Free of Bulimia - After 17 Years in the Pit
(Also posted under June 2009 archives)
Through Him all things truly are possible. This is my story of how Jesus Christ broke the chains of a 17-year bondage to bulimia when I truly repented and turned from this idol. The same hope and freedom is available to you if you know Him as Savior and Lord.
I am currently a happy, well-adjusted married mom of four children. Although I have been a Christian since age 19, I struggled for many years to grasp what full “surrender” really meant – and that God won’t work with a 90% commitment to change. I was not always as secure as I am today in my identity in Christ. Bulimia consumed me for 17 years, and I want to relate how God broke those chains and restored my health. It is my hope that my testimony will help someone else who is struggling with this bondage.
I was raised in a fairly dysfunctional, legalistic but non-Christian church-going family. My mother was very image-conscious and appearance oriented; in her eyes, my being a chubby youngster was a sign of weakness and embarrassed her. She, my father and grandparents consistently put me down and humiliated me over my weight – especially at holidays, which were observed with calorie-laden food. I often felt alone and outcast from my own family; like I was an ugly duckling who was just not good enough to be accepted. As early as age seven, I remember praying fervently to God that He would make me thinner, so that my mother would love me more.
In junior high, I had slimmed down some through a sensible diet and exercise, as I had taken up gymnastics at an early age. Inspired by a movie about Nadia Comaneci, my diet became increasingly Spartan and my workouts more intense. I idolized Nadia; thinking she was the epitome of discipline and perfection. Years later, I found out she had hidden an eating disorder during her competitive days as well.
By the beginning of high school, I resolved to be thinner, like a "real" dancer or gymnast, as my mother said I was still overweight (at 5'5" and 130 lbs.). As the pounds and my dress size dropped, my mother could barely conceal her delight – at last, a daughter in whom she could be proud! In 10th grade, I went on a lettuce & diet coke regimen for a while; then became bulimic. My menstrual period disappeared soon afterward; and my dentist began noticing symmetrical cavities on each of my previously perfect molars. My mother’s suspicion grew. By the time my teachers and mother figured out I had bulimia, I desperately wanted to be free of this addiction but couldn't stop purging. My weight dropped at one point to just below 90 lbs. When I saw pictures of myself from this period, I was shocked and embarrassed by my emaciated appearance, but could not bring myself to keep food down. The feeling of anything in my stomach repulsed me. At the same time, my physical hunger and cravings (I suppose survival instinct kicked in at this time) would not allow me to “control” myself when confronted with the smell and sight of food.
It became a daily battle to enter and leave the school cafeteria without binging on everything in sight. One solution I used was to bring a diet shake to school and drink it in the student lounge at lunchtime in the guise of studying. Sometimes, I would take appetite suppressants to “help keep it in check”, but these pills had the unfortunate side effect of making me fall asleep in class. My exhaustion, even without diet pills, was painfully apparent to my teachers, who took turns confronting me and calling the school director. I was assigned to weekly sessions with the school guidance counselor, to whom I expertly lied, and was given a referral to see a psychiatrist.
Although I never had inpatient treatment, there were a few counselors here and there. Of course, as soon as I went to college, I convinced myself, the bondage I was
in would go away. (I was still about 90 lbs. at this point.) I still did not see the bulimia as a stronghold that was controlling me; I still believed I was in control but simply chose not to give it up. After about 2 weeks in college, the dormitory’s Resident Advisor confronted me, and I was slammed into counseling so fast my head spun. I basically had no friends, as I looked like a freak and was rejected by everyone. I remember crying out to God one night from the floor of my dorm room (my roommate had moved in with someone else,) asking why He had created me. I just wanted to die so badly; but could not bring myself to consider suicide, which I had been brought up to believe was a one-way ticket to hell. I was convinced I was on my way there anyway, but had no idea how to turn around.
After a semester of nutritional and psychological counseling, as well as group therapy, my weight was up to about 110-112 lbs., so obviously I was keeping SOME food down - but mostly it just made the purging easier to hide. The world outside my broken heart and confused head thought I was "recovered".
In September of my sophomore year, intrigued by the name, I joined a group called Campus Crusade for Christ. I had loved Jesus since childhood; the hatefulness I experienced from my religious parents and the nuns in grade school had never been able to change that. In a funny sort of way, the rejection seemed to push me CLOSER to Him, although at the same time I was a little afraid of God the Father. I was so ashamed of my eating disorder behavior; surely God was disgusted and had given up on me. How could He possibly want someone as disgusting as me around? When a young staff woman shared the Gospel with me, and I listened to the testimonies and speaking of some staff members and students, I decided to trust that God loved me unconditionally and would forgive all my sins. I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, but it was more an intellectual acceptance of Him in my life than a total giving of my life to Him – a true surrender of my will. Deep down, I was frightened that I would never be able to completely submit this ugly secret that controlled my life to His authority. I did not tell anyone, including the woman discipling me, about my bulimia. I was still too ashamed, even to talk about or ask help from God. Often, I have thought that if I had pursued Christian counseling while in college, my battle and long road to freedom would have been shorter. At the time, however, I kept promising I would make it go away on my own. What I did not realize was that being thin had become my idol. An idol is anything in our life that we want badly enough that we are willing to sin in order to obtain it.
