By Lisa Rieck

Eating Disorders, Grace, and My Failed Quest for Perfection

A woman I know has a habit of naming her years. Come January 1, she’ll choose a word for the year ahead—something she’d like to be true of the coming months, such as community or adventure or love.

If I were to go back and name the past ten years of my life, most of them would share the same few words: Judgment. Guilt. Fear.

The Perfect Storm

I’ve always been a perfectionist. It worked okay for me for the first twenty-two years of my life, but soon after I graduated from college, the system started to break down. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, so I couldn’t even try to do it well. And I was rejected for jobs I was sure were made for me.

When someone actually did hire me and I moved to the great Chicago suburbs, the perfectionism got a little more demanding: Excel at your job. Manage your money responsibly. Get your oil changed regularly. Succeed in some kind of meaningful, significant ministry. Keep in touch with friends from home and college. Make good first impressions (and everything was a first impression).

Added to those pressures were a lack of community, my parents’ move from the house and state I’d grown up in to a town 12 hours away, and an unexpectedly difficult relationship that only added to my fear and sense of failure. My life felt chaotic and stressful. I needed order, control, and some kind of measuring stick for success.

Without even meaning to, I chose anorexia.

A Deceptive Disease

February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and this week, in particular, is NEDAwareness week, sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association. While awareness and treatment have come a long way in the past twenty years, a number of myths remain.

First, women and men, of all shapes, sizes, and ages, can have an eating disorder. Approximately 10 million men and 20 million women will suffer from a “clinically significant eating disorder” at some point in their life. And many people die from them. Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness in America.

In addition, very few eating disorders start wholly from a desire to be thin. They’re almost always a symptom of a deeper issue, and often begin subconsciously. My descent into anorexia occurred through several small, seemingly innocent choices my first few years out of college—choices I made to try to feel disciplined, in control, and right about at least one thing in my life (ironically, health).

The problem is that the “small” choices add up—and become addictive. The behaviors numb emotions; food, hunger, calories, and weight become something to hyper-focus on besides emotional pain and fear. In the meantime, people’s perception of their body and abilities becomes distorted. They start to believe they can’t cope/be successful/be loved/be anything of value without the eating disorder. It becomes their identity and dictates how they behave. Indeed, by the time I realized and accepted that I actually had an eating disorder, I couldn’t imagine living without it.

Recovery Is Possible

Thankfully, that’s starting to change. The two-plus years since I was in treatment have been full of emotional exhaustion, stressful meal after stressful meal, and hard decisions, but I finally believe God’s truth and power are great enough to bring complete freedom one day, and that he desires that for me.

My change in perspective with regard to recovery has come about in large part from a change in how I see God. Even before my eating disorder, I assumed God was disappointed in me for all the things I hadn’t done for him. During my twenties, that assumption deepened, and my struggle with anorexia only increased my guilt. I believed he was impatiently waiting for me to get over my eating disorder so that I’d have energy again to do the more important work of his kingdom.

But when I started to actually listen to him, he didn’t judge or chastise. I was the one doing that. Rather, he reminded me of my core identity as his child, made in his image. He spoke with gentleness and truth. I sensed his compassion for my struggle, which gave me courage to push past the shame I was feeling about my eating disorder (read: big failure) and invite others into my struggle.

In addition, at several specific points in my recovery journey, he’s provided me with “stones of remembrance”: people, words, resources, and experiences that have given me another wave of motivation, and pushed me to take another step forward when I was tempted to go back. Now I’m in awe of his goodness—and I know there’s more to come.

Hope for You

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, let me tell you that recovery is possible for you. Nothing is outside the realm of God’s power. But please don’t go it alone. Tell someone you’re struggling, whether it’s a friend, your parents, your spouse, or a pastor. Speaking of your struggle breaks some of the power and shame of the eating disorder, and can cut through the extreme loneliness you’re feeling.

In addition, seek the help of a therapist or dietitian—both, if possible. They are essential for recovery, and asking for help is the strong, courageous thing to do. My team compassionately walked with me, encouraged me, and pushed me while also allowing me to go at my own pace. They know change does not happen overnight, and won’t expect that.

If you’re the friend or family member of someone struggling, you’re in a painful place too. It’s terrifying to watch a loved one hurt themselves. You need people around you as well to support you as you support your loved one. Seek out a therapist or family support group where you can share your fear and frustration. NEDA has many helpful resources on its website. And don’t forget to pray. All the time. Get others to pray too. I’m sure the progress I’ve made so far is, in part, because of the many prayers prayed for me by family and friends.

New Words for My Years

Recovery for me is much closer than it’s been, but I’m still a work in progress. I wrestle with guilt. Certain foods can be stressful. And I fight lies within and without me that say my value is in my discipline or productivity or money-management. But the words I would use to name my years are different. Because of God and his continued work and healing in my life, I have new names that characterize what I’m learning. 

Grace. Truth. Freedom.


Lisa Rieck is a writer and copyeditor on InterVarsity’s communications team. She worked at InterVarsity Press for over nine years as a proofreader and Bible study editor (and, as it were, resident limerick-writer). She is continually inspired by the beauty of the sky and loves good conversation with family and friends over steaming-hot beverages.


Here are a few resources that have been helpful to me in my journey:

Simplicity

Surrender to Love

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Comments

What an amazing post! Thanks for sharing. Just the reminder I needed as I go through student teaching and feel like I have to make the perfect impression on everyone I meet:)

Thank you, Lisa, for a courageous, authentic post that will give life to others who are struggling. I know how hard it can be to share struggles publicly, but I pray you will see some of the fruits of doing so. This post will give others hope and resources and encouragement. God will continue to work in wonderful ways in you! -Rachel S.

I think the hardest thing about eating disorders is the need to keep them a secret. I struggled with bulimia for over 20 years without telling a single soul. What led me down the path was me being a perfectionist and not knowing how to deal with difficult relationships in my home growing up. Food and my body became the things I could control. Over time the eating disorder became a part of me (or so I thought). I hated who I was but was convinced it was my fault, my problem and that I could fix it on my own. Not until I was completely broken and warn down did I seek help. Looking back I can see that God kept putting people in my life. I was stubborn, and it took me a long time to be ready to open my heart to them and to Him. I too am and will always be in the process of healing and recovering. But I have been freed, and have peace now. Everyone has challenges in their lives but allowing them to define who we are is believing a lie. God made us as His beautiful children. Only He can define who we are. What a gift. – Gwen K.

Appreciate your brave, honest reflections, Lisa, and encouraged by how you've seen Jesus redeeming the shadows in your life. :)

What a beautiful story. I am certain you have helped and encouraged many who struggle with an eating disorder. This is an area that God has laid on my heart. For years (and years) I struggled with an eating disorder. I tried so hard to overcome it on my own, but I failed everytime. It wasn’t until I was at my lowest point, that I was able to accept God’s strength and help. He truly saved me. I have been feeling led to share my story lately. I took a huge leap and entered a contest with My Faith Radio, writing down my story of accepting God’s grace. The story can be found at http://myfaithradio.com/2015/enough-3/ I hope it helps others. I realize that we don't know each other, but if you like it, please vote for me. If you feel it will encourage others in some way, please share it. Thanks and blessings.

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