Growing up, I loved ballet. My dream was to become a professional ballet dancer. My parents did whatever they could to help me achieve my dream. Whether it was driving me to the Columbus, Ohio, academy for daily classes or planning family trips to New York City centered around ballet performances, taking classes with esteemed instructors, and trying on pointe shoes, they fully supported this passion of mine.
Being an only child, I was grateful for their support and love. They willingly sacrificed their time year-round and then even more so during the fall and winter for The Nutcracker rehearsals and performances and then again during summer intensives. Since the academy was the official school of the professional ballet company in Columbus, I relished watching and learning from the professionals.
Despite coming from such a loving home and having the support most children could only dream of, I never felt like I measured up: whether it was in ballet, school, my weight (yes, even as an elementary school student I was deeply dissatisfied with the reflection I was forced to look at in the mirror while dancing), or life in general. It was never verbalized to me, it was just an inner, constant nagging of not being good enough. I felt that I never measured up to the standard, even though I didn’t know exactly what standard I was trying to meet or whose standard it was that I was trying to satisfy.
Being an only child also caused me to feel a lot of pressure because all eyes and attention were upon me. We would often discuss this pressure I felt, this never-measuring-up feeling I constantly had, and my parents would ask if they had ever said anything or done anything to make me feel that way. I would say no, never, it was just me. On top of these feelings, I desperately wanted to please my parents. Because of this, I felt like I could not express my own opinions or desires, causing me to internalize my thoughts and emotions. This proved to be too much for my young, 6th grade self. Eventually I began to feel like I had no control over anything in my life. I turned to food and exercise and began to restrict my calories, eventually eating a very regimented diet and eating the same exact thing every day. It became an obsession to measure and weigh every bite of food. In addition to ballet classes, I increased exercise at home.
Around this same time, the ballet academy which I attended began to weigh us every week and record it. Already not feeling good about myself, feeling as though I did not measure up, not being happy with my weight, and like I had no control over my life, I realized the one thing I could control was my weight and what I ate. The turmoil within me and the perceived pressures around me created a perfect storm for an eating disorder.
By the 8th grade, I was in the depths of anorexia nervosa. While my parents knew I had lost weight and were beginning to worry, I was able to hide the severity of it until the summer before 8th grade. It was while on vacation in Myrtle Beach that my parents saw me in a bathing suit and gasped. They were stunned by how I looked and had no idea what to do. Knowing we were away from home for the week, they tried to talk to me. We took a long walk on the beach and my dad, hoping to fix it, said, “Just eat a piece of toast.” I couldn’t. He said, “Just eat a banana. It’s healthy.” I still couldn’t. I didn’t understand why. I knew the banana was healthy. I was scared because it didn’t make sense. I just knew I could not eat it.
When we returned home from the beach, my mom tried to find a psychologist. (There was no internet at this time, remember!) She finally made a connection with a psychologist who was willing to meet with me. At the time, eating disorders were not commonly spoken of like they are today. We had no idea what it truly meant for me to be diagnosed as having anorexia. I began to see a psychologist, which I would continue to do so for a number of years, a physician who watched my weight and health, and a nutritionist to help me gain weight in a way in which I could tolerate. It physically hurt my stomach to eat even the small amount of food I needed to eat in order to gain weight. Throughout this time I was told that if I lost 1/2 more pound I would have to be hospitalized. In those days, that would have been a very big deal. I couldn’t fathom that. I was allowed to stay home but had to be very closely monitored. My ballet instructors stopped weighing me and partnered with my parents. One instructor came to our home and spent time talking with me on a regular basis. I was told that if I did not gain weight, I would not be permitted to dance in The Nutcracker or audition for other student roles within the professional company’s performances. This consequence finally motivated me. I wanted nothing more than to dance. Over the course of a few difficult years, I finally gained weight and became what was considered healthy. Those years were filled with isolation, as I did not want to be places where food would be a focus or to be around people who would try to force me to eat. I stopped doing all the normal activities for a young teenage girl. I was in a battle, and it took all of my energy just to fight. Those years were also filled with tension in my home as I wanted my mom to get rid of any kind of “bad” food (all food was categorized as “good” or bad”). If I found out she had food that I had said was “bad,” I would end up in a rage. Holidays or any kind of gatherings I had to participate in were filled with stress, and I would take my own, approved foods. Yet despite all this, I eventually met the minimum weight the doctors had agreed upon.
Eventually I looked healthy on the outside (as seen in the picture above), but I had not changed on the inside. No one had a remedy for the thoughts and beliefs that still plagued me of not being good enough and not measuring up. During the time of seeing the psychologist, I had been given a list of statements that I was supposed to read out loud to myself, such as “I am a good person.” After reciting this list a few times, I thought, “Who wrote this? They don’t know me. They don’t know if I’m a good person. I don’t believe this.” And I stopped.
I was convinced that I would continue living in the prison of my mind for the rest of my life. I literally saw prison bars in my mind’s eyes; I was trapped. I could not get out. I had no answer. I had gained the required weight, everyone was happy. But I was miserable. As bad as it was being anorexic, being the same as I had been inwardly yet now with the added weight outwardly was even worse. I would have returned to being anorexic if I could.
