Made For More: Reflections on Eating Disorder Recovery and Perfectionism

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This month’s theme on This is Thirty Four is BEING BRAVE. A few women have shared their stories and moments of bravery, and now it’s time for me to share mine…

I’m not exactly sure when it started, but I know it was well before the first time I threw up. Perhaps it started in first grade, when as a perfectionistic and overly self-aware child, I first experienced shame by being placed in the intermediate, rather than the advanced, reading group.

For weeks afterward, I hit the phonics hard in order to move up to the top tier group, and when I achieved that goal and received praise from my teachers and parents and acceptance from the “cool kids” in the advanced group, I felt exhilarated. My malleable seven-year-old mind learned a lesson that day:

Shame can be channeled into achievement and turned into acceptance.

In middle school, I was hit with the trifecta of early adolescent insecurity: braces, glasses and a very flat chest. (Sadly, things haven’t changed much in the latter category as a 34-year-old.) So, I did what any middle school girl would do: I got contacts, begged my parents for clear braces instead of the garish metal ones that many of my peers were wearing and bought padded bras and stuffed them with tissues to give the appearance of something more than speed bumps under my t-shirt.

These tactics worked. By high school, I was one of the most popular girls in school. (Sidenote: It is not hard to be the most popular when your graduating class is only 36 students. Thank you, private school education!)  Despite questionable haircuts and cringe-worthy fashion choices (It was the 90’s, you guys!), I don’t remember feeling terribly insecure about my body in high school; but I do remember constantly comparing myself to others and striving to maintain my status as one of the cool kids.

You see, my middle school transformation taught me another “life” lesson:

Outcasts become cheerleading squad captains when you look cute and work hard to fit in.

I took the narratives of achievement, outward appearance and their combined power to bring about popularity and acceptance into my freshman year of college. Having grown up in private Christian school my whole life, college was the first time my world views were challenged…and the first time I was around alcohol.  The lack of organized sports (e.g.- regular workouts), crappy cafeteria food and late night snacking coupled with a string of poor decisions left me with an extra 10 pounds and a deep sense of shame within my first month of college.

Shame plus perfectionism and a desire for acceptance is a lethal combination.

Not knowing how to cope with my emotions, I turned to food for comfort. By the end of my first semester of college, I was trapped in a weekly, sometimes daily, cycle of binging and purging. Thanks to caring roommates who called my parents and told them what was going on, I landed in a counselor’s office during Christmas break from school. That well-meaning man gave me tactics to stop over eating and throwing up (God bless the male heart to “fix things.”); but he never addressed what was really going on.

The problem with an eating disorder is that an eating disorder is very rarely the root of the problem. It is merely a manifestation of a deeper issue. For me, those issues were perfectionism, constant comparison, an unchecked desire to fit in and an inability to deal with the inevitable failures that come with being human.

And so, the cycle of binging and purging and lying about binging and purging and being triggered by the lying and starting the cycle all over again continued throughout all four years of college and into graduate school. Often, I would throw up less—or sometimes stop altogether—when I was in a new relationship (my desire to be perfect and accepted was never more strong than with a boyfriend); but as soon as that relationship got difficult or ended, I would start the cycle all over again. 

The scary thing is, once I convinced my parents and roommates that counseling had done the trick and I was cured of my eating issues, no one really knew I was still throwing up. I was a straight A student who had my choice of graduate schools and appeared to most people—including family and close friends—to be relatively happy and healthy.

Eating disorders are often a slow, silent killer.

And then one day, the bottom dropped out.

In the fall of 2005, during my first semester of graduate school, my boyfriend of two years announced he was no longer in love with me. He cut off contact overnight; and I moved to a different section of town, away from him and from our mutual friends. I changed churches and ate my feelings away. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but the three months after our break up were characterized by empty cartons of ice cream, nights spent lying on the bathroom floor and deep, deep shame.

There comes a point when you can no longer cover up what goes on when no one’s watching, and I had reached that point. One night, after a particularly violent binge/purge cycle, I remember laying down in the hallway of my apartment, extending my right hand up in the air and saying: “I can’t do this anymore, God. Something has to change. Take my hand. Walk with me through this and help me out of it.”

Through the love and encouragement of my parents and friends, a counselor named Angel (I swear I’m not making that up) and a huge helping (only slight pun intended) of God’s grace and mercy, I slowly began the process of recovery. I learned to identify my triggers. Then I learned to avoid them. Then I learned to anticipate them. And finally, I learned to manage them. It often felt like three steps forward, two steps back; but day after day, I made progress.

A year and a half after the bad break-up that became the catalyst for getting help, another relationship ended unexpectedly. This time, instead of falling back into old habits, I fell on family, friends and God. Two months later, when I met the man who became my husband, I knew I was ready for a healthy relationship because I was healthy myself. Six months later, when I moved across the country to be closer to my now husband, I felt confident that I could handle a huge life change without fear of relapse. And you know what? By God’s grace, I was right.

But my story doesn’t stop with meeting a guy, moving across the country and living happily ever after. While I'm no longer battling an eating disorder or (major) body image issues (I still have those tiny boobs, afterall...), perfectionism and constantly comparing myself to others are still things I struggle with.

Like anyone, I am a work in progress; but my battle with bulimia taught me five truths that still serve me well as I actively fight off the lies that this world and the culture we live in try to tell me:

1. There is no cool kids club.  

If someone around you has created one, believe me, you don’t want to be a part of it! No matter how much better someone else’s life might look, at the end of the day, we are all human. Sit at all the tables. Jesus eats with everyone.

2. Each day is a chance to start over.

You are not your mistakes; and the mistakes you made yesterday don’t dictate the person you are today.  God’s mercies are new every morning. He is faithful, and He is good to those who seek after Him.

3. No two people have the same journey to recovery.

What took me two years might take you ten months or ten years. Don’t compare my ending to your beginning. Your journey to recovery or overcoming a particular obstacle is unique. There are stories and truths that you will be able to share that I can’t, simply because your journey took you different places than mine.

 4. You cannot do this alone.

We were made to live in community; but things like eating disorders and addiction and even perfectionism and comparison often force us into isolation. We think we’re the only ones who struggle. We fear that people won’t want to be our friend if they really know us; but we are wrong. If you don’t have at least one person you can talk to, seek someone out--a counselor, a pastor, ME. You cannot walk the road to recovery—or this life--alone, and you shouldn’t have to.

5. This is hard work.

Overcoming an eating disorder or a mental or physical challenge of any kind is probably some of the hardest work you will ever do in your life…but it just might save your life. Or your marriage. Or your job. Or your family. You were made for more than struggle. You were made to thrive. So, dig your heels in and know that there is light at the end of what might look like a very dark tunnel right now.

With God…and counseling…and hard work…but mostly God… all things are truly possible.