Beautiful Between

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The Surprising Truth About Eating Disorders

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Note: Many of you know I work in a residential treatment center for young women, including those who have eating disorders. Since this is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned about this important topic.

It’s a rough morning, the end of 64 hours on the clock, a few weeks after I started my new job. No shower, hair a mess, makeup non-existent. I check portions for those with eating disorders as we chat and laugh at the table. I make a self-deprecating joke, apologize for my appearance. Her response stuns me silent.

“You look the same as you always do, which is pretty.” Her words pack a punch I feel in my gut – I know her battle with the mirror. She’s fighting for her life against anorexia.

She can’t see how lovely she is, but she sees it in those around her. She sees it in me, even when I’m a hot mess, and I’m humbled by her words. I resolve never to joke like that in front of them again.

Serving young women with eating disorders has transformed me. These girls teach me so much about beauty, persistence and truth.

They’ve also taught me about what an eating disorder is and what it isn’t. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, here are six things I’ve learned about eating disorders.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses

Imagine you see someone else when you look in the mirror. Everyone else sees strengths, beauty, gifts. But you see a fun-house mirror version, distorted and ugly. This is the alternate reality of eating disorders. Are my clothes too tight? They’re hanging off. Is it too much? It’s half the size of a normal serving. These distortions are signs of legitimate mental conditions – not a diet gone wrong.

It’s not really about a number

Eating disorders are often an attempt to find security after traumatic experiences. When life feels out of control – due to bullying, conflict in the home, or impossibly high standards, for example – eating becomes something manageable. Perfectionism circles back on itself with a need to control. A simple formula with predictable results (eat fewer calories than I burn) grows into compulsive calorie counting and a balm for anxiety.

You can’t tell by looking

Willowy teen ballerinas, curvy women, muscular male and female athletes – all struggle with eating disorders. An estimated 30 million Americans are affected (10% of that group is male). People of every ethnicity, age and socioeconomic class are impacted, but stereotypes and stigma prevent detection. Some struggle without ever noticeably losing weight, yet still do irreparable damage to their bodies.

Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness

Pinterest thinspiration boards don’t tell you anorexia is four times as deadly as depression. For twenty-somethings, the risk of death increases 18-fold. Social media doesn’t broadcast what it’s like to bleed out internally or to have a liver shut down because it can’t process Tylenol. It doesn’t tell you 1 in 5 anorexia-related deaths are from suicide.

Even after treatment, physical damage can remain

I messed myself up. Holes in stomachs and fragile bones and aching teeth worn down from bile. Fears of hearts never recovering, of never carrying children – these are the long-term effects of eating disorders. Short of miraculous intervention, many survivors are marked by these conditions for the rest of their days.

Recovery is possible

Treatment requires accountability: we check portion sizes, monitor exercise, require “couch time” after meals. We even walk residents to the bathroom and stand outside as they sing so we can hear they aren’t purging.

There’s a lot of anxiety, tears, hours of counseling. Where I work, there’s also truth about being loved and enough in the grace of God, prayer and believing for the impossible.

And then, tiny wins:

Is this what hunger feels like? I can’t remember.

Maybe just a bite of dessert.

I want to try seconds tonight.

Eventually, they get off plate check and couch. They remember what it was like to love chocolate; they learn to indulge cravings in moderation. They might get cleared to take the occasional Tylenol. They learn to make healthy choices. And they graduate.

I cry big tears at their graduations and I’m crying them now, thinking of these courageous girls. I’m grateful the world isn’t robbed of these precious lives, that healing and redemption are possible.

And it’s possible for you and the people you love. If you or somebody you know need help with an eating disorder, please don’t keep silent. Here are some resources to find help and information:

Mercy Multiplied – A free, faith-based residential treatment center for young women with life-controlling issues.

National Eating Disorder Association – Get info on how to help loved ones, take a quick screening test, call a helpline

My Perfect Life with Anorexia – A first-hand account of an eating disorder from a Christian perspective on Christianity Today

 

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About Sarah

Hi, I'm Sarah. I love coffee, pancakes and street tacos. I'm a learner, a traveler and a creative mess. I've got a thing for redemption and seeing broken people living beautiful lives. That's the story I've lived, and the one I want for you. Let's be friends!

6 Replies

  1. Katie

    Thank you for this. Thank you for being you. Thank you or being a hope that shines so brightly in such dark places.

    1. Thanks, Katie! So great to see you today!

  2. Lea

    I LOVE this Sarah 🙂 it made me cry…especially the fact that I’m the girl you’re talking about, woah, God is GOOD!!!

    1. Thank you so much, girl! I’m so proud of you!!

  3. Sky

    Omg I can’t stop crying, this was absolutely beautiful ❤️

    1. Oh Sky, I’m so glad you like it! PS, I’m wearing my TWLOHA shirt <3

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