My senior year of high school, I stopped eating. My freshman year of college, I started throwing up. And the two continued to alternate in my life for the next five years.
Some people didn’t understand my seemingly irrational behavior. “Just eat,” some would say. “Stop forcing yourself to throw up.” But I couldn’t. Because those actions were just physical symptoms of a deeper problem: I wasn’t good enough.
When I felt I couldn’t live up to the expectations of myself and others, I turned to food—or, more specifically, the lack thereof—as a coping mechanism. When I couldn’t handle everything I was given to deal with in life, I turned to anorexia as a support. Because the more out of control things got, the more I had to find something I could control. And that something was food, calories, exercise, my weight. When I was overcome with self-hatred, I turned to purging as a way to try to empty myself of all of myself that disgusted me.
Eating disorders aren’t about the food, and they aren’t just a phase that someone gets over. They are serious illnesses about much more than the calorie content and carb count of every item on the table, and the effects—on body, mind, and spirit—run deeper and broader as well. But in the midst of all the pain an eating disorder can cause to those who suffer from it and those who love them, there is a bright light of hope in recovery.
Eating disorders are a physical manifestation of an intangible problem. Because women often can’t fix something they can’t see or touch, and because some situations are out of their control, they aim for the closest thing they can fix and control: their bodies.
“Satan is so jealous of our bodies that he wants us to hate our bodies and to mistreat them, and he uses eating disorders as a way for that to happen,” explains Beth Allen, a recovered anorexic and bulimic who now leads a 12-step eating disorder recovery program in Arizona through the Church.
And mistreatment is an understatement. The documented effects of eating disorders upon the body are devastating.
Anorexia, which consists of severe calorie restriction and is often accompanied by excessive exercise, can result in an abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, increased risk for heart failure, osteoporosis, low body temperature, infertility, lowered immune system function, muscle loss and weakness, fainting and fatigue, dehydration and kidney failure, hair loss, and, at advanced stages, the development of a furry peach fuzz of hair over the whole body called lanugo.
Bulimia is equally destructive. The repeated cycles of taking in extremely large amounts of food in a brief period of time and then forcing vomiting (commonly referred to as a binge-and-purge cycle) causes electrolyte imbalances, irregular heartbeats and heart failure, gastric rupture, swollen glands and facial features, tooth decay and gum disease, ulcers, headaches, sore throats, and inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus.
But it’s not just the systemic symptoms that are problematic. The brain itself is also altered. “When you have an eating disorder, it changes everything,” says Michael Berrett, a licensed psychologist and CEO and co-founder of eating disorder recovery clinic Center for Change. “It changes your hormone levels, the biochemistry of the brain, the level of neurotransmitters in the nervous system. It changes everything, to the point that in severe cases, body distortions can actually be hallucinations—it’s to that gravity. . . . It’s not ‘just a phase.’ Let’s get serious about these illnesses. They can—and do—kill people.”
In fact, one in ten diagnosed with anorexia die from it, making it the most deadly mental illness out there. With so many and such drastic repercussions, it seems obvious that such risks would not be worth the rewards, yet, for many, they continue to take them.
Eating disorders are a coping mechanism, a way of handling life when a person doesn’t know how to deal with struggles or emotions. People (most commonly women, though some men are affected as well) turn to them in pursuit of happiness and solace they feel they cannot find elsewhere. Sometimes they feel it will give them control, make them stand out or achieve perfection, give them a sense of identity, or earn them approval. Other times it is a manner of communicating pain, atoning for mistakes, or avoiding responsibility.
And it’s not just teen and college-age girls who are struggling. Older women are susceptible to relapses, and often they can have their first experiences with eating disorders in middle age.
“The pressure to look a certain way is not just for the younger; it’s felt by young adults and middle-aged and mature women. It’s ever present,” says Berrett. “Any time there’s a difficult life transition—divorce, financial duress, loss of any kind, or any of the difficult things that can and do happen—in those times people are more vulnerable and naturally seek something that will help them feel like they have some sense of control in their lives and like they are bettering their lives in some way.”
Unfortunately, what starts as something to make one’s self feel better quickly becomes something that makes life worse and increases the self hatred that instigated the actions in the first place. What begins as a control mechanism quickly spirals out of control until it controls every single thought and action in every single moment.
