Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Eating Disorder: How it started and how it ended

In high school, I was a kind, polite, introvert who was everyone and no one’s friend.  I perpetually felt like an outsider and wanted to belong to a group.  But in reality, I desperately wanted just one friend whom I could spill my guts – talk about anything and everything until the wee hours of the morning.

I was quiet.  I was compassionate.  I was a good listener.  On my forehead, I wore a sign that read “tell me all your problems”.  I had no boundariesI internalized everything I heard.  I was moved with pity for the human race.  Overtime, I had a lot of pent up emotion because I rarely shared my own soul with another person.

In the 6th grade, I started running and quickly realized it was a good stress reliever for me.  During high school, I was a four year member of the cross country team.  Surrounding the sport was a lot of focus on weight and such.  I was/am a perfectionist.  So in the name of health, I went on a diet.  I thought that if I lost weight I would be a better runner.  Because I was so rigid with rules, that diet eventually turned into an eating disorder.

I am not intending to put the blame on one specific thing or say “ha” that’s how it started.  I believe my eating disorder resulted from a bunch of unfortunate situations put together.  Also, my perfectionist personality, my desire to fit in, and my ignorance of health led me to use food to deal with my problems.

The thing was – no one stopped me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to hide an eating disorder.  But, for me, I think it was easy because no one knew the signs and signals of an eating disorder.  And I wasn’t necessarily quiet about it in the beginning.  I read everything I could about health and nutrition and shared my knowledge at home like the know-it-all-oldest-child I am.

None of my friends and family thought this was a problem because I was surrounded by a weight loss environment.  My mom was constantly trying to lose weight.  We would talk about food and calories on a regular basis.  Once I started severely restricting my food intake, my mom made the comment that maybe we should all eat that way.

It wasn’t just my immediate family.  My aunt was on a diet and, when I was 12 years old, I remember that she told me I could eat all the chips and salsa that I wanted because it had minimal calories.  My other aunt was on a never-ending Atkins diet.  I saw her eat the weirdest combinations of things because it was “good for you” and that made it OK.  My grandma continually commented on weight and appearance.  My brothers, sisters, and I knew that the first thing our relatives said to one another was either, “You look great” or “Did you lose weight?”  So from a young age, I picked up on the belief that being thin was important or, at least, losing weight merited attention.

I picked up on everything little comment, joke, reference, and insinuation about appearance.  EVERYTHING.

The people with the greatest influence on me, however, were the spiritual directors I had going through junior high and high school.  Their intentions were to teach about fasting and sacrifice.  For me this meant a new measurable way to calculate how perfect I was.  And as far as food goes, now, not only were there good and bad foods nutritionally, but also sinful foods.  I not only worried about whether or not a certain meal would make me fat, but I also worried about whether or not it was pleasing to God.  My motto was, when in doubt, just don’t eat anything at all.

In college, I confirmed my beliefs losing weight was everyone’s priority and that the way you looked merited attention.  I skipped class to work out.  I tried to see how little I could eat.  I fasted in the name of sacrifice but secretly knew that it would mean weight loss.  I became very good at not eating.
But there was always more weight to lose, fewer calories to eat, and smaller pant sizes.

After several years of purposely starving myself, my bodily instincts kicked into survival mode and I began eat a little more.  I did NOT like this at all.  I counted calories obsessively.  If I ate more than 700 calories, I make up for the extra calories by starving myself for however many days that it calculated out to be.  Eventually, the math got complicated and I would be “behind” 9 or 10 days worth of food.  It was overwhelming, so I began to make myself throw up, abuse laxatives, or exercise for three to four hours at a time.

I wrote the calorie numbers on my hand in units – one through seven.  Not a day went by where my hand wasn’t scribbled on.

After college, I got my first job at a school in Cincinnati.  My schedule was: eat 200 calories for breakfast, teach all morning, 200 calories for lunch, teach all afternoon, work out for three hours at the gym, sit in the sauna for 30 minutes, shower, do my hair, 200 calories for supper, lesson plan for the next day, 100 calorie snack while watching Gilmore Girls, then cry myself to sleep.  I only lasted six months at the job.  However, this routine went on for several years.

I was so out of energy that the other teachers thought I had a terminal illness like cancer.  I did have an illness; I had an eating disorder and severe depression. 

Lucky, the disease didn’t take my life.  I started seeing a counselor and really tried to recovery on my own. 
Unfortunately, I was still using food to cope with my difficult emotions because I hadn’t yet confronted the baseline issues.  So...I started binge eating.  I have to say that, during this part of my life, I felt the most ashamed, the most disgusting, and the most unworthy of life.  At this point, my depression was extremely severe.  I could not stop counting calories.  When I would get up into the 9-10 thousand calorie mark, I wanted to kill myself and thought about ways to do it.

My moment of grace came when I ran a marathon last fall.  My reasons for training for the marathon were probably rooted in eating disorder motivations.  Still, God used the opportunity to reach out to me.

Throughout my training processes, I also had been going to a very good counselor.  And on top of that, I started taking anti-depressants.  So things were coming together slowly.

During the marathon, about half-way through, I realized that I was still counting the calories I was eating that day.  And then it hit me, “I was running a freaking marathon and I was still concerned with how much I was eating!”  I was enlightened and, for the first time, realized how unrealistic I was being.  I laughed...and mile 14 or 15 I was laughing out loud.

That moment, that wonderful moment of grace, I saw that my obsession with counting calories was controlling my life.

I thought I was in control; I thought that I was the one doing the counting.  Yet, if I was still counting now, during a marathon, then I will never stop; nothing will be good enough.  There was no realistic basis for me to be counting calories.  Twenty-six-point-freaking-two miles of running and I was still counting calories!  This was the finale.  “When I crossed that finish line”, I thought, “I am going to end this obsession once and for all”.

Of course, it didn’t stop overnight like I wanted it to.  Like any bad habit, it took time, practice, and patience to beat.  However, I am happy to report that I have not written on my hand for one year.  I have been binge free for 11 months.  And I have not counted calories for almost 9 months.

I could not have recovered on my own.  I needed hospitalization, counseling, medication, coping skills, and a great support system.  In case you are a doubter, eating disorder recovery is possible.

I am living proof.

If you liked this article, see below:
To read more about how my marathon experience contributed to my recovery, click here.
To read about my first real run which was months after the race, click here.
Also, if you’d like to read about some ways to stop binge eating, click here.
Check out - 8 Practical Ways to Stop Emotional Overeating, click here.
And....Dieting: What I mean and what I don't mean and 10 reasons to give it up, click here.


  1. Mary, I love your honesty and I think your blog is fantastic! As a Catholic woman who struggles with body image, I have seen myself "fasting" for intentions with the underlying motivation to lose weight in the past. It is so wonderful how God can shape our experiences to see what He sees. There are so many girls/women out there who will benefit tremendously from reading your blog. Thanks for being vulnerable!

  2. Thanks for your comment and your kind words of encouragement! It is good that God can use our experiences to help us learn how to be better. Sometimes it only takes once - other times, it can take years to learn the lesson. Either way, it is comforting to know that we are never alone.