I was 18-years-old when I developed an eating disorder. I was about to serve an LDS mission for the next 18 months of my life, and that’s what triggered it. I realized that missionaries were only allowed 30 minutes of exercise time, 6 out of every 7 days per week. Being an avid runner who spent over an hour exercising each day, I was concerned that I might become out of shape or fat.
What began as a small concern gradually transformed into a great anxiety. I had received my call to serve in the Taiwan Taipei mission and started my missionary journey in the Missionary Training Center. During the allotted exercise time, I took full advantage of the allotted 30 minutes and ran the entire time, but even this did not convince me that I was going to stay skinny. I began to cut food out of my diet: first chocolate, then dessert, then sugar, then carbs altogether. I convinced myself that I was eating a healthy diet when in reality I wasn’t. It was so bad, that I even passed out while I was studying one day. Even that frightening experience did not convince me that I was hurting myself. It was almost as if there was a small “voice” in my head telling me what to do and what not to do in order to stay skinny.
This “voice” continued to dictate my actions throughout my entire mission. I ate smaller portions of food, avoided eating meat, claiming I was a vegetarian, and I even lied to my companions about eating meals. Eating in public made me nervous and I dreaded dinner appointments with investigators. People would tell me that I was very skinny but I did not believe them.
My mission president and his wife suggested that upon completing my mission I ought to seek professional medical advice. The “voice” told me not to believe them because nothing was wrong with me.
When I returned from Taiwan, I went to the doctor to get a physical for the first time in years. The doctor had me stand on a scale and stare at the number on the screen—it read 100 pounds, which was well below a healthy BMI for my height. Following a brief consultation the doctor diagnosed me with anorexia and instructed me to seek professional help if I wanted to overcome it.
The reality of having an eating disorder finally sunk in and I became even more anxious about food and body image. I did not want anyone to see me eat. I ate meals in my room by myself and made up a myriad of excuses to get out of eating out with friends. I would purposely not bring lunch to school and would leave my wallet in my dorm so I wouldn’t feel tempted to buy food. When walking to school, I would compare my body shape to other girls as I passed them. My mind was bombarded with vicious thoughts of self-doubt, negative body image, and shame surrounding my eating disorder. I felt like no one could possibly understand my situation and I became depressed.
It was certainly not an easy process, but I can proudly say that after 3 years, I have fully recovered from my eating disorder. I certainly have my moments of weakness, but overall I feel very content with who I am and I look forward to the person I am becoming. Looking back, I can pinpoint 5 things that most impacted me during my recovery.
1. Look at Things from a Long-Term Perspective
One morning during Sunday school, the teacher explained that God loves us and has a plan of happiness for each one of us. I remember him sharing a scripture from the Book of Mormon, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” After hearing that I asked myself, “When I am an old woman, what do I want to remember when I look back on my life? Do I want to look back and remember all of the time I spent worrying over weight and food? Or do I want to remember happy memories with my friends and family?” Obviously I would prefer the latter. That day on, I tried my best to remember that I was on this earth to live my life to the fullest—not to waste away time with fear and worry. I also thought about what things gave me the most joy and decided to put those priorities above my food anxiety.
2. Confide in Close Friends
For the longest time I did not want to talk to anyone about my eating disorder because I was ashamed of it. People have always seen me as a calm, collected person and the thought of anyone seeing me as anxious or weak made me feel even more insecure. One evening I went to the temple (a place Mormons go to worship God and ponder) and while I was there I had a strong impression to tell one of my roommates about my anorexia. Confiding in my roommate was the first step I took on the road to recovery. I was able to vent to her, set goals with her, and be accountable to her. Though she did not completely understand my situation, she loved me through thick and thin and was always there when I needed her.
3. Celebrate the Little Things
Battling an eating disorder is hard, so when you make any sort of accomplishment—celebrate! I remember the first time I went out and ate an entire meal with a friend. I hadn’t eaten a full meal in years! I made a goal with my roommate beforehand to eat the full meal and I did it! Accomplishing something as small as this was a big step for me and even a turning point—I wanted to be proud of it. From then on out, eating full meals in public became a lot easier.
4. Get Professional Help
For a while I was strictly against getting professional help because up until then, my experiences with counseling were ineffective. Thankfully, I had a roommate catch me in a bad moment and she shared her experiences with therapy and suggested I try it too. I promised her I would try group therapy at least three times, and meet with a counselor one-on-one at least once. Everyone has their own personal preference with counseling; there is no single correct way to do it, you just have to experiment. For me, it was most effective to meet with a counselor one-on-one once every two weeks. He helped me learn techniques to combat self-criticism and depression. During this time I also met with a nutritionist and a doctor as well. It is important to get familiar with professional resources because there are some things we just cannot handle on our own.
5. Use Vulnerability to Your Advantage
Some of the most powerful experiences in my life were the times when I have shared experiences with others about my eating disorder. I remember listening to a TED talk called, “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown. She said, “My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.” I wanted to see what blessings vulnerability could bring me, so I decided to be more open with people about my anorexia. When my friends commented on how I looked much healthier, instead of shying away from the subject, I would respond by expressing gratitude for their comment. I slowly started sharing my experience with others. I noticed that each time I allowed myself to be vulnerable, my relationship would grow with that specific person and we were able to be real and open with each other. These conversations were powerful because in the end we would give each other advice and work trust into our relationship. I vividly remember when I taught a group of girls at my church about trials. I felt impressed to tell them about my past struggles with anorexia. Following the lesson, I was shocked when 10 girls each approached me privately that week and told me that they were thankful for sharing my experience and that they were or previously had gone through a similar struggle. This experience allowed me access to the power of vulnerability because I felt so much love and support from these girls. Do not be afraid to be honest with others, you will see miracles from it.
If you are going through an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or are going through any sort of trial at all, remember that in time things will work out. I know this because I have a testimony that God loves us and would not set us up for failure. I also know that there are people who will love and support us no matter what. We are imperfect and even wired for struggle, but above all else we must remember that we are always worthy of love and belonging.
Written by McKenna Tracy.