I found a grey hair this morning. Okay, if I’m
being perfectly honest it wasn’t actually the first one, but it felt more significant since I’m turning 30 in a few days. It got me thinking about some of the journal entries I wrote when I was sick and how convinced I was that once I turned 18 and could make my own legal decisions (including moving out or refusing treatment) the eating disorder would get the better of me. I truly believed that I was going to die. Yet here I am.
Sometimes I look back at that time of my life and wonder “why me?” I don’t wonder why I got sick. I wonder the opposite. With a disease that has such a high mortality rate why did I get better? Why did God choose to heal me?
I’ll probably never know the answer to this question and that’s okay. As painful as the memory of those dark times are, though, I also never want to forget them because the fact that I made it through to the other side is a testimony to God’s great love and mercy. After all that He has done for me I don’t ever want to take my life and health for granted.
My mom used to talk about living intentionally. She meant not letting yourself get swept up in the chaos of daily life but instead being deliberate about what you do with your time and how you treat others. Maybe you’ve had some kind of wakeup call like I did that demonstrated how short and fragile life really is. Or maybe you haven’t yet. Either way you can still make the choice to be intentional about how you live your life.
Take a minute to ask yourself:
If you’re unhappy with the answers to any of these questions then commit to making a change. It’s not too late now, but it’s going to be at some point so don’t wait. It’s not easy. This is still something that I struggle with and have to remind myself to work on every day. We live in a culture that puts so much emphasis on productivity and always looking forward to the next big thing. Habits that have become deeply engrained over the years are extremely difficult to break. But if we’re always looking forward to the next thing we’re never truly being present in the moment. We can’t live in the future or the past. If we’re never living in the present are we really living at all?
I wish that I could tell you that I’ve heard of these things being said to other people but it’s not very common and it certainly was never said to me. Unfortunately, though, that isn’t the case. It’s often well-intentioned—a friend or family member just doesn’t understand the illness well enough to respond appropriately and doesn’t want to say nothing. Other times it’s pure naiveté or people that feel the need to make their opinion known. Either way, the unfortunate truth is that people end up saying unhelpful or even outright hurtful things. These are the three that come readily to mind which I have heard repeatedly myself or know other survivors who have.
In third place: “Just eat.” I’m sure it looks simple from the outside. If I’m dangerously underweight and my body needs food then the obvious solution would be to eat. But this is about the equivalent of telling someone who is trying to tread water with baggy clothes on and a boat anchor tied to one foot to “just swim.” The situation looks much different from the shore than if you were the one in the water.
In second place: “But you’re already so pretty, thin, etc.” I’m not saying that you can’t or shouldn’t compliment someone with and eating disorder, but tread lightly when making comments about their physical appearance. Part of the illness is that they cannot see themselves accurately and these types of comments can be very confusing. It’s especially risky to make any kind of comment about their weight.
In first place (the grand winner of unhelpful things to say to someone with an eating disorder): “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” Even years into recovery, just typing this sentence gets my blood boiling. In addition to being the absolute worst thing you could possibly say to someone with an eating disorder, it’s probably also the one that’s unfortunately the most common. In a way I can understand where people are coming from – when a lot of people think of eating disorders they think of someone who is anorexic, extremely emaciated, and basically on death’s door. But a person can be incredibly sick and give no indication from their outward appearance. There are also multiple types of eating disorders besides anorexia. I can tell you from personal experience that when someone says to a person with an eating disorder that they don’t look like they have an eating disorder it translates directly to a) you’re fat or b) I question the validity of your illness.
So what are appropriate things to say to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder? First of all, it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t understand the illness or know the perfect thing to say. You can support them without having an insider’s idea of what they are going through. Tell them “It’s hard for me to understand but I’m here to love and support you in whatever way you need.” If they’re open to explaining their experience, ask questions and listen without judgment. Instead of responding with “I understand” or trying to relate it to something in your own life that has to do with food, weight, or eating let them know “That sounds really hard/painful/frustrating. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to deal with that every day.” And if you get to a point in the conversation where you’re at a loss for words, try to get comfortable with the silence. Just be with them when they need you without trying to fix them. Sometimes that means more than anything you could say.
