Friday, August 8, 2008

The Skeleton in My Mirror

Everyone has skeletons in their closet - secret shame from your past that you don't want anyone to find out about. But this is a picture of my skeleton - except I didn't keep mine in my closet. I had to look at mine in the mirror everyday.

It started out as an attempt to become more “healthy.” After watching several older friends take on the “freshman 15” in college, I was determined it wouldn’t happen to me. At 118 pounds, I decided to make some changes.

First, I decided I needed to increase my exercise. In high school, I worked at a health and fitness center, so I typically worked out 4-5 times a week. When I would finish a shift, I would head to the cardio machines and leisurely jog on the treadmill or go to a strength-training class.

That wasn’t enough for me now. I read that it was better to work out on an empty stomach, so I began getting up at 5 a.m. to get my workout in before class. But that didn’t mean that I stopped my routine at night after work. Double the exercise meant double the results.

I started getting attention from the personal trainers and fitness managers. “Michelle, you’re in such great shape. You look amazing. It’s such a waste having you at the front desk. Why don’t you get certified to teach classes?”

Did I just get offered to get paid to workout? Somebody pinch me, because I am dreaming. It was perfect. I paid for the certifications out of my savings account, and before I knew it, I was no longer standing behind a desk. I was up in front of the exercise classes, torching calories for hours a day. Yet, I couldn’t seem to shake the last few pounds that I wanted gone.

“Michelle, you know that working out is only 20% of weight loss. 80% is nutrition,” one of the personal trainers informed me when I shared my frustrations. Enough said. Exercise more, check. Operation: Eat Less would begin.

I began doing intensive research on the healthiest foods, the lowest in calories, and the lowest in fat grams. I developed my “Safe Foods” and made sure they were always accessible. I knew as long as I stuck to my routine, I knew exactly what was going into my body. There wouldn’t be a single calorie unaccounted for.

Operation: Eat Less included old fashioned oats and ½ cup of egg whites for breakfast. I ate a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with lettuce and mustard only. If I had already worked out that day, I could have an apple for dessert. For a snack, I would have non-fat yogurt and carrot sticks. My dinner consisted of a chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and a sweet potato (if I hadn’t eaten the apple at lunch. Before I went to bed, I drank 8 oz. of skim milk. Oh, and I had 128 oz. of water each day. It always came out to less than 800 calories a day. (I wrote it down in my food diary each day.) I burned twice as many calories as I consumed most days. Sometimes I burned even more.
The weight fell off of me. I’m not sure how quickly it happened or when exactly it all came of. I still felt disgustingly fat each time I looked in the mirror. How was it possible that I still looked heavy in the mirror when size 0 pants had to be taken in to fit me?

I no longer saw benefits from two-a-day workouts. I wasn’t sure I could force myself to eat less. I was already starving. I asked my manager for more classes. Pretty soon, I was teaching 15 classes a week.

By this point, the compliments had stopped. They were replaced with, “Michelle, you’re so thin. Maybe you should back off a few days. Are you sure you’re eating enough?”

Instead of paying attention to their concerns, they only motivated me more. But the comments didn’t stop. I knew I was going to have to do something to prove to everyone that I didn’t have a problem – because I didn’t. I just wanted to be healthy.

I needed a mask, and I needed one fast. I entered a pageant. What person with an eating disorder or an unhealthy body image would purposely parade around on a stage in a swimsuit? It was perfect.

I was 19. I didn’t think I stood a chance. But at the end of the night, the crown went on my head – average, good student, little church nerd ME! That’s when the mixed signals started. At the same time I heard, “Michelle, I think you might be a little too skinny,” I heard, “But you look absolutely amazing on camera.”

From there, I went from bad to worse. Now, I was going to have to compete against 50 of the most beautiful girls in my state. I knew I couldn’t beat them in age or experience. They had a few years of maturity on me in the talent competition. But I could do everything in my power to rock the swimsuit competition. I just had to have the will power. If I couldn’t get rid of the weight while I was still eating, I would just stop eating altogether.

