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Within the last decade, awareness of eating disorders has exploded, and pictures of women with spines jutting out like spikes and arms hanging like rails have become common. If Angelina Jolie shows up with veiny arms, tabloids speculate about her weight. The disease fills gossip columns, but the deeper stories remain misunderstood. I’ve gone into five of those stories.
One is the story of 25-year-old Jessica Perez from upstate New York, now with cropped and jet-black hair, gray-blue eyes, and 10 piercings stamped into her ears, lips, nose, and belly button. She also has five hand-inked tattoos, thin X-shaped scars stretched across her chest, and a waist that bears Harry Potter’s Horcrux symbol—remnants of her self-cutting days.
Severely depressed and self-hating, Jessi cut and starved herself because that was the only way she knew to stop her emotional pain: “The physical pain is something you control. You can start it, and you can make it stop. It’s something you can’t do with depression.”
Jessi was about 11 when her father abandoned the family without explanation, leaving her mother distraught and Jessi gradually curtailing her food intake to stifle her anger and sadness. By 13, she had full-fledged anorexia and an addiction to cutting herself. At school, she hung out with a bunch of “severely depressed” misfits. At home, she tiptoed around her new stepdad and stepsiblings.
Eleven years later, Jessi has gone through four hospitalizations and one eating disorder treatment center. In all those years she never had a period. It takes months for her to recover from an illness. Her body involuntarily regurgitates rich, heavy foods, so she spends hot summers sucking on fruity push-up popsicles, chewing on Twizzlers, and sipping fat-free milk.
Jessi is 5-foot-5 and barely weighs 55 pounds. She says she feels comfortable at that “good, functioning weight” because she can get by without panicking about her weight. She can’t cartwheel or run up the stairs, but she can dig up sod in the garden and mop the floor.
At times, Jessi wonders what she’s living for: “I’m very lost.” She thinks about God but doesn’t exactly know who He is: “I feel so helpless ... I’ve always tried to be a good person. I feel like I would not have suffered the way I have without some kind of purpose behind it. If God doesn’t have a purpose for this, then this universe sucks.”
Another story: Melissa (Missy) Miller, 34, has struggled with an eating disorder for about 20 years, and still struggles with it day to day.
Although financially dependent on her parents, Missy still blows at least $200 a week on groceries for herself, spending an “obscene amount of time” at Whole Foods staring at nutritional labels and hoarding food she doesn’t eat. Her fridge must always contain her daily staples: low-calorie items such as broccoli, lettuce, and hummus. When she runs out of them, she drags herself to the store no matter how tired she is— because she just has to. Why? She doesn’t know.
Recently, Missy weighed herself. She had reached 94 pounds, the highest she’s been in a very long time. She stepped off the scale and resolved to stick to her motivation to recover, but not before—and after—experiencing a spasm of terror.
As Missy tries to explain her reaction to the weight gain, her eyes well up. She gulps air, flailing her bony arms as though trying to fend off the panic attack she feels each time she thinks about her weight: “It feels like dying. … I feel like I’m walking around with tumors.”
When she checked an online chart, she was still well under her healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) and already panicking. She realized that as much as she professes trust and faith in God, doubt keeps her from recovery: “I’m living in sin and darkness, and it’s putting a wall between God and me no matter how much I want to tear it down ... I have this latent sense that He can heal—but not me.”
Story three: Adam Nettina is 23, a recent college graduate, and about 30 pounds under his healthy weight. The last time he was at a healthy weight, he was a ripped freshman at Catholic University of America, pressing weights, and running additional laps around campus after his ROTC training.
Depressed and dissatisfied with school, Adam became addicted to the euphoria his daily exercise regimen and strict dietary rules provided him. He transferred to Utah State University and intensified his disordered behaviors until he was hospitalized his junior year.
During our entire conversation on Skype, Adam was standing, shuffling his feet, and fidgeting around. He had spent the whole day sitting at his desk in Annapolis, Md., and felt antsy about his lack of activity: “I feel like if I sit, it’s taking years off my life.” He had raw vegetables with BBQ sauce for dinner because he’s feeling guilty about the pack of Nutter Butters he had for lunch. He shops in the boys’ section sometimes because men’s clothes hang off him.
Adam isn’t the stereotypical eating-disordered patient, and not just because he’s male. He makes sure to get about 2,500 calories a day, but that’s the problem: He’s so hung up by this magic number that anything that deviates from it sends him into an anxious rage.
He keeps a scale in his kitchen to keep precise measurements of his non-fat yogurt and chicken breasts. His mind pulses non-stop with calculations: An apple isn’t an apple. It’s 101 “good” calories, and a license to eat that cup of “bad” ice cream. “You start to lose a sense of even enjoying the taste of food. It’s a calorie, something you get to check off a list.”
In June at his grandmother’s 85th birthday dinner, Adam demolished an entrée-sized salad—and 16 slices of pizza left by relatives. But the “morning-after syndrome” keeps striking him: “It’s not so much a body image issue … the eating disorder itself, the obsession about food and the obsession about control, it’s hedonistic and idolatrous.” With his head low and his feet still moving side-to-side, Adam summarizes his recovery: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Right now, he looks exhausted.
Fourth story: Olivia Linde, 22, is beautiful. Her dark, expressive eyebrows arch like Audrey Hepburn’s, and her dark curls tumble in soft cascades. But to her 13-year-old eyes, she was just an awkward teenager hiding behind big frizzy hair, freckles, and glasses: “I always felt I wasn’t beautiful enough, and I wanted to fit in.”
Olivia grew up with Christian parents but was still “soul-searching for God.” Seeking acceptance from others through her physical appearance, she found anorexia instead. Spiritual starvation led to physical starvation.