July was the two year anniversary of Mom’s passing. It’s so strange to think that life goes on even without her here. Six months after her death Dad asked if I thought I was getting depressed. With my history of mental illness it was a valid question. I had to think about it for a minute before responding, but my answer was a sure “no”.
Since then there have been many times when I’ve had to stop to take a moment to check in with myself. I ask myself the same question that Dad asked me – How is my mental health? Am I getting depressed again? There are so many similarities between grief and depression. In the beginning it was especially hard to differentiate between the two. I felt so tired and heavy all of the time. Basic, daily tasks like getting out of bed and eating breakfast seemed almost impossible. I was moody and had a short temper. For a while I was afraid that I had permanently lost all empathy for other people. I was hurting too much myself to have any energy left to care about what they were going through. Even the pain was similar in some ways. The term “broken heart” never seemed more appropriate. It was a sharp, stabbing pain in my chest so intense that it knocked the breath out of me. Sometimes I felt like it might kill me. Sometimes I wished it would.
The difference between the pain of grief and that which comes with depression was subtle initially but definitely still there. It was in my view of the future. As overwhelming as the pain was immediately after Mom’s death, on at least some level I knew that it couldn’t stay at such a high intensity forever. Time would eventually bring healing. I could still picture the future – seeing my sisters get married, meeting new nieces and nephews, growing old (God willing) with my husband. It was bittersweet to imagine because I knew that Mom wouldn’t be there for any of these things, but I still believed that each new season of life would bring its own joy and beauty. I was never without hope.
That hope is what I was missing when I was depressed. When I was trapped in those moments of pain, despair, and emptiness I was so certain that was all I would ever feel. If I’d had a good day previously I couldn’t remember it. All I recalled was each time I had felt this way before. When I tried to look toward the future I saw nothing. It was like trying to look out a window with the curtain closed. The biggest lie depression ever told me was “this is all you have ever been and all you ever will be.”
As months and then years have gone by the pain of grief has become less intense. It still hurts, it always will, but it is less debilitating than it was initially. I still think about her all of the time. Even the most joy-filled life events are accompanied by a pang of sadness and the thought that “she should be here,” but I am still moving forward.
Life is beautiful. It’s always moving and changing. There are new seasons, new friends, new growth. If you are in a place right now where you can’t see that, whether that’s because of personal tragedy or mental illness, please know that the way things are right now are not how they are always going to be. It seems like such a shame when the happy moments in our lives can’t last forever, but the blessing is that neither does the pain. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it – whether that’s from a family member, a friend, or a counselor – and don’t ever lose hope that you’ll find joy in life again.
“The eating disorder has a mind of its own.
I don’t know where its thoughts start and mine end.
My mind is a mess of thoughts and emotions not entirely my own.”
– excerpt from Paper Thin
I work with a teenager who has diabetes. When I talk about him I describe him as sweet, funny, and hard-working. I don’t say that he is sweet, funny, hard-working, and diabetic. He happens to have a medical condition where his body can’t properly produce its own insulin. Maybe having to deal with this challenge has sharpened his personality traits – he manages to do a good job at school and work while also being careful about what he eats to balance his blood sugar – but it does not define who he is as a person.
I think that for most medical conditions this concept is pretty easy to understand. When we start talking about mental illness, however, the distinction is not as often made. I think one of the most common examples of this is addictions. I very rarely hear people described as having an addiction. They are simple labeled an addict.
When I was sick I often heard that I was anxious. I was anorexic. As if these things were an innate part of my personality. But I was not and am not defined by my diagnoses, and neither are you. One of the first steps I had to take in order to begin my recovery journey was to make the distinction between myself and the eating disorder. I had to be able to recognize when it was urging me to do something that deep down I knew was unhealthy, and then slowly start to say no even though it made me uncomfortable. It’s a lot easier now than it was back then. The eating disorder is like an abusive ex-boyfriend that texts every so often to give unsolicited advice or suggest that we get back together. I just roll my eyes, ignore it, and go about my day. But when I was at my worst it was very hard for me to differentiate between the two of us. It took time and practice.
