The Anorexia Challenge
Healing for hidden pain when it’s brought into God’s light.
by Marjorie Ector* as told to B. C. Bond
“Mandy looks like she’s dying,” someone in the next pew whispered.
I snapped back from confused thoughts. Glancing at my daughter, I sighed, then bowed my head in prayer. As people filed out of church, we remained seated, waiting for an appointment with our pastor. Perhaps the most important one of our lives.
Looking at Mandy, I felt my heart breaking. Her thick, brown hair was stringy and brittle, shedding like cat’s fur. There was no spark in her once-vibrant eyes, now dull with surrounding translucent yellow skin. How had I failed her?
One year ago, at age 13, Amanda scored straight A’s, worked hard, enjoyed life with her friends, attended church functions, and never neglected her responsibilities. But she had changed since summer camp.
She began dieting. At first, healthier eating habits seemed like a good idea, but Mandy set up a rigorous diet, leaving little time for extracurricular activities or friends.
She became isolated but laughed it off, saying she saw people at school and needed time to focus on her goals. By spring, Mandy’s weight dropped from 143 to 98 pounds, but she seemed happier.
Mandy’s habits changed too. Home after school, she would draw the shades, plug her ears with cotton, and take long naps. She thrived at night. It was perfect for doing homework and, most important, recording the day’s caloric intake in her diary.
Each day she challenged her food requirements. Weight reduction filled her thoughts, and gaining an ounce sent Mandy into depression. She invented new ways to control her diet.
When I would return home from work, Mandy would declare she had already eaten dinner. One night I found her slicing bread into tiny, neat squares. After taking an hour to devour them, she declared herself stuffed.
She might have an apple for lunch. Then I discovered her cutting slices out of it, reducing it by half, because it was too large.
Mandy often complained of an upset stomach. Later, I learned she was taking laxatives daily. Her throat still bears scars from forced vomiting. Mandy’s appetite for thinness was insatiable.
“Honey, are you cold?” I asked, pulling her wool scarf tighter.
“No, I’m fine, Mom. Church is always cold.” Mandy scraped some dry skin off her arm with cracked nails. Once, they were clean and shiny.
“I’m glad you agreed to talk with the pastor.”
“But, there’s nothing wrong with me,” Mandy sighed. “I’m just skinny.”
“We’ve been through this. When the school called, it was the last straw.” I drew Mandy close, hugging her.
“They’re jealous. Kids at school can’t control their weight like me,” Mandy said, sitting up straight. “They’ve got no willpower.”
“Mandy, the principal said the school couldn’t be responsible for your health anymore.”
Hearing the pastor return, Mandy stood to face her.
“Sit down, Amanda,” the pastor said. “Relax. After all, what’s more comfortable than God’s house?” Then she got to the point. “Amanda, you’re anorexic.”
The pastor held her hand up, pleading to be heard. “Let me explain what anorexia nervosa is before you deny it.” Lips drawn tight in suspicion, Mandy sat down.
“Anorexia is self-induced starvation,” the pastor continued. “It includes binge and purge cycles of eating. Over one million people suffer from anorexia in America, so you’re not alone. Ninety percent are women.
“Cure is possible, but one case in ten is fatal. Anorexia is slow suicide, but over 60 percent of anorexics recover to live normal lives. Fighting it requires everyone’s cooperation.”
The pastor’s bluntness stunned me.
“What’s the fuss?” Mandy asked. “I’m just thin.”
The pastor hammered at my daughter’s stubborn shell. “Mandy! You’re in the process of choosing life or death, not whether you can wear a size three dress.”
“It’s my body.” Mandy’s face reddened. “You don’t understand. I’m in control. Other girls want to be thin. I am thin.”
“Admitting there’s a problem is the main obstacle,” the pastor explained. “You don’t want to lose more weight, but you’re afraid your old self will return. God gave you that body. Do you think God would approve of how you’re treating it?”
“Maybe not, but I’m afraid,” Mandy admitted. “Each day’s a struggle. When I gain a single pound, I panic.”
“You’re brainwashing yourself,” the pastor said. “Anorexia isn’t just about self-control. You’re crying for attention. You lack confidence in your decisions. True beauty comes from the heart, not designer jeans. That’s where the Lord looks.” The pastor squeezed Mandy’s hand.
“Mandy! Don’t you know how dreadful you look?” I sobbed. “When you’re sleeping, all I see is skin and bones. It tears me apart. I don’t know what to do!”
Desire for control
“Mandy’s starving is an attempt to control her life. Anorexia is a problem of the whole individual, not just an eating disorder.” The pastor turned to Amanda. “What do you think about your life?”
“Nobody listens to me. I don’t blame them. I’m not pretty or smart. I used to be fat. At least I can control that.” Mandy began to cry.
The pastor kept speaking. “There’s desperation and anger in your eyes, Mandy. You’re flaunting your body, saying, ‘See! Look! I win!’ You’re only destroying yourself.
“Everyone struggles between flesh and spirit. God distinguishes between the corruption in our heart and the convictions of our conscience. You have to accept life on God’s terms. You have to say, ‘I trust God. I want to enjoy this gift given to me.’
“Don’t look at others and say, ‘I want to be like this girl or act like that girl,” the pastor continued. “Be yourself. That’s what God wants. You worry about others accepting you so much, you’ve forgotten to accept yourself as God accepts you.
“Anorexia is a suicidal crutch substituting starvation for faith and love,” the pastor said. “No one can force you to eat. Help us help you.”
“I want to get better,” Mandy admitted. “But sometimes I hate my life. I feel Mom and Dad want more than I can give.” Mandy’s voice quivered with anguish.
“Mandy, you’re entering the lion’s den,” the pastor said. “Be strong like Daniel. In Matthew it says, ‘I am with you always, to the very end of age.’ Accept yourself as God does, and you will never be alone.”
Committing to a cure
I spoke up. “Mandy, I love you. I want you to grow into a strong, loving individual. Forgive me if I’ve pressured you too much. I know I haven’t been a perfect mother. With the pastor’s help and God’s guidance, we’ll beat this together.”
“The cure is long, hard work,” the pastor added. “There will be frustrations, relapses, temptations. Days you won’t know what to do. But no step will be as difficult as today’s. Admitting you have anorexia is the beginning. God’s love, wisdom, and strength will protect you.”
“I get confused,” Mandy admitted. “I feel abandoned at times and forget God is with me.”
“When you look in the mirror, see the beauty as God does,” the pastor explained. “God knows your thoughts and intents. God judges; we don’t. Faith, determination, and love make all problems conquerable. With God for you, what can stand against you?”
Relief flooded Mandy’s heart. She knew, like Daniel, she was not alone in this deadly struggle. Mandy’s eyes shined with hope rekindled. We determined to share Mandy’s struggle, knowing God would stand with us.
*Marjorie Ector is a pseudonym.