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My Eating Disorder Was About Control as Much as Food

Read this reflective narrative about the role of control in recovering from an eating disorder.
(Art credit: Nia Bailey | @niabydesign)

In the process of healing from depression and anxiety, Kristen discovered that she was also suffering from an eating disorder. This is the story of how loved ones helped her identify the problem, and what it has been like for her to recover from this disease. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my battle with my eating disorder began, but the clearest starting point I can think of is when I could finally put a name to what I was experiencing. 

I was just ending a two-month intensive therapy program after being hospitalized because a suicide attempt when the team of therapists, social workers, and clinicians at my therapy program noticed something else was going on. After identifying some eating disorder symptoms and tendencies, they suggested I seek treatment after I was discharged from their program. 

I thought identifying that I had depression and anxiety was hard, but identifying that I was also struggling with an eating disorder was a whole new battle. My perception of what an eating disorder (ED) was — and what a person struggling with one looked like — were totally skewed by media and the portrayal of EDs in movies and television.

I didn’t think I was fat. I didn’t look at models and wish I looked like them. I didn’t go through the WHOLE day without eating. But I did try to control my life through the means of controlling what I consumed. And that is precisely what I was completely unaware of: the control. 

I was unaware that an eating disorder is about SO much more than the food. It’s so much more than body image. It’s rooted in wanting, desiring, and CRAVING control. And that’s what I was so desperately trying to do.

Controlling how much I would eat in a day became a game to me. By controlling simply what I was consuming, I gained a sense of power over my life. It started small — just not eating breakfast, or avoiding a piece of cake for dessert. But it quickly — and without my awareness — snowballed into not eating entire meals, even to not allowing myself any food at all for multiple days. It turned into negative thoughts of body image, then to actually thinking and believing I needed to lose weight to be a good person.

I want to make something clear that I wish I would have known, and I wish more people knew about eating disorders: More often than not, eating disorders do NOT start with body image issues or food issues. They certainly can, yes, but the majority of cases begin with a desire for control in your life. 

That control can 100-percent lead to negative thoughts about your body, as it did for me, but it doesn’t have to begin with that. I went from being okay with how I looked to scrutinizing every inch of my body every time I looked in a mirror. I began checking the scale every day, multiple times a day. The number on the scale told me if I was winning or losing at this control game. I was comforted by the growl of hunger that I felt in my empty, hollow stomach. Those pangs of hunger were proof that I was in control.

It didn’t take long for those around me to notice that I was skipping out on meals, becoming increasingly fatigued, and losing weight quickly. I knew that my desire for control had quickly spiraled and that my eating disorder was actually controlling me

It controlled my thoughts almost all hours of the day. By the time my head hit the pillow at night, I was mentally exhausted. I was constantly in my head about family dinners, going out to eat, holiday meals — constantly putting on a mask to make it seem like I wasn’t completely withering away from the inside out. 

My parents saw straight through my facade and into my pain. Thankfully, they helped me get connected to the resources I needed to get my life back before the disease completely claimed me.

The road to recovery is difficult — I knew it would be from my experiences with depression and suicide. But eating disorders are a completely new territory. It took a while to find the right therapist, the right treatment program, and the right nutritionist to be on my team fighting for and with me to beat this disease.

Recovery took and continues to take a daily commitment. It took months for me to gain back all of the weight I had lost plus more, making specific meal plans and goals for my diet. It took months and hard mental work to not approach food as the enemy. It took patience and determination with myself to learn how to love my body again, no matter what number appeared on the scale. It took session after session with my therapist to learn how to overcome the distorted, negative thoughts about myself and my body, and the intruding, manipulative thoughts of control.

Recovery takes repeating and reminding myself all of these things I’ve learned — all of the time, every day, throughout the day. Recovery is ongoing.

If I’ve learned anything as a result of having and living with an eating disorder, it’s that we are much, much stronger than we often give ourselves credit for. And we are stronger not because of merely our own strength, but because we can rely on the strength that God gives us and wants to give us. He wants to enter our dark and broken places, our suffering and our pain.

I’ve learned a lot through my recovery from an eating disorder. It is much different than any other form of recovery I have experienced — it is multi-layered. I have to show up every day, mentally and physically willing to work against this disease that continues to lurk around me. But I find rest and comfort knowing that I have a team nearby, both human and divine, fighting alongside me.

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