While I realized full well that bulimia was a sin, I did not see the root problem as idolatry – and idols must be torn down in Christ’s power.
After graduating from college, I moved to Bulgaria to work in international business. It was here that I picked up a drinking habit; a more “socially-acceptable” vice (or so I told myself.) The alcohol served for a time as anesthesia to ease the pain and shame of purging; but no number of bottles was ever enough to fill the aching emptiness inside. I also began smoking. At age 24 I got married to a wonderful man, who knew nothing about eating disorders or the fact that his American wife had had one for nearly a decade at that point. At 115-120 lbs., I had become really good at hiding it. Inside, I was still in a lot of pain, though – and my new husband would not tolerate my excessive drinking, so I no longer had that as a “crutch”. I hated myself, and naturally drifted further away from God. I had stopped going to church because I felt like a hypocrite. How could I have that close, intimate relationship with God they always talked about, with such a filthy secret? Each time I heard a Christian give his or her glowing, “happily ever after” testimony about how Jesus changed their life from the inside out, I would feel depressed and frustrated. I even began to doubt my salvation.
Soon after our wedding, we moved back to the States. I could not even stop purging during pregnancy, although thankfully the babies were all healthy and normal weight. I maintained a normal weight and no-one, even my husband, knew the dark secret I was terrified to tell. While appearing "recovered", I still could not kick the bulimia. During this time, I was so hungry spiritually; I was trying so hard to come back to God. I wanted Him in my life so badly. While I knew intellectually that He loved me, it is just so hard to receive that unconditional love when you are literally a slave to sin. Obedience may be the key to freedom, but when you feel hopeless to obey?
We attended church and many times I tried desperately to turn away from this sin, only to find myself inexplicably drawn back in. One Christmas Eve years ago, I remember sitting in the evening service – surrounded by hushed holy music and flickering candles– and felt like such a failure. I had resolved that year to quit drinking and bingeing/purging as my “birthday present” to Jesus. Needless to say, Advent had barely begun before I had given up.
One subject you will rarely hear addressed in church is that Christians can, and often do, suffer from addictions. Bulimia is a spiritual disease masquerading as a physical one. I had this insight, but it didn't stop me from binging when the uncontrollable urge kicked in. One day, I passed a new "Spirit-filled" church that went up next to a chain store that I often frequent, and noticed their sign for a Healing Room on Saturday mornings. A small ad in the newspaper for it had also caught my eye when I was flipping through, promising "Confidential prayer for physical, emotional and spiritual healing". I was so desperate; I thought what could it hurt?
One morning I walked in timidly, almost in tears; not knowing what to expect. Three very compassionate, mature Christian women put their hands on me, and prayed earnestly that God would break this bondage in my life; that I would know His forgiveness and healing; even that He would "re-wire" the chemicals in my brain to help break down this stronghold of sin. One of them told me that God longs for me to know Him better - that I knew a lot about Him, but didn't really know Him. They prayed earnestly for a while longer, and I really felt better, cleaner – not different, in that sense I didn't feel anything supernatural; but I had such a strong faith that God had heard their prayer that I resolved to try to again. I went back and received prayer several more times over the next few months.
After my first visit, I stopped drinking completely - all desire left me and I was not overly tempted. One of the women had told me that Jesus had been watching me for a long time, and had had His arm around my shoulder while I was unaware of His presence. I kept that image in my mind whenever I was tempted to seek solace in alcohol, and it worked! The warmth of that assurance of love – unconditional and unchanging – was far better and more satisfying than any “buzz” from drinking. I wish I could say that the bulimia disappeared so quickly as well, but I'd be fibbing. While I DO believe that God set me free the first time we prayed together for deliverance, as with overcoming all sin that is a stronghold, it took me a while (about 5 months) to fully walk in it. In other words, on the "high" of that first prayer session, I went several days without binge/purging. Over the course of the next few months, I would regularly go about six days on average without an episode (prior to this I had been purging once or twice on average each day).