I cut out snacks first, then meals. Before long, I was skipping entire days of eating. All while keeping up my exercise class teaching schedule. Plus, I decided I needed to train for a half-marathon.

It was empowering. I knew I had something inside of me that was better than everyone else. Everyone I knew had to count on food to survive. I was super-human, I could make it without it. Sure, I would have to break down and eat something every once in a while. I just made sure it was a “negative calorie food” – foods that actually burn more calories to digest that you do from eating them. As if that wasn’t enough, I began taking multiple appetite suppressants and fat burners.

By the time the state pageant rolled around, I was at my smallest. During the swimsuit competition, my dad, who was typically my biggest fan, put the binoculars down. “I can’t look at her like that,” he told my sister. He knew I had a problem. They all did. But anytime they brought it up to me, I had an amazing excuse. I still didn’t think it was a big deal.
Backstage, the girls all fussed over how thin I was – how it was “unfair” to have to walk on stage after me. I looked in the mirror, glancing at my trouble spots, wishing my tummy would be just a little smaller.

“I bet you don’t even weigh 90 pounds,” one of the other contestants challenged.

“Sure, I do,” I said. “I weigh 102,” I said, even though the last time I had stepped on a scale was nearly six months earlier.

“Prove it,” she dared, pointing to a scale in the corner.

“I will,” I replied defiantly, swallowing hard. You would have thought I was walking to the gallows to be hung the way I was dreading stepping on that scale. What if I had gained weight? What if they actually thought I was fat?

Taking a deep breath, I stepped on the scale, closing my eyes.

The other contestant shouted, “Ha ha! I was right! 89 pounds everyone!”

I don’t remember if I said anything to her. I just know her words kept echoing in my brain. 89 pounds. Plus, my shoes and my earrings alone weighed at least five pounds. I know 89 pounds is skinny. Maybe even too skinny. So why do I still feel fat?

All of the sudden, I knew I had a problem.

But I had gotten myself into a mess I didn’t know how to get out of. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I didn’t want to have to go through therapy. I didn’t want to have to leave my job or put college on hold. More than that though – I didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t bear the thought of gaining weight.

I knew there was only one way to handle this. Quit fighting, and let food and the mirror win. Just accept that I was afraid of food, and do whatever it took to cover my tracks. There were times I would go to bed hoping I wouldn’t wake up so it would be over. I had trouble sleeping. Many nights, I heard my parents and my older sister come into my room to check to make sure I was breathing.

My family did everything they could. I left the house before they were awake most mornings. I would leave the pantry door partially open so they would think I had gotten breakfast before I left. They would bring my dinner at work. I would make up an excuse about having to train a client, but I was always appreciative. I shudder to think about how much money they spent on food that I put in the trash can or gave away. I knew I was hurting them. I heard my mom’s sniffles. I saw the circles under my dad’s eyes. I felt my sister pulling away from me like she knew she had to distance herself since they were losing me.
A small detail I forgot to mention: I was still a leader in my church throughout all of this. I taught a bible study to the youth group girls. I sang in the praise team every Sunday morning and Sunday night. Yet I had completely abandoned my personal relationship with Christ. I knew the Sunday school answers. I knew the public prayers to pray. But I couldn’t force myself to be real with God because I couldn’t bring myself to think about how much I was hurting Him.

But as God tends to do, He eventually got my attention. On April 14, 2005, I took off to a park about 10 minutes away from my parent’s house to complete my last long run before my upcoming marathon. 20 miles was on the training plan, and it didn’t matter that I hadn’t had a meal in 13 days. I was super human, remember?

I made sure to cover all of my bases beforehand. I knew my parents would call to find out where I was and beg me to come home, so I purposely left my cell phone in the kitchen so they would have no way to reach me.

I made it to mile 19. My vision began to get blurry as I rounded a corner of the familiar park. This stretch of the trail was completely hidden from the road. Trying to clear my vision, I closed my eyes for a few paces. The next thing I knew, I tripped, and I was on the ground. All 84 pounds of me hit the pavement, and I literally felt every brittle bone in my body crack.

