Tuesday, July 7, 2009

1,500 +

The more I share my story, the more liberated I become. Eighteen months ago I wrote a blog admitting to an eating disorder and found an inbox overflowing with support, encouragement, and others personal stories: eating disorders, pornography. I spoke at Union college and was greeted again with warmth and other people’s testimonies: eating disorders, self-hatred, depression, alcoholism. I shared my story here at camp in Tennessee and again, have met several girls struggling with the same problem.

Every Sunday night at campfire bowl we do something called, Cardboard Testimonies. As our theme this summer is Freedom, we are encouraging those we come in contact with to face the chains that bind them and surrender. One at a time, any staff that want to can go up and hold a piece of cardboard with their own testimony written on it. For example, mine says, “Recovering bulimic” and when I flip it over it says, “God is re-defining beauty.”

It is equally uncomfortable, but equally rewarding every time. By now, 18 months after “exposing” that secret I swore I’d never tell by blog, emails, speaking at Union, speaking at camp, and conversations with people, I’ve probably told close to 1,500 people, “Hey, I’ve got an eating disorder, what’s your story?” Wow. That’s a lot of people. But by sharing that part of myself with 1,500+ people I don’t have to carry so much of it on my own.

Consider a full size moving truck full of possessions: couches, dresses, a grand piano, beds, boxes, fine china, and books, and being expected to unload and move into a house all by yourself. Split up that load equally between 1,500 movers. Piece of cake right? That’s how I feel. Relief. Rest. Healing. I don’t have to carry this on my own anymore.

We’ll call her Deidra. She runs 6 miles every morning. Yesterday I saw her out running twice. She doesn’t eat much. She labels food “good” and “bad.” She likes black and whites. She has never told anyone but me. She disappears at times and shows proof of life at others. She gets defensive, avoids confrontation and conversation, she exists. I can’t save her.

We’ll call her Brenda. She vocalized the need for help to a few close friends, but didn’t receive much support. I’m the only other person who knows. She runs. She compares. She fights within her head everyday wishing to be beautiful, noticed, important, enough. She looks anxious, antsy, uncomfortable. She uses humor to mask her pain. She does it well, but I can’t save her.

I have to remember that while I am public in my personal journey, that does not automatically make me responsible for everyone else’s. I can’t save these girls. I can be here to listen, but I am still fighting my own demons.

I’ve been intentional in this blog to not write in too much detail about the specific behaviors of an eating disorder. I used to search online for tips, I know others do too. It’s sick, but it’s true. I don’t want to encourage an already massive monster. But it struck me the other day that I have not written much about how to help someone who is drowning in an eating disorder.

Someone battling an eating disorder does not need:

-to be told they are beautiful.

-to be told they are skinny.

-to be told they are perfect just as God made them.

-to be guilted and shamed into feeling worse than they already do.

-to be told your own personal stories about weight loss, that’s different: “Yeah, I could stand to lose some pounds too. It’s so hard isn’t it? How did you do it?”

-to hear, “I understand.” Because even if you’ve had an eating disorder, you still don’t understand. They are a different person, with different family, friends, and environment. “I understand” is one of the worse things you could say.

Here are some helpful things you can do:

-Observe. Gather information. Consider if what you are seeing could be eating disorder behavior: infatuation with weight and appearance, anger/mood swings, avoiding social situations and withdrawing from people, strict comments about food and exercise, weight loss, disappearing to the bathroom after meals, inflexible, agitated, black and white thinking, perfectionist, over achiever.

-Become a safe place for them to talk to you if they so choose. Be honest and transparent with your own struggles. Say “How are you?” then shut your mouth and listen. No really. Don’t interrupt. Don’t fill the precious silence with junk. Just listen. Everyone wants to be heard.

-Speak honestly. “I’ve been unsure of how to bring this up. I am worried about your health. I’ve noticed _________ and ___________, and I just want to know if there is anything I can do, because I want to help any way I can.”

-Don’t give up on them. I lived in denial for several months even after the doctor told me I was anorexic. It wasn’t that I was trying to be tricky and hide anything, I figured eating disorders only happened to crazy people. Ha. Be around. Be available. Be persistent in your compassion without pushing the person away. If she doesn’t want to talk to you, suggest a specific counselor you’ve been to or heard about.

-Compliment the person on more than just their appearance. How about character, personality, skills, attitude? Remind them they are worth much more than what they look like.

If someone tells you they have an eating disorder, don’t freak out. It is not your fault. They are not entirely your responsibility. They made a lot of decisions before hand that got them here. Be compassionate, but keep in mind that an eating disorder is like many other addictions and most of the time, short of suicide, there is time, take a deep breath. Do your best with where you’re at. No one is perfect.

I’ll be honest: people with eating disorders are sometimes difficult to help. I’ve often told my family that I’ve never had to help someone with an eating disorder so I don’t know what it feels like, yet they’ve done a pretty dang good.

On any given day I wanted to talk about it or I didn’t want to talk about, I wanted to hide it or I wanted to flaunt it. I would get so angry at some people’s comments or bulimia jokes though they didn’t realize they were laughing about me. I felt that the entire advertising industry was out to get me. I was pissed off that there were drive-throughs, that holidays revolved around food, and that eating was completely necessary to survive.

Keep in mind, she might be irrational. She might be angry. She might not be ready to talk. But healing will come. Don’t give up on her.

It might take 3 or 30 years, but don’t give up on her.