By Kelly Beth Todd
I am convinced that eating disorders are one of the most silent yet deadly diseases circulating the world today. The South Carolina Department of Health estimates that, “8 million American’s have an eating disorder,” and “nearly half of all Americans personally know someone with an eating disorder.” I was one of those 8 million.
The first time I remember having ill thoughts towards my body was when I was in the 6th grade. It all steamed from a rather large scar on my lower abdomen from where two large cancerous tumors were removed. No one ever bullied me or told me I was ugly, but they didn’t have to. I saw images on the television, on the cover of magazines in grocery store aisles, and on billboards of who the world esteemed as beautiful. All I knew is that my stomach looked a whole lot different from the images portrayed. I wanted to be beautiful and so, I thought I had to change my appearance in order to achieve the kind of beauty I saw in the media. This was one of the very first lies I believed from Satan. Yet still, God was whispering truth to me through His written word, along side or my family and close Christian friends.
“I can’t eat that.” Those four words began filling my head on a daily basis. I aggressively started limiting what I ate with the sole purpose of losing weight. As with any other addiction, once you start it is very difficult to stop. Over time, I developed a distorted image of myself. In counseling I learned that this is called the body dysmorhpic disorder. I could tell you stories upon stories of the terrible things I did to lose weight, but I do not believe that will be beneficial. It was just very evident at this point in my life that my number one concern was with one thing: ME. My body image was at the forefront of every thought and I was willing to do whatever it took to achieve the world’s view of perfection.
Flash forward 5 years and there I was lying on the hospital bed with another scar on my stomach from an appendectomy surgery. It actually got infected leaving an even bigger scar. The Lord reminded me, though I could not possibly understand it at the time, that no tear will ever be wasted and he had a plan for yes, even this scar. Little did I know He would use these marks on my body to humble me, remind me of the preciousness of life and continually sanctify me and give me a story to tell of His beautiful grace. I think He was constantly trying to get my attention. “Kelly Beth, what defines beauty for you? If it is the world than it will always be changing, you will never be able to keep up! But if it is me, then, my dear you are already there. You are beautiful because I made you and you are mine.” Unfortunately, these huge revelations only lasted for a little time and I was back to my old ways. God was so very patient with me.
Growing up, I watched my sister compete in many pageants. I always vowed I would never do one because walking in high heels and wearing a pound of make-up were just “not my thing.” However, after a 30 minute conversation with my sister, Annie, and learning more about what pageants entail, I opted to compete in the Miss Illinois Teen USA pageant. Now I had an excuse to eat healthier (aka not eat) and work out more. Plus, I could get away with it because I was preparing for a pageant…Right!? I continued restricting food and working out like a maniac at the gym. At one point, one of the gym managers told me he thought I was doing way too much cardio and needed to call it a night. Finally, it was time for the pageant. I arrived there only to learn I was competing against something like 190 other girls from the state of Illinois. I thought to myself, “There is no way I will ever win this thing, so I am just going to have fun with it!” As it turns out, I ended up winning the entire thing. It was completely and surprisingly unexpected.
After winning, I began preparing for The Miss Teen USA 2005 pageant. The pressure was on at this point. The thought of wearing a bikini on national television was more than enough motivation/pressure to make me work like a crazy person to get in the best shape ever. At the same time I was obsessing about working out and eating “healthy,” I was speaking at church conferences and encouraging young girls to find their confidence in Christ and not seek their identity in the eyes of the world. Too bad I wasn’t believing the truth I was preaching. The well-known verse from Proverbs about beauty, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” is one I often shared with others, but took very little time to meditate on myself. The Lord was constantly convicting my soul through my daily time spent in the word, but at the time, I was not ready to let go, I was not ready to surrender all of my wants and desires before the Father. I thought my way was best.
Flash forward to the Miss Teen USA 2005 pageant. We arrived there about two or three weeks before it was to go live on national television. We had the opportunity to work with professional choreographers and photographers, as well as attend a whole slew of events. I am not gonna lie, it is still one of the most exciting times of my life, one of which it was truly an honor and a privilege to be a part of, but there was a dark shadow quietly hovering over those weeks. My eating disorder was with me wherever I went, constantly telling me that I wasn’t as pretty or skinny as the other girls and that I wasn’t enough. I hate thinking about how much time I wasted thinking about myself. It literally disgusts me. I would pray every night while I was there that Jesus would take this burden away and that he would make me content with the way He made me. Even though I felt alone in my struggle, I knew Jesus was near.