Now, I do believe we have to co-operate with God in overcoming sin - He frees us, but not by waving a magic wand over us, which oftentimes is what we want. My desire for Him grew - for prayer, for the Bible, just for fellowship with Him. Little by little, my idol of ultimate thinness crumbled and was replaced by the joy of knowing I was a daughter of the King. Sometimes, out of habit, I'd still be tempted to binge - like if I were eating lunch just to keep going and going - and I would mentally say: “No; Lord, you know how I feel right now. You know this unhealthy temptation that threatens to overcome me. I turn to You; I am spiritually hungry; I want to spend time with You; this food will never satisfy; only Your holy presence will fill me” or something like that. Then, I would leave the kitchen, as removing one’s self physically from temptation is key, especially in the beginning stages of deliverance; and spend an hour or so in my room with my Bible and a favorite study (at the time I was doing Max Lucado's "Experiencing the Heart of Jesus".) This is not a distraction tactic - this is allowing God to help you, and fill you. Repentance and self-control (which is a fruit of the Spirit) were the ultimate keys in my finally surrendering this sin to God once and for all. Yes, there were some failures. Yes, I got discouraged sometimes. But, I never gave up (which is what Satan would have wanted) and yes; I was truly victorious through Christ who strengthens me in the end. Psalm 40 became my lifeline – I saw bulimia as the “miry pit” from which He saved me. Finally, after so many fruitless years, I was beginning to feel solid Rock under me!
Over the course of those months when I allowed God to restore me, yes, I did gain weight - about 10 lbs. - but I plateued after a couple of months and neither restricted, worked out, nor got fat. (Later, the additional pounds melted away on their own and I remain a size 4-5 to this day). When I decided I wanted to get free of the eating disorder no matter what it took, I accepted that I would gain some weight - but it was not as much as I feared. A person will not get fat from just eating as her body needs. God helped me to overcome that mindset too, once I allowed Him to renew my mind with His Word. This is where “full surrender” comes in – surrendering our preconceived notions about weight and beauty to the God Who made our bodies and knows exactly how they work. Just as we can trust His plan for every aspect of our lives, I realized I could trust Him with His plan for my weight. Now secure in my identity in Christ, I no longer need constant compliments on my figure to feel good about myself.
Another area in which I needed to allow God to heal me was in forgiving my mother. Once I was able to come to terms with what true forgiveness is, I realized that I would have to “let her go” in my heart and stop blaming her for my poor decisions. While certainly things in our past can affect and influence us, both for better and for worse, blaming another person for our sin is not biblical and will hamper spiritual growth. I needed to learn to accept personal responsibility for my actions and the years of choosing a lie over the Truth. Also, God has taught me that sometimes forgiving means repeatedly making that decision – each and every day – to keep on forgiving her, regardless of how I may be feeling. This is also an area in which I need His supernatural strength, as I am powerless to overcome my natural bitterness and resentment on my own.
In September 2004, fourteen years after trusting Christ, I made the decision to be baptized. This was a personal symbol between God and me that there was no turning back. I was finally allowing Christ to live through me, and being baptized was a joyful yet intensely personal celebration of that fact – the depth of victory over sin known only to myself and my Savior.
I thank God for the freedom He has given me! If I can take any credit for anything in my own recovery, it is for tenacity - refusing to give up, no matter how many times I fell and had to get back up and try again. I also joined a Christian Moms’ Group of women for fellowship at the church where I went for intercession. This was a great source of support in my ongoing journey – we held each other up in our faith walks, not just in serious struggles like eating disorders. I do not refer to myself as “recovered” or “recovering”, which would indicate a state I have achieved on my own; but rather as “delivered” or “healed”. I am living proof of the unending faithfulness of God. I have been able to counsel several women struggling with the same twin bondage of anorexia and bulimia that held me for so long. Through e-mail, I encourage, counsel and pray for these who are still in this pit to reach a point of full surrender, and as I study more about biblical counseling, I hope someday to write a book about freedom in Christ. The depth of your need does not intimidate God. He can heal the most shattered of lives, but you must give him all the pieces.
While it is tempting to think we can overcome this battle on our own, we cannot. God longs for us to turn to Him with each and every burden and even the darkest of secrets. A book, program or hypnotist will not heal you, but all things are possible with the God Who is on our side.
UPDATE October 2008: It has now been nearly 4 years since I wrote this testimony, and I can still testify to God’s great faithfulness. Sometimes, when I feel discouraged or defeated in another area of my life, I go back and read this to remember the valleys He has walked with me through and that there is nothing so insurmountable that my Lord cannot triumph in my sinful life. I have never relapsed, never been tempted beyond what I can bear, and never looked back at the life in bondage to food and alcohol I used to live.
However, it is tempting for someone repenting/recovering from an addiction to think “Once I overcome this sin, I will have no more problems! I will [always] live a victorious, Christian life for the Lord!” The truth is that while God heals and forgives you completely, there will always be something impeding your intimacy with Him until you are home in Heaven. Satan will not let up on you; if anything, you are more of a threat to him once you have overcome in a particularly besetting sin in your life. God is glorified by your redeemed life, but you will always have your sinful nature to contend with. Do not be discouraged in your pursuit of sanctification, and don’t ever give up.