So if you have a friend or family member who is dealing with mental illness I want to challenge you to be more intentional about the vocabulary you use. Try to talk and think about their disorder as an illness separate from them as a person. And if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness yourself, start to take a closer look at your thoughts throughout the day. See if you can pick apart which thoughts are truly yours and which are your illness. You may be surprised at what you discover.
This verse, and other references to crosses in the gospel, are ones most Christians are familiar with. They make sense to us now in hindsight because we know how the story ends. We know the significance that the cross played in our salvation. But have you ever wondered what Jesus’ disciples thought about these statements? They would have made no sense at the time. Before Christ’s passion, crucifixion was reserved for only the hardest of criminals. Why would Jesus have told them to willing die this type of painful death? These days we think we understand—Jesus had to die so that our sins could be forgiven—but what about the second part? What about His calling for us to take up our crosses as well? In this regard I think that, unfortunately, many Christians are just as confused as the original disciples.
It’s easy for us to take credit when things are going well. So many people paint this rosy picture of Christianity. They believe that if you have Jesus in your heart life will flow smoothly and you will always be filled with a celestial joy. And while I would not deny that there is a peace and incredible joy in knowing Christ, that’s only part of the picture. But when we believe that our happiness and the good things that happen to us are solely the result of our faith, what happens when we inevitably face trails or suffering?
This was a source of great pain and confusion for me when I first began dealing with mental illness. At youth group after our times of prayer or worship the other teens would talk about feeling joy and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I went through the motions, but felt only emptiness and despair. I thought that I must be missing something that the other teens had. That my faith was not as deep as theirs. I felt guilty about the anxiety that I was struggling with and took it as a sign that I was not trusting God, because if I really believed that He would take care of me why would I be worrying?
It took years before I was finally able to acknowledge that my mental illness was no different than any other illness. That it had physiological causes and nothing to do with my faith. That sometimes I felt pain or despair for no particular reason, but that it was what I did with those feelings that mattered. I could feed into them and the lies I started to ruminate on about their cause (e.g., my faith wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, etc.), or I could keep moving forward in treating my mental illness and living a healthy life. I could accept the pain as one of my crosses and let it bring me closer to Christ instead of using it as an excuse to push Him away and believe that I wasn’t worthy of His love.
March 23, 2014
“I used to think that the darkness I sometimes experienced was caused by sin.
I don’t worry about that much anymore though. And isn’t it action that matters anyway? In the end, my emotions don’t always mean much. They’re just chemical reactions in my brain.
It’s what I do or don’t do about the emotions now that matter…
My brain is broken. As a result, I sometimes feel emotional pain when there
is no reason for it, but I don’t need to act on the pain or feed into the lies about the causes… The pain is real, but the reasons that I come up with (because my
logic tells me that if there is pain then there must be a reason for it) are not…
Oh my gosh! For the first time I can see. Thank you God! They are all lies! For all these years I have been believing lies. The pain is just pain. There is no reason for it. It is not my subconscious mind telling me that there is something wrong with me. I am not ugly or fat or stupid. I am not worthless. I’m good. I am made in God’s image and I am beautiful.”
- excerpt from Paper Thin
“I don’t know what to believe anymore. The doctors have classified it as anorexia. I
don’t see it, don’t believe it, but the doctors also say that denial is one of the symptoms.
People with anorexia don’t think they have it… A normal illness would be easier because at
least the person who has it would be trying to get rid of it… They’d want to get rid of it,
want to get better. They would be working with the doctors and their loved ones trying to
keep them alive, not against them… With anorexia, it’s not you and the doctors against the disease. Youand the disease are a team and your enemy is everyone else in the world.”
