The Words of a “Wounded Helper”
| by Sarah Haas |
Twenty-some years ago I was laying on the floor in my parents’ kitchen. I was home for my first long holiday break from my freshman year away at college. My mom and I were in the middle of a fight. I was trying to explain why I didn’t want her homemade lasagna. “You have a problem,” were her words. I don’t actually remember her tone, but when I replay it today – I hear one of anger. I’m guessing that’s because I felt angry and afraid and hurt and all kinds of things that I hadn’t felt too much of in my life. “I know,” I cried back. I knew I was very sick, but I had no idea what to do because in my mind, if I became well, I would become fat. If I became fat, I would lose my scholarship. Now looking back, I imagine that all the money of a four-year scholarship is not worth the twenty some years of pain, suffering and lost energy.
I’d always liked healthy foods – except for lima beans and grapefruit. I’d enjoyed all vegetables and fruits for as long as I could remember. I was always a kid who enjoyed being active – playing outside, riding my bike, and swimming. In middle and high school I started running competitively, and I was still able to enjoy desserts until going to a cross country camp where the coach of the team that almost always won the state meet said, “If you are really a serious runner, you’ll give up sweets.” I’m guessing he meant, “cut back on sweets,” but I took him seriously and literally. I figured if I could give up chocolate, I could give up all sweets, and so the spiral to an eating disorder began. I didn’t restrict anything else at that point, but that coach’s voice would become a tape that would play in my head along with other tapes – tapes of track coaches talking with one another as we warmed up before meetings. I remember them talking about girls who used to be good runners but now they had hips. I remember thinking – I don’t want hips – that would be awful. Now I think – yes – hips that might hold a child someday.
Another tape that played over and over was the voice of my psychology teacher my senior year in high school. We were studying BMI and height-weight charts. “Now this chart applies to most people,” he said, “but it doesn’t apply to Sarah. She’s a distance runner, so she should be under the curve on this chart.” It’s possible that I don’t remember his words correctly, but in my mind he had just made my weight something that everyone would be watching and monitoring. I remember being worried.
Little did I know that my general education health class project would move me from the edge of a problem to a full-blown nightmare. The professor suggested projects such as drinking more water, starting to exercise, or stopping smoking. I didn’t think any of these were relevant, so I decided to look at the food pyramid to make sure I was eating the correct amounts of each food group. At first this made me stronger because I started eating more protein. Then I noticed that I was eating two to three times the recommended amount of carbohydrates. Now I can say that with running 60-some miles a week, lifting weights three times a week, and swimming at least twice a week, my body needed those carbohydrates. Unfortunately at that time, the only thing that I could think about was that I had to record all this for my health teacher to look at. I wanted it to be right. I was also supposed to write down my weight each day. I have no idea why this was part of the project, but it was. It quickly became all-consuming. I wouldn’t weigh just once a day – I’d weigh multiple times a day. Then I’d lay awake all night worrying that I had eaten an extra serving of broccoli. To compensate, I tried to cut out all fat and decrease calories wherever I could. I’d pour water on my cereal instead of milk. I’d order pizza without the cheese.
While doing all this, I would also binge eat. I don’t ever remember being stuffed, but on pancake day, I would eat 8-10 very thick plate-sized pancakes for breakfast. I’d be in the cafeteria forever – people would come and go, and I would still be there eating. Then I started hoarding them. I’d bring plastic bags and sneak pancakes into my backpack to eat back in my room on non-pancake days – a new form of calculating and figuring that also took energy. I can remember watching the digital clock change numbers from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m. I don’t think my body had enough calories to relax enough to sleep. When my body wasn’t able to rest, my mind would obsess with numbers and plans to make it look like what I was doing was normal. How could I get a few more miles in? How could I have enough energy to do that while continuing to cut back what I was eating?
Many times I’ve heard eating disorders are connected to control issues. Without a doubt, I saw that. One of the most frustrating and depressing pieces of this problem though was that I could never use the control and will power to make changes in a positive direction. I knew what I needed to do to get better. In my adolescent occupational therapy class one of my professors told me that the treatment plan that I had written for a girl with an eating disorder was the best she had ever seen. I knew exactly what to tell counselors when I went. If I did what the “well” part of my brain said, I would get fat and that would be the worst thing ever according to the “sick” part of my brain.
Now, years later, I am entering a new chapter. This spring while walking through the workout center at the YMCA, I saw a brochure about consultations with a dietitian. I decided to take a look. Even though the brochure focused on weight loss, I decided to contact one of the wellness directors to see if any of the dietitians worked with people to gain weight. The wellness director was extremely supportive, which gave me the courage to share some of my goals. Her continued positive spirit and kind words urged me forward to meet with the dietitian. An hour with the dietitian gave me more hope than I’d ever had before in this battle. For the first time in at least twenty years, I thought that maybe I could really move toward some long-term changes. I’d been sick for more than half my life, and most of the time, I was doubtful I’d ever be able to make lasting changes. I knew that God still had power for transformation, which is one of the only things that kept me going on my worst of days. At times, even though I know God’s grace is unconditional, I wondered if I had worn out God’s grace on this particular problem.
I really believe that God sent this particular dietitian just in the right moment. The changes that I am making are helping me have the energy to keep up with my growing daughter. She is the one who inspires me and motivates me the most to become healthy. I want her to see a healthy mom – one who can play with her and give her the energy she deserves. It’s still scary to make huge changes in how I think and live, but with the support of the dietitian, the prayers of a few confidants, the helpful goals of others, and the prayers that my daughter will never go through this, I believe it is possible.
I haven’t yet been able to eat what I want for a full day without worrying about it or feeling guilty, but I’m almost there. I can get through almost all my meals and snacks in a day, even a day without running, without feeling guilty about it. I will keep trying. I also continue to try to cut back on running. That is difficult because it’s one of my favorite social outlets, prayer times, and coping mechanisms, but I’m working to learn new methods of managing stress and gaining a better understanding of how stress triggers old unhealthy thinking. I’ve gone from weighing every day to weighing once every two to three weeks, yet when I read a stressful e-mail or go to a stressful meeting, I have an urge to get on a scale. I have to remind myself to try some yoga or talk myself through why that is not a healthy or goal-oriented action to take.
As scary as it has been to write and share this story, giving words to my experiences has also helped me. A phrase that has been helpful to me over the years is “wounded healer.” Perhaps we never understand some of the suffering we go through, but knowing we can journey with others who may be suffering a similar way gives me strength to keep going. Maybe just a few people will be helped from some of my words, but if that is true, I will be thankful to God for reshaping my shame for good purposes. I am thankful for the women who have been willing to listen to my story without judging me.