This past week at church, our pastor, John McKinzie, challenged the congregation to tell our stories of hope. I am not normally one to talk much about myself, as you can probably tell from this blog, but I felt like God was really pushing me to put my story out there, so here I am…completely transparent…and completely terrified.
You see, my story of hope is not a happy, flowery, joyful story. My story of hope is not pretty. My story of hope involves a battle that I endured with the devil for nearly four years. My story of hope was almost a story of death. I’ll start at the beginning.
I was raised as the younger of two children in University Park, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. My mom stayed at home with the kids while we were younger, and my dad was (and still is) a doctor. My brother was about two and a half years older, and we fought like cats and dogs. It was a pretty typical, albeit very blessed, upbringing. We never wanted for anything. We attended great schools, grew up in a Methodist church, took family vacations, and every summer, I was fortunate enough to attend Camp Ozark in Mt. Ida, Arkansas, for two weeks. It was the greatest two weeks of my year.
God began knocking on the door of my heart very young, and I committed my life to him at the age of 12, sitting at the foot of a cross after a hike up the Ozark mountains one summer at camp. It was almost poetic. After that, I became very involved with my church youth group and missions, and for some unknown reason, they even let me sing in the youth choir. Life was sweet.
While in middle school, I became very involved in dance and cheerleading. My dream was to make the Highland Belles drill team once I got to high school. I spent 10-15 hours a week clothed head to toe in Spandex while staring at myself in full-length mirrors. And believe it or not, I felt okay about myself. Could my thighs be thinner? Sure. But was I willing to give up my beloved bagels and cookies? Nah. At five feet, five inches tall, I weighed a very healthy 125 pounds. Generally speaking, I felt good about myself. That is until I took a trip to Mexico with a sweet friend over Christmas break of my eighth grade year. That trip, and the pictures taken there, changed the course of my life forever.
Back in those days, we took pictures on disposable cameras. We didn’t see the photos immediately. We had to take them up to a drug store and wait an AGONIZING 60 minutes for the film to be developed. As I waited for my pictures, I remember purchasing a Tiger Beat magazine to pass the time, and a York Peppermint Patty and 7Up to enjoy on the way home. I never had either one.
As I held those pictures in my hands, something in me changed. For the first time in my life, what I saw in those pictures was different. The faint whisper of comparison crept into my life. Sitting side by side in our swimsuits on those beach chairs, I noticed that my friend’s thighs were thinner than mine in the pictures. Her stomach was flatter. Her arms more muscular. I didn’t know exactly how to process what I was feeling, but I did know that I did not like what I saw.
When I arrived home, I remember walking upstairs to talk to my mom in her office. I sat on her desk, and I confessed how I was feeling. I knew she’d understand. I had watched my mom, like most women, go on and off diets my whole life. Although I’m positive she offered me some reassuring words about how I was beautiful just the way I was, I don’t remember them. What I do remember very clearly was her proposed solution – we would go on a diet together and support each other. Sounds innocent, right? What my mom didn’t understand about me then was my competitive drive. She offered me support and accountability, but what I saw in that moment was a competition. And man, did I want to WIN.
I began walking on our home treadmill in addition to my dance classes. I read nutrition labels and started counting calories. I still remember my food logs. I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt watching the calories I ate each day drop from 1700 to 1200 to, at one point, 500. 500 calories for a very active young woman in a whole day. (To put that into perspective, that is the typical calorie intake of an infant. An infant!)
The weight fell off rapidly. By March, I was down 10 pounds, and by May, I had lost 10 more. Each time I put on clothing that was too big, something in me rejoiced. Each time someone complimented me or told me how good I looked, my heart sang. Each time I looked into those mirrors in the dance studio and saw my shrinking thighs, I felt accomplished. I relished every second of it. The praise, the smaller clothing sizes, the way I could jump higher and turn faster…it consumed me.
By that summer, I had lost my period. My face became pale. The compliments became words of concern. My friends’ parents would call my parents, worried that I was ill. A dance teacher who hadn’t seen me in several months pulled me aside one day and told me I looked like I had been in a concentration camp. As sick as it was, that comment didn’t frighten me as it should have. It made me smile. It pushed me to lose even more weight. By this point, Satan’s grip on me was so strong that I didn’t see the harm in what I was doing. I just thought I was winning the competition. After all, I was down to a mere 90 pounds.
At home, things were rocky. My dad tried to help me. He was a doctor after all, so he knew something was terribly wrong. He made me step on his scale every Sunday and would lecture me if I had lost weight. (He didn’t realize I had my own scale hidden in my bathroom that I had bought without my parents’ knowledge.) Meal times became a battle zone. My parents were terrified to send me off to my beloved Camp Ozark that summer, worried about what would happen when meals were no longer monitored. But I made promises to them to stay healthy that I didn’t keep, and of course, their fears were realized when I came home weighing even less than I had when I left. They hired a nutritionist to help me, but all I did was tell her lies and claim that I was eating all kinds of things that I wasn’t. She believed me, and it eased my parents’ concerns temporarily to at least know I was being seen by a medical professional.
