects us to use the gifts and knowledge he's given us—so to completely circumvent the process of therapy and to hope we can simply pray away the challenges of an eating disorder will only rob us of a number of conversations and revelations we might otherwise gain, and it could leave us less than restored. Seek a model of recovery that incorporates all aspects of health—spiritual, physical, and emotional.

I've often found that the most challenging aspect of loving my neighbor as myself has little to do with my neighbor and a great deal to do with how I view myself.

Love yourself in a way that reflects Christ's love for you. I've often found that the most challenging aspect of loving my neighbor as myself has little to do with my neighbor and a great deal to do with how I view myself. In a world bent on tearing us down, eroding our confidence, and siphoning out any grace we might extend to our own hearts, this principle that Jesus taught becomes incredibly difficult. Show yourself the compassion and tenderness you would show a friend or child who was hurting. At their core, eating disorders are not about the weight or the food. They are symptoms of other needs begging to be addressed. Speak kindly to those places and allow yourself the room to find liberation and healing.

Restored

I am recovered. The only numbers coursing through my mind are the minutes my son has left in timeout or the number of days until the weekend. I have found my life out of the in-between is full of a richness I could not have imagined—covered with the enjoyment of food, people, and experiences—and it's free from condemnation and lies. Refuse to settle for anything less than the abundant life you were created, rescued, and redeemed in order to have.

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

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