“It becomes everything,” says Berrett. “It is their life. In the development of the illness, it goes from an attempt to improve one’s life to a way of coping with life and then to a full-blown addiction. Eventually, it becomes to them their complete identity.”
When an eating disorder becomes the sole identity of a person, the sole manner of existing, it doesn’t matter what the physical effects are. And when the body and mind are so drastically affected, the spirit is, too.
“It chases the Spirit away because it becomes an obsession and it takes up your whole thought processes,” says Allen, “and you can’t have the Spirit with you—you can’t even let Him in. For me, when I was struggling really bad with [my eating disorder], it was easier for me to make other bad decisions.”
But there is still hope.
It has been thought in the past that eating disorders would be more common in the Church than in other cultural groupings, due to the high pressure of perfectionism, focus on dating and marriage, and other risk factors, such as socioeconomic status and race. Studies, though, are more and more suggesting the opposite.
One found that religious women who had a secure attachment to God felt less pressure to be thin and experienced less body dissatisfaction and dieting behavior compared to those with a less defined relationship with God. Specifically, Mormon women were found to be more intrinsic in their religion when compared to some members of other faiths and also to have lower levels of disordered eating.
A recent BYU study seems to confirm this finding, though the results have not been finalized. While BYU professor Lane Fischer, who headed up the study, and his co-workers expected to find a higher incidence of eating disorders at BYU, they were actually lower than rates at other universities throughout the nation, and eating disorder risk continued to decrease the longer students stayed at the university. Fischer has a few hypotheses to explain this surprising find.
“When you come here as a freshman, you immediately have a visiting teacher, a home teacher, a family home evening group, a bishop, and a Relief Society president to look out for you,” he explains. “[You] have an immediate social support system.”
One of the buffering agents against some of the influences of the world that would normally contribute to the causality of an eating disorder, Fischer believes, is the doctrine taught within the Church—teachings like the sacredness of the body and our inherent divine worth. Teachings like these can be instrumental not just in preventing eating disorders but in recovery as well.
Before we talk about that, though, let’s get one thing clear: eating disorders are an illness, and they do require professional help to be overcome.
“I think one thing that makes it difficult for some [people] actively engaged in a theistic religious faith—including the LDS faith—is the tendency to believe that if they were living good lives, living the gospel well, connected to God, and doing all the right things, they wouldn’t have these problems,” says Berrett. “And so their answer becomes, ‘I’ve got to be and do better.’ In this state of inappropriate guilt and blame, there is less willingness to reach out for help.”
But that’s a mistake, says Marleen Williams, a professor of counseling psychology at BYU and editor of Matters of the Mind. “If your car breaks down, you need to see a mechanic,” she explains. “If you get cancer, you need to see a cancer specialist. If you have a heart attack, you need to see a cardiologist. Then you couple that with faith, prayer, and a priesthood blessing. . . . You can rely on blessings and spiritual things, but you also need to deal with the medical end of the eating disorder, because it is a serious medical problem.”
That being said, the gospel can be an amazing tool in assisting with recovery. Several studies and interviews with both current and former eating disorder patients have concluded that many women cite spirituality as a crucial part of their recovery.
“When women with eating disorders affirm their faith in God and seek to grow spiritually, their strength and capacity to cope with and overcome the problems and challenges of life improve, regardless of whether their challenges are emotional, physical, relational, spiritual, or educational,” Randy Hardman, PhD, explains in Matters of the Mind.
While eating disorders are a traumatic and life-altering disease, they can be overcome. You can reach the point at which your eating disorder fades—eventually to something you think about but don’t act upon, and eventually to something you don’t think about at all—until it ceases to exist. I am a living testament of that. Two years ago, I thought it would be a part of my life forever. You may feel the same way, but it’s not true. You can get help, you can recover, and you can live a normal life again.
To learn more about the author's personal experience with an eating disorder, click here.
One of the many contributing factors to body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating can be the images we see daily in the media. You can learn more about the harmful effects of teh negative beauty images in the media and how to comat them at ldsliving.com/beautyredefined.
This article was originally published in LDS Living's March/April 2012 issue. Click here to learn more.