Frantically, I scanned for help, but I was all alone. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t have the energy. I couldn’t see anymore, so I tried to open my eyes. Oh my gosh. My eyes felt open, but I couldn’t see anything. What is going on? I knew I should panic. Wait a second. Michelle, why is breathing so hard? Michelle, GET UP! Can you hear me? Why aren’t you moving? This is serious! MICHELLE!

I don’t know how long I laid there and tried to move. I just knew I couldn’t get up. Wow, I thought. So this is it. It finally happened. I am going to die right here on this track. Still trying to move, I attempted to gather my final thoughts. Michelle, how did you let it get this far? How could you be so selfish? Mom will never recover. Dad will never forgive himself. And your sister is getting married in three months and her maid of honor won’t be there.

I knew that I should talk to God. I used to turn to Him for everything, and now, I didn’t know what to say. Still trying to move, I attempted to gather my final thoughts. Michelle, how did you let it get this far? How could you be so selfish? Mom will never recover. Dad will never forgive himself. And Melody’s getting married in three months. Her maid of honor won’t be there, thanks to you! What will they think when they find you like this? What if they don’t find you? What if it’s some child headed to the playground?

Bingo, I thought. Something I can ask God for.

So, for the first time in over a year, I prayed – really prayed. Not a prayer out loud at church to make everyone think that I was the perfect Christian – I was the master of those - but I went before my Savior with a genuine request.

God, I’m not asking You to live. I don’t deserve to live. I know that. But if You could, can I just get up and walk to my car? That’s all I want, Jesus. Just let me walk to my car.

To this day, I don’t know if angels picked me up or if God simply gave me the strength I needed to stand. But through His grace, I stood up. I don’t remember much about the walk to my car, but I know I made it there. I sat in the driver’s seat and reached for the middle console where I usually kept my cell phone. Of course, it wasn’t there. It was on the kitchen counter, where I had accidentally left it on purpose.

Well, there goes your last hope, Michelle. The only thing you can do is sit here and wait to die. I drank some water that I had with me, and I felt it slosh around in my empty stomach.

See, Michelle. You’ve always heard that before you die, you think about what is really important to you. What did you think about? Your family and your faith. Did you think, “Gosh, I am going to look so fat in my casket. I really shouldn’t have eaten that apple almost two weeks ago. You should have ran farther!” NO, YOU DIDN’T!

All of the sudden, I wanted to live. Really live. Not count calories or starve myself. I want to hug my dad and tell my mom I love her, I realized. I want to catch Melody’s bouquet in June. I’m sorry, precious family. God, I want to talk to you, but I don’t know what to say. I turned my car on. Maybe a car running will attract more attention than a parked car.

I don’t remember having my radio on as I was driving to the park. Even f I did, I certainly didn’t have it on the contemporary Christian radio station. Literally and figuratively, I had been running from God for quite some time. People who run from God don’t listen to songs that remind them of their guilt.

Then, I heard it. God’s voice. That comforting voice that I hadn’t heard in so long. Michelle, I love you. In fact, I love you so much, that right now, when you don’t even have the words to say, I’m going to give them to you.

Then, the radio station played the song below:

“Restore Me”
- Anthony Evans

On the outside
You think I'm alright
There's a smile on my face
Everything's okay
But on the inside there's a different story
I've stumbled down this road
And I've got so for the go
I'm a broken man
On my knees again
Longing for a touch from you
I need you hand to

Restore me
I need your mercy
Take me
To the place I used to be
Use all the pain and the hurt
To do a greater work and
Restore me

I wore my mask
Running away from my past
Hiding all my scars
Thinking I'd gone too far
But he knew my pain
And He loved me just the same
He promised I'd be free
If I fell on my knees and cried

Restore me
I need your mercy
Take me
To the place I used to be
Use all the pain and the hurt
To do a greater work and
Restore me

Restore unto me the joy of my salvation
So I'll sing again the song you wrote for me
Give me a clean heart
I want a brand new start
Like the moment when I first believed

Restore me
I need your mercy
Take me
To the place I used to be
Use all the pain and the hurt
To do a greater work and
Restore me
Please, Jesus.
Give me another chance.
I want to be a new man.
Please, Jesus.

