Healing from Anorexia and Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

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Healing from Anorexia and Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family

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At the point when I wrote this journal entry, I was finally ready to accept treatment for anorexia. I was hospitalized in an inpatient treatment center for 45 days. I weighed 54 pounds and was near death. Even after treatment, the void was still there, so I later relapsed with bulimia. I took my life down a path of destruction for nine years, beginning at age 11. I was a dark vacuum with a lot of pain and no direction. Food and weight seemed to be the only temporary way to fix the void within.

At that time, I felt very alone and hopeless; however, now I know I was not alone. I know there are young people hurting at this very moment. I know there are adults in churches suffering at this very moment. It may not be from an eating disorder: It could be from alcoholism, depression, perfectionism, sex addiction, co-dependency, arrogance about one's knowledge or status, and on and on. There are thousands of patterns we develop to fill the void within. We all have patterns. The purpose in finding our patterns is to acknowledge them and change, not put ourselves down or feel worthless (which many of us do). That only creates a greater hindrance to change.

Patterns develop because our needs were not met. Unknowingly, we develop patterns as children to protect ourselves from the hurt. It is a form of survival. Once we find the need that wasn't filled, we can heal the initial wound. When the wound is healed, the pattern naturally disappears. To begin, let's identify what those psychological needs are:

1. Safety.
2. Trust.
3. Self-esteem.
4. Independence.
5. Intimacy.
6. Control

(Source: Psychological Trauma and the Adult Survivor, I. Lisa McCann and Laurie Ann Pearlman, 1990.)

Our needs can become a void in many ways—too many to list them all. I will give you some examples to help you start thinking about how your own needs were not met.

The first need I will address is your safety. It can be disrupted if your parents' moods were unpredictable. You never knew when they would "blow up." One moment they were fine, and the next, they were angry over a minor disruption. Not many children look forward to "walking on egg shells" in a place that should provide security from the dangers in the world. We all need a place to let our guard down. Children especially need that for proper development.

Let's look at the need of trust. Were your parents trustworthy? Did your parents honor their promises or make excuses like, "Not now, I'm too busy"? Could you depend on them when you had a problem?

I remember when I was 8 years old and I had an accident while playing. I ran in the house with tears in my eyes and blood running down my legs. Rather than consoling me, I got scolded and forced to wear pants the remainder of the summer. Shame in addition to physical pain isn't what a child needs. If this happens repeatedly, a child learns to withdraw and not ask for help. (This is an example of how a pattern began from the unmet need because the child equates asking for help with shame and punishment.)

To investigate the need of intimacy, ask yourself, "Was I accepted just for being me?" Were you praised for your characteristics or put down, called names or continually told what you did wrong? Did you try to become like someone else or try to be perfect to win acceptance? Continue to meditate on your childhood. How else were your needs unfulfilled and what patterns developed to replace the unmet needs?

It is crucial you take an honest evaluation of your experiences in and out of the home environment. As John 8:32 says, "The truth shall make you free." We can't live an emotionally or a spiritually free life if part of our energy is invested in the past. Many people want to argue that "the past is in the past," and say, "It doesn't solve anything to think about what happened to me back then." I understand the energy and intensity behind that statement. It is easier to believe that than to acknowledge what happened to us and experience the pain again. Although it may be easier to deny the past, it is not beneficial. If you do not acknowledge and deal with your past, you may end up reliving it on a daily basis whether you admit it or not. Just because you deny your past doesn't nullify its impact.

Let me give you an example of how your past affects your present. If you were always criticized for doing things wrong, you may feel unworthy of others' attention, approval and love. As children, we so desperately crave those things from our parents. If you did not receive it, you may have tried hard to not make any mistakes, in hopes that it would win you at least some praise and attention (or to avoid major criticism or abuse). This is the beginning of a pattern called perfectionism. If you haven't dealt with that issue, it is likely you may be a perfectionist today.

To this day, you probably try to do and be everything without failures. You may fear making mistakes or fear rejection if you do make one. Another way to cover up this pain is to try to be perfect at one skill. This way you can deny the other areas in which you feel like a failure. However, your worth then fluctuates with the success and failure from that one skill. Some try to deny that perfectionism is negative by renaming it. They call it "being driven" or "hard working." Call it what you like, but the truth is it is a way to avoid dealing with the original pain. You need to be completely honest with yourself to be truly free.