– excerpt from Paper Thin
From an outside perspective, I think one of the most perplexing things about eating disorders (and many other mental health diagnoses) is the person’s inability to acknowledge that there is a problem. I often hear the word denial, but I don’t think that this is entirely accurate. Denial suggests that the person is aware that there is a problem but won’t admit it. The truth is a lot more complicated. An unfortunate characteristic of many mental illnesses is a warped view of reality. The person dealing with the mental illness is unable to view themselves or their situation as it really is. Instead they see it as if looking through a carnival mirror – the image looks real to them but is actually a distorted version of the truth. And even the distortions aren’t consistent. One day they might see one image, and the next it is something else entirely.
When I was at the lowest point of my eating disorder, I was completely unable to see myself as I actually was. My friends and family cried when they hugged me. They said I was nothing but bones. And yet when I looked into the mirror I either saw what I thought looked like a normal weight or, more often, I saw myself as fat. This made the jump from me adamantly refusing to acknowledge the problem to actively participating in my treatment extremely difficult because I was essentially doing it blind. I had to trust that my parents and the doctors were being truthful and had my best interest at heart even when I couldn’t see that there was anything wrong.
It may sound simple on paper, but at the time I was terrified. There is one particular memory I have that I think sums up the struggle well. I was already a good way into treatment and was gradually making progress toward being a healthy weight but I was still quite thin. I had just gotten out of the shower in my parents’ bathroom. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and using their big bathroom mirror to get ready for the day. As I looked into the mirror, for a split second my perception changed and I was able to see myself as I really was. I looked terrible. My cheeks were sunken and my arms were rail thin. Then abruptly the image switched back to how I normally saw myself. My mom found me sobbing on the bathroom floor. I was so confused and afraid.
I don’t know why I had this moment of clarity, but it was not the norm for me. I was not usually able to see myself as I really was. I was only able to discern the truth from what I was told by the people around me who loved me. For this reason I want to encourage you—if you know someone who is struggling with mental illness but is unable to see their situation clearly don’t be afraid to be their mirror. Don’t fall into the trap of letting it go because they don’t seem concerned by it. If you see something is wrong speak up. Maybe the first time they blow you off. Maybe the second time they blow you off. But maybe, if you or enough people in their lives that they know and trust bring it up, they will take a second look at themselves and start to question what they perceive as truth. That moment when they realize that they can’t trust their own view of reality may be terrifying, but it can also be a motivator for change. This is especially true if it is paired with the support of loved ones alongside them who are willing to offer their own strength and guidance as they take those first baby steps into the difficult journey of recovery.
It’s been a few months now since Paper Thin was released on Amazon. So far I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and heard some incredible accounts of people’s own recovery stories. However, by far the most common response I’ve heard from family and friends is this—“I didn’t know.” I saw you at school, at church, at family get-togethers, but I had no idea the battle you were going through.
I don’t think this is anyone’s fault. Eating disorders, or really mental illnesses in general, are strange and often misunderstood. For this reason I don’t think that my parents ever felt very comfortable talking about it to people outside of our immediate family. We were still able to fight through it though because I had them and they had each other. Even when I denied there was a problem my mom and dad stood together as partners to fight for me.
The unfortunate truth is that not everyone has the support system that I did. And in these cases, “not knowing” can be the difference between someone having the support they need to walk the difficult path of recovery or feeling isolated and embarrassed about what they are going through. It can be the difference between acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place or denying it even exists.
Like I said, I’m not trying to place blame on anyone. I think that we live in a culture where most people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness. But I also think that needs to change, and the only way to change a culture is to start with the individuals in it. Let’s begin with ourselves. If you knew someone whose child had a medical condition would you be hesitant to ask them about it? Probably not. So let’s start treating mental illness like any other illness.
If you know someone struggling with mental illness or someone walking with a loved one through that struggle, don’t be afraid to ask them how they are doing or if there is anything you can do to support them. If it’s something you don’t know much about, you don’t need to offer advice. Just listen. Be there for them. And if you yourself are struggling with mental illness, don’t be afraid to reach out for the support you need. Be honest about what you are going through. And if you have walked or are currently walking the path of recovery, don’t be afraid to share your story. You never know who might be impacted by it.