Eating Disorders: A Mother’s Perspective
by Katherine Lange
The doors to Mercy Hospital swung open to me – again.
For ten years, my husband and I have battled the horror and heartache of our daughters’ eating disorders. We have consulted with psychologists, physicians, and therapists for our girls while their health and lives have disintegrated.
Today, they are finally beginning to emerge from the dark pit of their pain. It has been a long, difficult journey for us all.
How is it possible for a family to find themselves in the throes of such dysfunction? How does a parent cope and maintain hope in the face of daily despair?
Types of Disorders
To know how to help our children, we must first understand what eating disorders are.
Anorexia nervosa is the pursuit of thinness at the expense of health. It is distinguished by an unwillingness to eat anything but “safe” foods. Those who are anorexic, though exceedingly thin, insist they are fat.
Bulimia, according to the dictionary, is a “continuous, abnormal hunger.” Bulimics, or binge/purgers, eat huge quantities of food, then purge themselves by vomiting, abusing laxatives, and/or exercising.
A recent study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), conducted on high school seniors in eighteen states, found that 11 percent of them suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Of those students, 90 percent are female.
Eating disorders generally start during the teen years, but many who are twenty, thirty, and forty years old also suffer. Some, like Karen Carpenter and gymnast Christy Henrich, die.
Eating disorders predominate in the Western world. The majority of anorexics and bulimics are young women who are most often college educated and from mid- to upper-class, two-parent families.
Reasons for Eating Disorders
Anorexia and bulimia have surfaced primarily in the last two decades. The question is, why?
As a nation, the United States has gone through major changes, beginning in the 1960’s. God and morality have been legislated away; self has emerged as the god to please. But this self is acceptable only if she is thin and exercises constantly. The role models our children see on TV, billboards, and in the movies are all beautiful, sexy, and thin.
A Proper Self-Image
Should parents be concerned? I think so. But we can only fight the enemy of eating disorders if we properly understand self-image.
A healthy self-image is rooted in God’s view of us and is expressed in the Bible. God sees us as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14); we are not “junk” in His eyes. God also considers us dearly loved children, acceptable in every way before Him (Ephesians 5:1). In Jesus Christ, we find acceptance – physical, as well as spiritual and emotional.
When a person does not accept God’s view of herself, she loses the only true source of self-worth. Without God, a vacuum is created that soon fills with lies: “To be acceptable, you must be thin. You will never be thin enough or pretty enough.”
And so, our children begin the pursuit of what seems an honorable goal: to be more disciplined about their weight.
But the message and the messenger are wrong. No matter how thin our children become, they never feel accepted. Believing one lie makes them susceptible to another. Each lie they believe leads further into darkness (Romans 1:21-32), until the only focus left is an obsession with thinness. Illness has consumed everything else.
This is a simplistic view of a complex problem, but I believe the seed of eating disorders begins to root and grow when our children do not know or receive God’s truth that they are beautiful in Him. Without a godly self-image, our children become vulnerable to lies and error.
What Parents Can Do
Parents must provide resources and encouragement for their children caught up in eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia are two of the most destructive tools Satan has used on this generation of young people.
Ephesians 6:12 states, “We are not wrestling with flesh and blood – contending only with physical opponents – but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere.”
Recognize the Signs
To do battle, we need to recognize the signs of an eating disorder.
- The child becomes overly focused on losing or controlling weight. The anorexic cuts back on food consumption, plays with her food, says she isn’t hungry, or makes excuses for being absent at mealtime. The bulimic eats, then disappears into the bathroom or into her bedroom to vomit or purge through laxative use. Food supplies begin to disappear at alarming rates as the binger eats, purges, and eats again.
- The child lies and deceives you daily to cover up a lifestyle spiraling into dysfunction. Deception produces massive amounts of guilt and shame. Family arguments, accusations, denials, and attempts to control the offender are unending. The child begins to isolate herself from family and friends, hiding from the ones who love her and want to help.
- The child chooses friends who are also dysfunctional, because she looks and feels less guilty and abnormal among them.
- The child’s self-esteem erodes into stealing, sexual promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, school failure, job failure, panic attacks, illness, hospitalization, and suicide attempts. She knows increasing dysfunction and despair.
Breaking the Cycle
How is this cycle broken?
The only true answer is by depending on God and His Son Jesus Christ. Doctors and psychologists help with their counsel and treatments, but only divine power can break the bondage of eating disorders. Here are several suggestions on how we can lay claim to such power.
Prayer. Parents participate in their children’s pain. As we do this, we choose whether to grow or groan, to ignore or intercede. We must choose, therefore, to pray for our children, to bring their need for healing to the God who can restore completely. This is the only way we can “resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place]” (Ephesians 6:13).
Know Jesus Christ. As we pray, we must explore more deeply who Jesus Christ is. He is the miracle worker who, while on this earth, cast out demons and healed diseases. Because He is alive today and hasn’t changed with time, Jesus can still heal bodies and minds.
Believe God’s promises. We must believe God’s promises on behalf of our children. For example, God said through the prophet Isaiah, “‘I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners . . . Peace, peace, to those far and near,’ says the Lord. ‘And I will heal them'” (Isaiah 57:18,19, NIV). As we believe what He says, God will make a way through each crisis.
Believe in God’s faithfulness. We can believe what the Bible says about God and about His faithfulness, and challenge Him to be true to it. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22, 23). If God’s faithfulness is truly great, we can be confident that He will do what is best for our children and will sustain us while we wait.
Write. As we learn more about God and His faithfulness, we can record His promises in a journal. We can also write these promises on cards and refer to them in a crisis. When we’re too distraught to speak a prayer, we can write a prayer to God. When all is negative, we can write out a list of positives our children have accomplished. Then we can thank God for each one and believe for a better future.
Let go. Perhaps the toughest part of depending on God is to relinquish our children to Him. After all, He created them; He knows the plans He has for them (see Jeremiah 29:11). Therefore, we can trust that God will bring our children through this trial for their ultimate good. God is all powerful; He is on our side.
Retreat. It’s easy to neglect ourselves in crisis times. However, we must find a place to be alone where our spirits can be refreshed and renewed. When fear’s icy hand grips our hearts, we can get alone with God. We can pray while we walk and read the Bible beside a refreshing stream.
Seek support. Everybody needs somebody; no one can go it alone. Joining a group of Christian parents for support and encouragement will relieve the burden we carry for our children. When we gather with others, we can pray together for our children. Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20, NIV).
The road to our children’s recovery will be neither straight nor smooth, but the Lord will fight for us (see Exodus 14:14). We must not be discouraged. Remember, God is at work in all circumstances.
Scripture quotations were taken from the Amplified Bible, except where otherwise noted .