The night before the pageant was to go live I broke down in my parents hotel room. I confessed to them that I had been struggling with an eating disorder for quite sometime and I needed help. I am sure they were shocked because I was able to keep it a secret for so long. See, that is what Satan always wanted. He desired for me to keep it a secret so I wouldn’t get help. He didn’t want me to experience freedom. I think I smacked him in the face that night when I reached out for help and I felt a whole heck of a lot better after I did!
When my name was called for 3rd runner up, I went up to accept my flowers and looked across the thousands of people in the audience and saw my sister. I kid you not, it was as if a spot light was shinning on her. She was pointing up to heaven with a confident grin on her face. I knew what that grin meant. “This is God’s plan. This is not a mistake.” The Miss Teen USA pageant was a wonderful experience. It provided me with so many opportunities to grow as an individual and encourage my peers. Ironically, however, it did something that might surprise many. It saved me. I believe God used the Miss Teen USA pageant to save me from myself. My eating disorder got so bad that eventually I had to tell someone. And I did. I finally told my parents.
The next few years were quite a painful journey. There seasons when I experienced freedom, but soon would be followed by a relapse into the darkness of my previous ways. Some of my most painful memories were during those times. I would cry myself to sleep at night and wake myself crying in the morning, begging God to heal me, begging him to take this burden away. I went through a few outpatient programs at various treatment centers both locally and out-of-state. At many points, not only was I struggling with an eating disorder, but I was fighting clinical depression, as well. I honestly don’t know which one came first, all I knew is that I was miserable and I could not imagine a life free of this, but I wanted it oh so badly.
In my darkest hours, I felt the Lord near me. He was constantly trying to get my attention and reminding me of my great worth in His eyes. ”Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
A lot of healing came through months and months of confessing and prayer. I started opening up to my family and friends and asking them to pray for me. I had difficulty functioning in college, not only with the eating disorder, but also battling the many health problems I had from having cancer multiple times. I moved back in with my parents during many seasons of my life. I am so grateful for the amazing, kind, patient, loving and supportive parents who handled and accepted my “messiness” with so much grace and prayer. They loved me in such a way that pointed me towards the unconditional love of my heavenly Father. The Lord also blessed me with amazing, godly friendships, who were always a phone call away. I found that healing for any addiction or sin issue can not be done apart from community and fellowship, for they provide you with a specific accountability that you can get on your own.
At one point, I became so consumed with myself and having the perfect body that I actually set up an appointment to see a plastic surgeon to “fix” my stomach. After meeting with him he explained that he would be very hesitant to do the surgery. He said, “Because you are clearly still battling an eating disorder, if I did the surgery, you would, more than likely, either not be satisfied with it, or find something else you wouldn’t like about your body.” I do not know if this surgeon was a man of God, but the Lord used this doctor to speak truth into my life. More than likely, if I had what I wanted: “the perfect stomach,” I would find something else I didn’t like about my body and the cycle would continue. I am so thankful for the honesty of this surgeon. What a gift to my life. About two or three months after I met with the surgeon, I relapsed again. I decided to enroll in an outpatient program for eating disorders that was provided by the college I attended. I am so grateful for the amazing counselors the Lord always seemed to provide me with. I was never alone. And then, something crazy happened….again.
I was sitting at a coffee shop reading a book and I began to have a mini stroke. At the time, I had no idea. I mean, how many 22 year olds do you know who have strokes on a regular basis. A long serious of events occurred before we found out why and how it happened, but there I awoke on a hospital bed in Charleston, South Carolina after having open-heart surgery. The stroke (s) were caused by a benign tumor camping out on my mitral valve. Another large scar on my body and this time more visible. “What the heck are you up to God?” After the anesthesia had worn off, I confessed to my mom that I had been starving myself again. Because I believe that my God is sovereign over all things, I know that this “open-heart surgery thing” had not taken him by surprise, and it was a part of his plan. I believe the Lord used this surgery to wake me up and to serve as a reminder that we are only given one life on this earth. And most importantly, my body doesn’t even belong to me, it belongs to Christ and so, I must take care of it! If this surgery hadn’t taken place, I truly believe I would have continued in my eating disorder and ultimately, probably would have died. In case you don’t know, people die from eating disorders. The South Carolina Department of Mental Health states, “The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.”