For various reasons, towards the end of high school I made the shocking decision to quit ballet. Soon thereafter, someone in my French class began asking me to go to the Bible club that was held after school. I finally said yes, in order for her to stop asking me to go. The first thing the other students asked me was, “Are you a Christian?” I replied that yes, I was a Christian. I continued, “I go to church, and I’m a good person.” They explained that did not make me a Christian and they proceeded to share the Gospel with me: all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, but God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. He died, was buried, and rose again. He is alive and if you place your faith in Christ, knowing that you are a sinner and need a Savior, and that He alone can forgive you of your sins, you can be saved. They asked, “Do you want to ask Jesus to be your Savior?” I immediately said yes, and I became a child of God that day in the mid 1990s.
I did not grow that much during the last year and a half of high school. There were definitely, however, seeds of truth planted in my heart. I attended a Bible teaching church and a Bible study for high school students but growing in God was not my priority.
In the fall of 1995 I attended the University of Delaware as a result of my parents moving from the Midwest to the East coast. Prior to my arrival at UD, I knew I wanted to find a campus ministry, have Christian friends, and grow in my relationship with God. The Lord led me to a campus ministry based out of a local church near the University. This church had the greatest love for college students that I have ever seen. I began to do everything I could with them. My hunger for God exploded! One Sunday after service, I asked for prayer. I don’t remember what I said, but the pastor replied, “You need to know your identity in Christ.” He called over his wife, asked me to share with her what I had just shared with him, and she also said, “You need to know your identity in Christ.” I didn’t know what that meant. It was the first time I had heard those words.
That moment proved to be life changing. People, including this woman, other women from the church, and older students from the campus ministry began to share the truth of God’s Word with me, what the Bible said about not only who I was but whose I was, and slowly but surely the strength of the prison bars that I could see in my mind began to diminish.
Do you remember the list I mentioned earlier, the one that the psychologist wanted me to read with statements such as “I’m a good person”? Do you recall that I had concluded it wasn’t worth reading because it was written by an author who did not know me? Now I was given a list similar in nature, statements about “me,” but this time in the context of who I was as a child of God, truths taken from verses in the Bible. I read this list daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I realized something profound: this is what God says about me, and HE knows me… if He knows me and still says this of me, it must be true… I can believe it because of Who the Author is!! There were days I read the list of Bible verses and truths about how God saw me and didn’t “feel” any different. There were other days, however, that I read the list and something resonated deep within, causing me to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of His grace. The Word of God began having an effect on my life. I didn’t fully know the depths or the extent of the impact it was having on me. I first knew the truth of God’s Word and the power of His Spirit were changing me when the buttons on my pants were a bit tight one day, and I didn’t freak out. It didn’t even bother me. I don’t think anyone has ever rejoiced over too tight of pants as I did in that moment! You see, it proved to me that my identity, my worth, my value, and my significance was no longer tied up in a number on a scale or in the size of my clothes. I knew that despite having a long way to go, He had truly begun a good work in me and He would be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6).
The Word of God began to set me free. My mind was slowly but surely being renewed according to His truth. Then something would happen, and I would feel like I was the same person I was before, reverting to old ways of thinking. I wondered if I really had been changed. Time and again the Lord would reveal that He was just deepening the work. Like peeling an onion, one layer was removed at a time, over time, resulting in my identity being found more and more in Him. I was grateful for those early lessons and for being taken deeper little by little so that my identity could no longer be found in my appearance, weight, performance, success, people’s opinions, or even in serving the Lord, as I became more and more involved in my campus ministry and then in full-time ministry upon graduation.When I got married a few years later, healed of the years-long eating disorder physically and set free inwardly by the powerful working of the Word of God and the Spirit of God, I had already been ministering to other girls around me who struggled with the same issues. However, I realized I was starting to feel insecure now as a wife. I knew enough to go to the Word of God for answers. I searched in the Bible, looking up the word “insecurity” and anything else I could think of related to that word. I couldn’t find anything. I grew very upset and said, “Lord, I know enough by now to know that Your Word is the answer! I’m coming to Your Word for the answer! There is nothing here to address my insecurity. The only insecurity I see mentioned here is the insecurity of the wicked and I know I’m not the wicked because I am in You, so I am the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). At that moment it clicked! Insecurity has no place in my life because of who I am in Christ. I said, “Oh Lord, I get it! Help me believe! Help me experience the freedom that I know is mine as Your child.” As I went back to the basics, those things He ministered to my heart so many years prior, He was faithful to take me even deeper into freedom.
I learned that it was wise to be on guard and vigilant as I entered new seasons and new experiences, lest I revert to old ways of thinking. When asked, over the years, if the eating disorder was something I was truly freed from, I would reply yes, it was. However, the lies would still come to mind periodically in the early years. The difference was I grew to recognize them sooner, to the point where those same lies seldom had room to creep in because my mind was so renewed with the truth. Similarly, with new seasons of life, such as when I became a mom, I was vigilant to reaffirm that my identity was found in Him and not in my mothering or in my children. My identity, worth, and value, and yours, can only be found in Him and in that which is true of us as His children. It cannot be found in anything else no matter how good it might be.
He is faithful to grow us and continue growing us, peeling back more and more layers as we go through life. Don’t grow discouraged if you feel like you are in the beginning of this process; recognize that He is growing you for your good and His glory! He is faithful and will complete the good work He has begun in you! If you’re further along in this process, rejoice and give Him all the glory for the good things, the amazing things, He has done in you!
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”
(2 Corinthians 5:17).