When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder: A Story for Parents

As summer kicks off, many teenagers will experience heightened pressure surrounding body image, leading to disordered eating for some. Thankfully, the gospel provides good news for bodies: They are created by God for good, redeemed by the Incarnation of Jesus, and awaiting a resurrection like his. In this series of articles, Rooted writers discuss how we can help students navigate identity struggles in light of this gospel of grace. 

One day while I was out shopping with my mom, we came across a book called The 17 Day Diet: A Doctor’s Plan Designed for Rapid Results. I remember watching her flip through the pages as I eagerly begged her to bring the book home. It was my senior year of high school and I was watching my older friends who had already gone off to college come back having put on the dreaded “freshman fifteen.” Determined to not let this happen to me, I decided I would go ahead and lose fifteen pounds during senior year, so that if I gained it back the next year in college I would just be right back to my normal weight. What a (not so) brilliant plan. And this was the diet book that was going to make it happen. Or so I thought…

The 17 Day Diet works through four different seventeen day cycles that each have different food restrictions, with Cycle 1 being the most restrictive. I began on Cycle 1 as the book instructed, and three years later I was still there. Instead of losing just fifteen pounds, I was fifty pounds down and wasting away with an eating disorder and an exercise addiction. 

For three years I meticulously counted every calorie I put into my body, hardly missed a day of exercise, and weighed myself every single morning. To say that I was anxious, fearful, and grasping for control at all costs would be an understatement. 

Journal entry from May 6, 2013Dear Jesus, My emotions are like a roller coaster. One minute I feel strong enough to overcome this eating disorder and then the next I feel like a faker and that I don’t even have a problem. Sometimes I still feel like I have more weight to lose and it feels ridiculous to even place me in this category. Then I realize I have to place a pillow between my legs at night because it hurts when my bones rub together. I’m scared that I will fall into my old ways as soon as I am back at college and away from my parents. The thought of gaining weight terrifies me one minute, then makes me feel hopeful the next. I’m having a hard time talking to my dad about what I’ve been through. It feels like he just wants a quick fix and I know it is just because he loves me, and is scared and doesn’t know what to do. I don’t know what I would do without my mom in this time. She has been so understanding, but I don’t want to put any added stress on her. 

Help me put my trust in you and talk with you the most about this. I can’t overcome this without you. Help me forgive myself for this and learn to share with you first before others. Please walk with me every step of the way and keep Satan away from me. I do not want this disease to define me or stop me from being the person you have called me to be. There is a peace only I can receive from you. I love you, Jesus. Your Daughter, Mary Beth.

May 9, 2013: Dear Jesus, Yesterday I was pretty much in complete denial that I had a problem. It was a good day though anyway. My clothes fit just right on my slender frame. I went on a long walk, went back to my restrictive eating habits and calculated everything that I ate. Mom and Dad called me on all of it. I tried to use humor to convince them that I was fine and appreciated their concern, but I had gained a pound and was feeling back to a healthy weight and maybe we just overreacted a bit. My attitude now is that they can talk about how I need to gain weight and that’s all fine and dandy, I’ll play their little game, but I know I will continue to keep a check on everything myself to make sure that I don’t. 

I know this is bad because I have not given this up to you yet. I feel vain and selfish for taking so much pride in my body. I need your help to show me how to give this to you. I am losing weight again and it doesn’t feel scary like it should. It actually comforts me because it makes me feel like I am in control again. Several people are commenting on how thin I am. The problem is I cannot see it myself. I actually feel like I have ‘beefed up’. I don’t feel like I’ll ever be able to put anything in my mouth without counting calories. How did I get here? Jesus, Help. Your Daughter, MB.

For three years my life was consumed with this up, down, all around battle. Going back to read these journal entries now, it sounds to me like I have a split personality. “I’ve Got This Under Control Mary Beth” is telling the Lord that she’s fine and doesn’t need help. “I’ve Hit Rock Bottom MB” is telling Jesus how afraid she is and how desperately she needs his all-out rescue. The two come and go without any rhyme or reason. One thing is for sure, though: while I was obviously spiraling out of control and hitting rock bottom, the Lord was simultaneously drawing me closer to himself than I could ever imagine.