Just like any struggle, battle or addiction, I had to set up boundaries for myself. To some people they may sound silly, but they are what helped me and prevent me from relapsing. Some of them include limiting myself to how much and the type of media I take in on a daily basis. For example, sometimes seeing everyone’s perfect looking life on Facebook and Instagram is too much for me and so, I have to limit my time on there. Also, I don’t keep certain fashion magazines and catalogs lying around my house. Dozens of girls have contacted me throughout the years asking, “How did you do it? How did you overcome an eating disorder?” Unfortunately, there is not a quick fix I can offer up. And really and truly the best answer I can give is Jesus. Obviously, there were some practical things I did on a regular basis that helped aid in the healing process, but everyone’s journey is different and I do not believe there is a special formula. I will share some things I found to be helpful:
1. Reading God’s word on a regular basis
2. Spending time in prayer
3. Seeking out medical help (doctor, dietician, counselor)
4. Listening to gospel filled sermons
5. Reading good books (John Piper, David Platt, Ann Voskamp, Paul David Tripp, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Elliot, C.S. Lewis, and JI Packer are a few of my favorite authors here lately)
6. Getting plugged in at a church
7. Accountability partners
8. Surrounding yourself with people who love God and love you
9. Get in the habit of telling on yourself- Have at least one or two people you trust that you can confide in when you are in the midst of your struggle Example: If you get the urge to purge after a huge binge, you can call this person before you do it and have them pray with you or even come over and be with you until the desire passes
10. Get off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter- I know it sounds extreme, but if you are serious about getting over this you will take extreme measures to cut stuff out of your life that causes you to focus on YOUR BODY. It doesn’t have to be a forever thing, just a for now thing.
11. Get outside and enjoy God’s beautiful nature-Go on a hike, go swimming, go for a walk with a friend! The sun does wonders for your soul and so does getting a little active.
12. Be confident that you are never alone. God is near. Know that your life is never too messy for God. He has a plan and purpose for your life and He will never give up on His children.
I hope I haven’t fooled you into thinking I lead a life completely free of wanting to change things about myself. However, the Lord has freed me from the life-destructive habits and thoughts of an eating disorder. It did not take place overnight and it was a very very painful process, but God is always faithful to His children and overtime, He freed my soul. He also is continually reminding me of just how silly it is to be consumed by my outer appearance. This body is only temporary. And thank goodness for that, because over the past few years I have accumulated another set of scars from more cancer surgeries. Our ultimate destination is to be with Christ in heaven. If I am constantly thinking about myself, then I am missing opportunities to serve, love and encourage those around me. Let us never ever forget that He made us EXACTLY the way we are for a PURPOSE. Let me repeat: He made you EXACTLY the way you are for a PURPOSE. Oh Lord, please teach us to be grateful for the body and life you have given us and stop trying to look like the not-so-real-because-they-have-been-edited bodies we see on the television screen. Amen.
Can I be honest? I believe a TON of people are walking around with eating disorders and are one, in denial or two, don’t believe that they could possibly have one. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please know that there is HOPE and His name is Jesus. The Lord is a miraculous healer. Nothing is too big for Him. Do not think that you are a lost cause. God will never and I mean NEVER give up on you.
Here are some links, if you are interested, to gain a better understanding of what an eating disorder is and the great harm it causes.
What is an eating disorder? NY Times Article on eating disorders Dangerous Effects of Eating Disorders
This is one of the questionnaire’s some doctors use to determine if their patient has an eating disorder. I found it very helpful.
Beautiful Scars: The story of triumph over eating disorder
To follow Kelly Beth’s blog click here:www.kbcruse.wordpress.com.