For many, the topic of eating disorders is a difficult one, especially if one has been diagnosed or suffered from symptoms of one. Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us who struggle with such things are rarely diagnosed, most often because we never share the secret. We don't talk about the obsessive calorie counting, the endless hours working out, the feeling of gazing in a mirror and never seeing the beauty that's really there. We hide the bingeing and purging, the dental visits to repair teeth damaged by months or years of stomach acid. We pray that no one notices just how anxious we are about eating around them, worried just how much we're being watched and just what the watchers are thinking while breaking bread with us. So when the question is posed, "Do you ever really get over an eating disorder," the answer most often is no, probably not.
One thing is fairly clear about eating disorders: it's not really about the food. It's often about control — at least it was in my case. During my sophomore year of college, in the midst of coming to terms with being gay, I became bulimic. Not in the usual sense of binge-purge. Rather, I just purged. I grew up in a family that was anything but body-positive. Mom was overweight. Dad was overweight. And me, well I filled out my choir tuxedo a little too well. I think I actually looked like a penguin at times. Food was a necessity and rarely something to truly take pleasure in. It was often more important for our family that meals were affordable, leaving their nutritional value unchecked. So when it was time to go off to college, I had very little experience with planning my own meals, and I'd never had the experience of looking in the mirror and liking what I saw.
I began purging for several reasons. One, I had an incredibly poor body image. Two, being raised in a conservative Southern Baptist home and being gay led to much self-hatred and internalized homophobia. Three, I was attending a small, private Christian Reformed college where the majority of the boys, while easy on the eyes, only served to make me feel even less in control on the ways that I felt my mind, eyes, and body had betrayed me. Apparently throwing up one meal after another made complete sense to me. That's how we all deal with emotional baggage, right?
My stint of purging unfortunately led to some very apparent, long-term effects. The amount of metal in my mouth could make a quarter I often think. My hair, well, I'm thankful that I have the head shape to pull off the 1/8" look. I can still bring up a meal with barely any effort, which makes those times I get sick with a stomach bug a little more bearable. Despite it being several years since I voluntarily purged after a meal (and we're not counting one of those nights of intense drinking where "cleansing the system" is the only way to ensure going to bed and waking up without an awful surprise), I still consider myself a bulimic at times. Even though I don't act on my inner urgings and desires to purge, the urge and desire to do so is still there, and frequently.
When I tell people I deal with bulimia (as well as a couple of other diagnoses), they're often surprised. I don't look bulimic. I'm not super skinny. My flesh doesn't hang from my bones. I've got a good set of teeth. I'm not in residential treatment somewhere. In fact, on the outside, I appear, well, stable. That's what struggling with an eating disorder does for a person. It gives us the capacity to feel and look "normal" to those around us. It's a coping mechanism like so many of the other things we as broken humans do to be able to get through the mud and the muck of life.
Fortunately, for a lot of us, the temptation to act out, and the reasons we sometimes contrive for doing so, start to disappear and fade away. We develop healthy ways of dealing with pain and the feeling of not having control. Better yet, we learn to take control in ways that were not previously visible to us. After deconstructing the lies we've told ourselves for so long, we're left with these pieces, these remnants of who we truly are. With grace, patience, and time, we're able to take those remnants and build something new. Those pieces of who we were — the diagnoses, the exercise, the lost meals and unspent calories, the denial and secrecy — still have an impact. Scars still show. But in becoming someone new, someone more whole, more complete, those scars fade into our new skin. We know they're there, and when we share our stories, the reality of redemption, of restoration comes to life.