Olivia didn’t make a conscious decision to diet. She was an active teenager playing soccer and volleyball who started upping her daily activity and calculating calories. That “innocent diet” gradually transformed into a serious social and mental disability. When her youth group laid out food, Olivia scampered into the bathroom to hide. She covered herself in layers of clothing to hide her emaciation.
When Olivia was 14 and deep into her eating disorder, she professed faith in Christ and resolved to follow Him. There began the long process of recovery: the terror that gripped while her nutritionist and parents rejoiced at the higher numbers on the scale, the battles with her parents at the dinner table, and the guilt-wrestling as she watched how much her parents were hurting.
Even now, Olivia still struggles not to act on the “anorexic thoughts” and the “horrible mental pictures” of her body: “There’s no quick fix. … It’s just choosing Jesus every single day.” This summer she worked at a Christian camp for teens and rarely needed to preach: She merely allowed herself to be vulnerable with her story.
Olivia’s experience helps her detect symptoms of eating-disordered behaviors: “Every single girl I know, if they haven’t struggled with it themselves, they know someone who does.”
Fifth: Four years ago, Natalie Tan was a 20-year-old National University of Singapore student who also didn’t know a calorie from a bean, but her boyfriend at the time started working for a diet product company. Relatives said during Chinese New Year, “You put on so much weight! Why so fat?” Natalie decided to lose about four pounds, so she took the slimming supplements and educated herself on what calories were, disregarding the part about how many she needed.
Natalie lost a lot more than four pounds. Within four months, her period stopped. In about a year, her skin had yellowed like a decaying phone book, and her worried parents took her to a counselor. As her weight continued dropping, her counselor referred her to Singapore General Hospital, where Natalie was diagnosed with anorexia and admitted to the hospital’s eating disorder treatment center.
For Natalie, life at the treatment center with five other eating-disordered individuals fed her competitive streak. Instead of focusing on getting well, she and the others engaged in a silent competition: The person who gained weight the fastest was the loser. Some even learned how to hide food or throw up.
Ironically, baking helped Natalie: She turned a corner when training as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu in London. In nine months Natalie grew from a high-strung child who threatened to starve herself during fights with her “heartbroken” parents, into a healthy, independent woman who now assembles cakes and mousse shooters for a living. She had always enjoyed baking, but now she can bake a cake and eat it, too.
God works in mysterious ways. After trying to avoid God for a long time, Natalie returned to church because the “aunties and uncles” at church raved about the cakes and cookies she baked for them. During her exams at Le Cordon Bleu, Natalie saw how God led her each step of the way as she stumbled through mistakes while heating sugar syrup and whipping buttercream for an opera cake. In fact, God had been with her all along.
Natalie, who grew up a Christian and whose mother leads the ladies’ ministry in church, said she “knew God was around but I never felt His presence”—not until she started struggling with an eating disorder.
Oh, there’s one more story: mine. I’ll never forget the weepy hug I shared with my parents as I left my first hospitalization against doctor’s orders. The doctors and psychiatrist told me I would die. My parents and I believed an eating disorder was primarily a spiritual disease that cannot be healed by force-feeding and therapy sessions. God will heal, we believed.
The day after that discharge, my hope deflated as I realized I couldn’t bring myself to finish a bowl of oatmeal. Each meal from then on became a battle. For six months our family dinners, high in tension, left everyone with indigestion.
Then my worried parents and I drove 10 hours to Northwestern University for my freshman year. I waved goodbye, promising to come back for winter break with an additional 10 pounds. I was home within a month, 10 pounds lighter, hospitalized for the second time and basically kicked out of Northwestern.
The next year was painful. Desperate to go back to college, I gained more than 30 pounds, but Northwestern denied me re-admission. Thus began my bitterness against God and my parents, fueled by the hatred and disgust I felt for myself. Even though I looked healthier physically, mentally and spiritually I was worse than before.
Costco bagels sparked one conflagration. I moved out the next day, spent nights sleeping in my car and crashing at my friend’s house, then roomed with a high school friend for three months. During those months, I turned into a hedonistic bulimic. I stayed up until 4 a.m., gorging on piles of fatty and sugary foods until my belly could take in no more, puking my guts out, and repeating the process again until I was half fainting. This unsustainable lifestyle—I passed out twice—pushed me back to anorexia.
Many times I could have died. I was actively destroying my body, stubbornly refusing even to open the Bible because of the tight, confusing mixture of guilt and resentment I felt toward Him. I wanted to hurt myself so much because I loathed everything about myself.
God used that loathing to spotlight my sin and weakness. Friends, intelligence, and talents—all obliterated by a single mental disability. Nothing to boast about, nothing to contribute: I was a 52-pound college dropout who couldn’t even feed herself or walk uphill without falling.
But I had an Almighty Father who so loved and treasured me that He sent His one and only son, Jesus Christ, to replenish my soul, my mind, and my body. I saw God’s love through my family, my church, my friends. I saw God’s love in someone as pathetic and wretched as me.
It took me a long time to understand what that kind of grace meant—deeply, intimately, personally—to me. I no longer wept about my inability to recover. When I used that newfound identity as a daily perspective on every circumstance and situation in my life, true recovery took place.
Many professionals say you can never recover completely from an eating disorder. Yes, the scars will always remain, but in my experience, God never wastes our tears. Even as my heart still tightens with the painful memories, the overwhelming sensations I feel are thanksgiving and awe.
Only God can make pottery (albeit still somewhat misshaped) out of a beaten lump of useless clay. Only God can turn an experience as hideous and humiliating as an eating disorder into a testimony that sings of His mercy and love. My parents and I share that testimony. We are all flawed individuals who are part of a beautiful purpose. It is bittersweet, but the bitter makes the sweet so much sweeter.
—Sophia Lee is a USC senior and WORLD intern