Not too long ago, my sister asked me if I would be willing to come and speak to the youth group at her church about eating disorders. The idea was that it would be better to hear from someone who had actually been through it than to just give them information that they would probably forget as soon as they got home. So, of course, I said yes.
What follows is just about what I said...
When I was in the 6th grade, I weighed 135 pounds. By the time I reached the 7th grade, I weighed 85 pounds. Over the course of the summer between those school years, I lost 50 pounds.
Believe me when I say that this was not due to a conscious effort. At first, there was no explanation for why I lost so much weight in such a short amount of time. Of course my family noticed that I had zero appetite, but no one could understand why. And so I was taken to see a doctor. Actually, I was taken to see several doctors. Between Lewis-Gale and UVA, no one could find a physical reason for my weight loss. If there was a test for it, they put me through it. And test after test ruled out so many possibilities. They couldn't find any issues with any of my glands. They decided that I didn't have leukemia. Eventually my regular doctor decided that my problem could be psychological.
And that's what the problem was. Eating disorders are psychological in nature. Whether the problem is anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, the root issue can be traced to a person's emotional and mental health.
My doctor referred me to a counselor that specialized in adolescent eating disorders. Over the course of the next year and a half, I met with her on a regular basis. I would talk to her about the things in my life that were bothering me. And each time we met, I stood on a bathroom scale and checked in to see if I had gained or lost anything. Generally, it was a good visit if I had put on a couple pounds. It should go without saying that pounds lost resulted in a pretty disappointing time. Through my therapy sessions, we discovered that my issues stemmed from my being a perfectionist. I was always very hard on myself when it came to my school work. Add to that the normal pressures of being in middle school among kids who could be very cruel. Sidebar: words hurt, so be careful what you say to people. Even if they don't show it, it could be killing them inside. And that's what happened to me when all of the weight loss began. I was an emotional wreck, but I buried it deep inside and didn't deal with it. Eventually, it literally began to eat away at me.
For the most part I was able to maintain a steady weight throughout the rest of middle school. While it was good that I wasn't still losing weight, it wasn't good enough. In those early teenage years, it's vitally important that we are receiving proper nutrition. That's when a lot of growth is happening. And when you aren't taking care of your body the way you're supposed to, things just stop developing.
See, when the body isn't able to turn the food we eat into energy, it begins using what's been stored up. It begins by using up fat. Then the body puts a stop to unimportant functions. Fingernail growth slows. Hair stops growing and starts falling out. Eventually, the body begins breaking down muscle and bone in order to keep itself alive. And this is where I had my real wake up call.
I reached high school and found a new definition for the word stress. This added stress did nothing to help my condition. Unfortunately, I started slowly dropping weight again. My hair was falling out and I had no strength. I was terrified. Just after Thanksgiving of 1994, I volunteered to be admitted to St. Alban's Psychiatric Hospital in Radford. I say I volunteered, but if I hadn't gone voluntarily, I would have been forced to go for treatment. I was told it wouldn't be that bad. I was told that I would be there for about three weeks. I figured I'd be home for Christmas and I'd be all better.
At first I hated it, but then I became comfortable with the schedule of group therapy and private counseling and art therapy. Actually, comfortable is the wrong word. Let's just say I got used to the routine. And I made progress. Then, after Christmas, I started taking steps backwards.
I can't explain why I started doing poorly during my last weeks in the hospital. But my time there reached the lowest point when I had a seizure. I was never sure what triggered the seizure. It could have been a lack of nutrition. It could have been a combination of the medications they had me on. Most likely, it was a little of both. Whatever the case, the powers that be decided that there was nothing else they could do to help me. Basically, they sent me home to be with my family before I died. And they made it no secret, they expected me to die.
But I knew better than that. The whole time I was in the hospital, I kept questioning why I was going through all this. I wasn't a bad kid. But that's where my mind immediately went: I was being punished for something. So what had I done that was so bad that God would see fit to put me through this. It wasn't until I got out of the situation that I realized God wasn't putting me through it, He was bringing me through it.
It's taken me a long time to figure out that all those things I worried about and stressed out over, they don't matter. In the eternal scheme of things, they never did. God is bigger than all of it. I've learned that, no matter what is going on in my life, God wants me to give it to Him. It's a lesson I'm still learning today.
I wasn't a typical anorexic. For one thing, I'm a guy. Anorexia is found 10 times more often in girls than it is boys. That's why it took so long for a doctor to come to the conclusion that my problem was psychological. For another thing, I knew that I looked like a skeleton with skin on. Most of the time, someone suffering from an eating disorder will have what's known as a distorted body image. The other anorexia patients that I met in the hospital described the overweight people that they saw in the mirror. I never saw that. I saw exactly what I was when I looked in the mirror. My disorder was not caused because I was desperate to lose weight. It was caused because I didn't know how to be open and honest about what I was thinking and feeling. I didn't know how to deal with stress in my life and it took its toll.
Everyone needs to find a release. Everyone needs someone to talk to. Remember, it isn't always about finding someone who can give you great advice, it's also about finding someone who will just be willing to listen. And never forget that Jesus was called "Wonderful Counselor" long before He was even born, and He was called that for an excellent reason. He wants to take on our burdens.
I don't mean to be preachy. But the only explanation I have for why I ever recovered from an eating disorder that nearly killed me is an act of God. That's the only way I can imagine going from having no appetite for more than three years to suddenly having a normal, voracious teenage appetite.
Sporadically, I've posted "Life Story" posts on the blog, taking a look at my life to try and determine why I've become the man I've become. The conclusion I've reached after examining life through the end of high school? There's really no point in worrying over things. Throughout our lives, good times are going to come just as well as the bad. There will be days when we won't feel like smiling. There may be weeks or even years when we won't feel good about life. But everything is going to turn out okay. Somewhere, at some time in all our lives, there will be reasons to smile again. We just have to know where to look.