With huge tears in my eyes, I felt God’s love surround me. Does this mean you’re going to let me live, Jesus? Suddenly, I had the strength to sit up. I put my car in reverse, and I drove home. Amazed at God’s grace, I came in the door of my house. I immediately saw my mom, and I hugged her.

“Mommy, I need help.”

She nodded, tears streaming down her face. “I know.”

I sat down at the kitchen table, and my dad fixed me something to eat. I don’t remember what I ate, but I know that I didn’t write it down. I didn’t check the nutrition labels before I put it in my mouth.

That doesn’t mean it was over. Recovery was frustrating, especially at first. I remember sitting at a table having to eat a normal meal and crying harder with every bite that I put in my mouth. Each calorie that went into my body was undoing my “hard work and discipline.” I felt like a child again, reintroducing food to my body. My dad even had to give me the Heimlich maneuver on three occasions because I had forgotten how to properly chew and swallow food. I clung to Jeremiah 30:17, “’But I will restore you to health, and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord.”

Forgiving myself is still a challenge. I can’t believe all of the time I wasted - the opportunities I missed to be an example for the Lord. I can’t believe the hurt my family went through because of my actions. Today, I still deal with the permanent damage I’ve done to my body – something that not only affects me, but my husband as well.

It’s not over – it’s like any stumbling block. Satan know my struggles. He tries to put those thoughts back in my head and to warp the mirror when I look in it. Most of the time, I am able to overcome the temptation “through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). On rare occasions, I slip, falling into old patterns of spending too much time at the gym or eating too few calories.

But “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” is there every time I fall to pick me up (Exodus 34:6). He values me, He loves me, and I can turn to Him.


Mick said...

Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me. Bless His Holy Name.
I have no words to say except those quoted above. I am ever grateful that He saved you.

E and B: We're married. We love each other lots. said...


As a former anorexic (and pageant) girl myself, I appreciate your transparency and humility in this post. As your friend I am so thankful that the Lord kept you with us...look at the amazing things he is doing with you now! Our God is so amazing isn't he? I,too have struggled with a bad body image for years. But, I was never the victim of anorexia like so many say, but anorexia was only the result of my selfishness, and only an awesome, living, all-powerful God can take something that started as selfishness and use it as a ministry for others. Way to go girl! I love you!


Toby Johnson said...

Michelle...I'm so thankful that the Lord got your attention. I didn't notice how long ago you wrote this, but I want to encourage you with one thing.

The great thing about forgiveness is this: we have never been commanded to forgive ourselves. The only forgiveness that really releases us is God's forgiveness. I have found that, usually, when people say they can't "forgive themselves," the underlying reality is that they cannot seem to accept and apply God's forgiveness to their lives.

We love you, and we praise God for you. Stay steady, and keep your eyes on Jesus.

driftinrain said...

Thank you for sharing that, i was truly touched!


Natalie said...

Hi Michelle!

I will never forget the day you shared this with me. The day you let me in on your struggle. That was quite a while ago and a lot has happened since then, but I just wanted to remind you that I love you, and I know that this story, and your entire life, will show so many people how wonderful God is. We all fall, but standing back up is what it is all about. I am blessed to call you my friend, and I respect you with all my being. I love you.

Ashlee said...

I have done nothing but cry the whole way through this entire blog, reading it two, three times. I see sooo much of me in your stories and your life. I am still sitting here with tears rolling down my face. You are one lucky woman to have such a great family behind you the entire way. I only hope that I have the strength to help pull myself up and make it through what you have. I just... I don't know how to put it. I'm envious of your amazing family and support.