Until the patterns are acknowledged and their source healed, they will continue to be a part of your life and then passed from generation to generation (Exodus 34:7). The Bible is a book of history from which to learn. Looking into the past does have its place. I need to clarify that you are not evaluating your past to play the "blame game." It is important that no one accuses his or her guardians for his or her current problems or patterns. Look at your past experiences to better understand why you do and feel what you do.

As we look at our patterns, we can see how they fulfill our original need. For example, when I think about my experiences with anorexia, it created an enormous sense of safety. My world revolved around calories, weight loss and exercise. All of my pain was simplified into two tangible things: food and weight. That created a bubble around me in an attempt to keep out additional hurt.

My relationship was with food and not others, so I didn't have to risk intimacy and possible rejection. I placed my trust in myself alone, since I experienced too much pain from being let down. Food became my outlet from the stress of trying to do it all by myself. Again, alcohol, drugs, perfectionism, excessive worry, depression, etc., can fill those needs in the same way. Ask yourself some questions. What do you fear? What habits do you have? What gives you self-esteem and, if taken away, would make you feel worthless? How are you easily hurt or offended? When you find your answers to these questions, you have found some of your patterns.

When we clearly see how our past connects with our patterns, we can take action to heal the initial wound. First, you need to A—Admit it. You can't heal what you don't know is broken. Then you need to B—Be real. Be real with yourself, be real with God and be real with others. If we are trying to put on a façade, our energy goes into keeping up that front. It is hard to let others and God inside to help us when denial reigns in our heart. Let go of the beliefs like, "It isn't that bad" or "I can fix this by myself."

The next step is to C—Confess the initial wound and pattern. Find trustworthy people to talk with and let those emotions out. Emotions of and by themselves are not wrong. Our God-given emotions can help regulate our inner thoughts and outer circumstances. It is the choices we make with the emotions that get us in trouble. So let the anger out or get a box of Kleenex and cry until you can't cry anymore as your friend gives you full attention.

Our purpose for confessing is to reevaluate our thoughts and the lies we took on as a child. These lies create pain and perpetuate the patterns. Confessing is not getting all caught up in the feelings for the sake of drama. As we confess, our thinking becomes clearer, little by little. For example, if we fear people not liking us (because it re-stimulates the feeling of rejection), we will continue to make decisions based on what other people are going to think. Those decisions may not be the best for ourselves or others, but that is what we choose to do to avoid feeling pain. However, as we confess, the pain dissipates and then we can make wise decisions. This is what we are after: clear thinking untainted by emotions and pain from the past!

Think about how little children respond to a wound, whether it is physical or mental. They cry, yell "Mommy" (searching for attention and someone to listen), play, stomp their feet, etc. Everything is dramatic and children don't hold anything back (until they've been shamed into "acting properly"). How ironic that we think we have it right as adults, but children are the ones who return more quickly to forgiveness, confidence and expression of joy. They can do this because they confess their pain. They don't hold it inside. No wonder the Bible says to become as little children.

Too often our needs were ignored as children. We were told, "Don't cry or I'll give you something to cry about," or "Don't raise your voice at me! You are being disrespectful." Our emotions were shut down. We had nowhere to go with the wound. The pain was then internalized and we developed patterns for self-protection. Those patterns are continually retriggered by experiences that remind us of the past. We are trapped in this cycle. If we don't face these issues, Satan can push those buttons all day long so our attention and energy is invested in the pain, not on the tasks God wants us to accomplish.

It is very important to acknowledge your past experiences. Everything you went through contributes to making the person you are today. Be positive about yourself and, with God's Spirit, admit and be real with what needs to be changed. As you notice what needs to be changed, do so with a gentle hand. Remember, no matter what problems you have, God loves you. His love and attention is infinitely greater than that of human beings. His love is perfect.

I pray each of you feel God's love for how it truly is and not how you experienced "love" from humans. Our part is to have fearless faith and depend on God for everything, especially healing of the heart and mind. As you and God do the work together, the past will no longer have power over your life. Then, you can truly experience the abundant joy God greatly desires for you.