The turning point for me was…

April 5, 2014: You are slowly tearing apart the identity I’ve tried to create for myself outside of you. I’ve put my pride, my trust, and my self-worth in my weight. Ridiculous… I know. Well at least sometimes I know. You are asking me to nail this to the cross where you paid it all on my behalf. Jesus, I need your help to do it.

I had given Jesus most of my life, but was still holding onto this one little thing that he could not have. I had created an idol out of my eating disorder and it was killing me. I was afraid to surrender it to Him even as I begged him to save me. And Jesus patiently, tenderly, lovingly asked me over and over again to trust him with it all — not just the areas of my life that I felt comfortable giving to him, but everything. My grades, my weight, my food choices, my friends, my future. He wanted all of me. He persistently pursued me throughout that whole time, steadily longing to give me abundant life in Him. 

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 40:1-3)

For those who are parents: I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch your child struggle with an eating disorder. My mom says she’ll never forget the way I looked when I came home after my freshman year of college and stepped out of my car: “I remember trying to hide the shock on my face and the fear in my eyes when I saw how my daughter was wasting away. I knew right then and there we had a problem.” That first night I came home, my dad was out of town and so I crawled into bed with my mom. She stayed up late with me that night and patiently asked questions to get to the heart of what I was experiencing. She listened. She let me cry. She let me deny and wrestle with the confusion of it all. 

The temptation for a parent is to want to help your child and fix the problem yourself, to pull your child out from that pit, and save them from this path of destruction. I know my parents were fearful and unsure, and yet their care for me was so evident during that time. They were compassionate in places where they could have been critical. They chose empathy over apathy. They were present and persistent, not allowing me to keep it all hidden. While I often wished that I could get away from under their watchful eye, I will forever be grateful for their unending love and willingness to gently bring it all into the light.  

I can imagine my parents wished there was some sort of handbook or manual that gave them the five steps to cure their child’s eating disorder. While at times it seemed to them like the best solution might be to “just eat a cheeseburger,” they were very aware that the only thing they were going to be able to do was trust Jesus. He was the only one who could fill me with life abundant.  They helped me through it the best way they knew how, but the reality was that they couldn’t be the ones to heal what was broken. They could never rescue me in the way that I needed. My healer was always and will always be Jesus. He is the one who had to reach down and pull me out of the darkness and into the light, the one who gives me a firm place to stand, my rock and my redeemer. 

I remember my mom saying to me “Mary Beth, you didn’t get here overnight. You can’t expect the healing to come in a day either. This will take time.” She was right. It did take time and it is a journey that I’m still walking with Jesus. I wish I could tell you that I never struggle with any of this anymore, but that just isn’t true. When life gets stressful, feels out of control, or when I see a picture of myself that makes me feel insecure, my temptation is to run back to that familiar habit of restricting what I eat and exercising excessively. However, the Lord, in his mercy, has made it difficult for me to carry that through. For one, my flesh and my willpower feel weaker than they did then. But mostly, I know what it is like to starve myself and I know what it is like to be filled with the bread of life. Jesus has given me his very own spirit to lead me back to himself time and time again. 

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it

Prone to leave the God I love

Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it

Seal it for Thy courts above

This may be something that I always struggle with on this side of heaven, but I take comfort in knowing that Jesus is with me in the waiting and that He is more than enough. 

For additional resources for parents on eating disorders and body image, click here.

Mary Beth Johnston serves as the Director of Ministry Development for Rooted Ministry. She graduated from The University of Alabama with a double major in Business Marketing and Management. Before working for Rooted, Mary Beth served as the Senior High Youth Minister at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. While she was born and raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Chattanooga, TN with her sweet husband Ben, and is loving their life in the mountains more each day.

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