That fall, I began my freshman year of high school and survived primarily on Extra spearmint gum and Diet Dr. Pepper. My face was sunken and my arms looked like toothpicks. My clothes hung on me, but I continued in my quest. That winter came Highland Belles tryouts. I was weak and unhealthy, and the judges knew it. I didn’t make the team. At that point, I thought I was at rock-bottom. My beloved dream had been shattered. (If only I knew then what was coming.) What I found out from the judges afterward was that I had the dance technique to make the team, but they were concerned about my weak muscle tone and didn’t feel I had the stamina to keep up with the practices and games. What they were telling me was that I was too frail and weak. What I heard was that I need to exercise even MORE.
I joined the YMCA (unbeknownst to my parents) and began working out in secret after school. Before school, I could be found in my room doing Tae Bo workout videos on mute, in socks, in the dark, so that my parents didn’t know what I was doing and wouldn’t think I was already up. I continued in my dance classes and began private lessons. Although I was hovering in the low 90’s, my weight stayed status quo for the time being as I began to build muscle. I read nutrition books and tried “clean eating” although I kept the calories excessively low. If I gave into temptation and allowed myself something “bad” or “off-limits,” I punished myself with even more exercise so I could purge the calories. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I would learn later that this new strategy I had discovered is actually known as Exercise Bulimia.
Things continued in this manner for the next two years. I actually made the drill team the following year – a dream come true. My parents continued taking me to doctors and nutritionists, and I continued to lie and cheat my way out of their help. I still hadn’t had my period in 3 years, so my mom made me an appointment with a gynecologist in the spring of my junior year of high school. Had she not taken this step, I would not be alive today. As the doctor completed my exam, she listened to my chest, as all doctors do. It was very routine. But I noticed her face as she was listening to my heart seemed to change. She looked concerned. She listened again, and then sat down in her chair. She told me she didn’t like what she was hearing, that my heart was making a swooshing sound that it shouldn’t be, and she wanted to send me to a pediatric cardiologist for further testing. I was terrified, but I continued doing what I was doing.
I didn’t realize that my body was literally breaking down.
The next week, I woke up on a Thursday morning in early April, and after my mom had left for work, I drove myself up to the YMCA and worked out on the Stairmaster. I came home, changed my clothes so I wouldn’t smell sweaty, and headed up to her office so we could go to my cardiologist appointment. They took me in to perform an echo-cardiogram (basically an ultrasound) on my heart, and then we went upstairs to wait for the results. As the cardiologist came in the room, the first words out of her mouth to me were simply, “Not good.” She explained that the “swooshing sound” my doctor had heard the previous week was fluid moving around where there shouldn’t be fluid, and I was diagnosed that day with something called a pericardial effusion. Essentially, two of my four heart valves were leaking fluid into the sack around my heart. If that sack got too full, my heart would stop. She explained that I had basically done so much damage to myself that I was lucky to be alive and sitting in her office that morning. I had starved and exercised myself to the point that my body was eating my own muscle in order to stay alive. I learned that, at any given moment, my heart could stop, and I could drop dead unless we did something. NOW.
I didn’t go home after that appointment. I was admitted just minutes later to the cardiac floor of Presbyterian Hospital for emergent treatment. My body needed rest. My body needed nourishment. My body needed to heal.
After I was admitted and taken up to my room, a nurse came in and told me I was going to be hooked up to a feeding tube. I didn’t understand. I promised them I would eat. I promised them I would rest. But you see, Anorexia is a liar’s disease. And they knew it. I’ll never forget my dad holding me down as they inserted the tube. We both teared up as it was put in, and I told him I hated him for letting them do it. He told me that I would understand one day when I was a parent myself, but at the time, I hated him. I get it now.
That night, after my parents had gone home for the night, I laid in bed, tossing. I rolled onto my side and caught a glimpse of myself in the hospital room window. For the first time in years, I saw the reality of my situation. I saw the lack of color in my face. I saw my hollowness. I saw myself on the verge of death. And I gently felt God saying to me, “This is NOT the end for you. I can do better. Come back to me.” I cried, and cried, and cried some more. I remembered what the Bible said in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to give you hope and future.” And that night, in room 308 of Presbyterian Hospital, I prayed to God for a miracle. I surrendered my disease to Him. And boy, did He ever come through.
That week in the hospital, I allowed myself, for the first time in years, to rest. I slept. A lot. I ate real food. I read books. I allowed my body to heal. And by His grace, and to the shock of my doctors, I did. I was released a week later after a repeat echo-cardiogram showed that one of my valves had healed completely and that the second was improving. I was sent home on bedrest, and a few weeks later, I was allowed to go back to school for half-days in order to complete my junior year. I resigned from my beloved drill team. God placed the most amazing team of doctors in my life, and I had weekly meetings with my therapist and nutritionist for the next year. I slowly began to put some weight back on. My color came back. My life came back together.
As I began my senior year, I felt God calling me to tell my story. I was very involved with the high school newspaper, so I took a leap of faith and published my story up until that point. The support was incredible. From there, I found the courage to begin a disordered eating awareness group for high school students that is still present in North Texas today and has helped many young girls with their struggles. Over the past ten years, God has given me the opportunity to speak in many different settings and to tell my story, although really it’s HIS story, of hope.
I didn’t know it at the time, but God’s plan for my life was SO MUCH BIGGER than a number on a tag. My life was about these two incredible little people who made me a mom.
If I know anything now, I know with 100% certainty, that God has a PLAN, and his plan is PERFECT. I pray that all who read this would feel confident and know that truth today, too.