The Long Journey

I’ve just gone to both windows in our office and pulled up the blinds, letting the October morning, replete with golden sunshine and brilliant fall foliage, invade this room. Outside my window, the yellow-clad trees, stirred by a chilly breeze, contrast beautifully against a bold blue sky. I’m asking for light to invade my topic, as well, because I’m writing about a time when I passed through a very real valley of the shadow of death.

I was a senior in high school, just back from spending four months abroad in China. The experience was life-changing; I’d gained confidence speaking in front of large groups, had lived independently, and knew the world was much bigger than my small-town Nebraska high school. I’d drawn nearer to God, to whom I clung in homesickness, strange foods (and the resulting stomach bugs), and fearful situations.

I remember drawing a picture in my journal of a girl, arms stretched out to heaven, facing the dawning sun. That’s how my relationship with God felt—it was new, exciting, and becoming so much more real.

At the same time, I was rushing headlong towards college, touring campuses and trying to make big decisions about my future while taking a full class load, playing sports, and working part-time at a local coffee shop. Life was busy.

I started waking up before six every morning to spend time literally on my knees; I felt like a curtain had been taken away during my prayer time. What formerly had been routine became a real encounter with God’s presence.

I’d also taken up running, so I spent a lot of hours on gravel roads around our house, reveling in Nebraska’s open sky and rolling fields.

But something shifted in my mind during that year. I began to be afraid of food. I stopped eating ice cream. I would, at times, skip lunch at school, telling myself I was “fasting.” Or, if I did eat lunch, it would consist of one granola bar and an apple. Then, I would go to basketball practice for two hours, burning calories like crazy. I wasn’t replacing what was being burned off.

Running became an addiction. I had to run every day, or I felt sluggish and lazy.

At the end of my senior year, I went on a missions trip to the Bahamas. Yes, a real missions trip—we led basketball camps for kids. We also spent some of our free time snorkeling. I remember hating the way I felt in my bathing suit. I wanted that perfectly lean, flat belly that, I thought, was the ideal.

Slowly, eating became a weakness in my eyes. To give in to hunger was almost a sin. Would you believe that I was still getting up early to pray and falling in love with God, even while this trap closed in around me?  I’d never been over-weight, and through most of high school I hadn’t even been too concerned with proper nutrition. I loved candy, sugary coffee drinks, and peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches. What happened?

I do recall in China that a Chinese friend complimented me by saying I’d put on weight there. At least, she meant it as a compliment, implying that I looked more beautiful. But, it bothered me. Secondly, at almost six feet tall, I felt somewhat like a giant. I was taller than most of the boys at my small Christian school, and I wanted to be thin to make up for the extra weight my height added. I also felt a little bit jealous of my popular sisters, feeling less pretty than them and thinking that being thinner would somehow give my face the definition and beauty that I thought it lacked.

But, I believe that the onset of anorexia was primarily a spiritual attack at a very pivotal time in my life.

I didn’t even realize there was a problem until late in the summer after I graduated from high school. I was working at a summer camp, sweating without air conditioning, and chasing kids around all day. I didn’t like the camp food because it seemed unhealthy, so I ate as little as I possibly could. And slowly, thinking I was being strong, I ate less and less.

I remember sitting in the woods with my campers. We were having a cookout, eating hot ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil that we’d heated in the bonfire. I told myself I could only eat half the sandwich. I wanted more. I battled with myself, but I wrapped up the rest and threw it away. That’s the first time I remember feeling controlled and trapped by this drive not to eat.

A few weeks later, I got a message that my parents were picking me up from camp unexpectedly. Had there been an emergency? In a way, yes.

They arrived and I hopped in the car with them. As we drove off the camp property, they explained that they were taking me to see a doctor. Why?!? Because I was too thin.

I remember feeling like an insect pinned for display as the doctor examined me. I was trying to process what was going on. I listened unbelievingly as the doctor told mom and dad his opinion. “If she was my daughter, I wouldn’t let her go away to college.” I was supposed to leave for Baylor in a few weeks!

“Get counseling,” he recommended. We made an appointment with a specialist in Omaha.

I wasn’t angry. I did cry on the way back to camp. They dropped me off. I’m sure that the rest of that day was worse for them than for me, but I was pretty miserable.

The counselor said I could go to school, but my weight must be monitored closely. If it dropped below a certain point, I’d be pulled out. Faced with the facts, I could not deny that I had a problem. Doctors and scales and professional counselors are hard to argue against.

If my parents had not intervened, I’m not sure I’d be alive. The doctor had recommended an EKG as well as seeing a counselor, and the results of that EKG were not good. I had done some pretty serious damage to my body by that point, and I was no longer having a period.

At Baylor, my struggle continued. I loved the salad bar for lunch and supper, and I’d do crazy things like skip salad dressing. I avoided anything greasy. I was still running a lot. I’d attend college church and spend a large portion of the time fretting about how much I’d eaten for supper before coming.

I did come close to being pulled out. I’d come home for breaks, excited to see my family after being away so long, and instead see my parents’ anguished faces when they looked at my rail-thin body. We didn’t fight, but they were very straight-forward with me. I had to put on weight. Was I secretly glad to step on the scale and see that I hadn’t gained weight? At first, yes. I still thought thinner was better and that weight was weakness.

One of my biggest regrets from that time is that I was proud of almost being too small to fit in my size-6 bridesmaid dress for my sister’s wedding. It did not enter my mind that my eating disorder cast a dismal cloud over what should have been a joyful time for our family.

I return to the spiritual side of this battle. I was perhaps beyond fighting for myself at this point. In my skewed thinking, going without food pleased God. My church participated in corporate fasts and I dove right in to those, until my dad said I needed to stop. My dad, however, fasted and prayed diligently for me. Both parents and grandparents went to war for me in prayer. And slowly, like coming out of a dark fog, my head began to clear.

I remember a turning point. I was home on summer break after a year or so of college, and I had gone to Kansas to visit my grandma. I was walking out on a limestone country road and stopped on the crest of a hill to look out over a valley. The sun shone on a distant tree-lined creek bed. Something changed in my heart in a way I can’t explain, but I went home different. I learned later that my dad had ended a week-long time of fasting and prayer for me on that same day.

Slowly, I put on weight and feared food less. My period started again the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. My parents still sent me to our family doctor on breaks to be weighed and examined, and the reports became more positive. I finally achieved a healthy weight, which I’ve maintained over the past eight years.

I still do fight the tendency, when life gets crazy, to use food as something I can control. I must still reject the belief that going without food (as a lifestyle, not temporarily abstaining for a specific reason) is a strength. I still occasionally fight the feeling that I disappoint God when I eat. These thoughts no longer control me, though. Praise God, I can thoroughly enjoy a bowl of ice cream and not feel like I need to run three miles afterwards.

I am so thankful to have a mom and dad who confronted me, sought professional help, battled for me, held me accountable, and, I believe, quite literally saved my life. And I give great glory and thanks to God, Who invades our darkness with His glorious light, Who can break off every chain, and Who heals us mentally, spiritually, and physically.

*Note from Holly’s parents – “We caught the problem too late, in our opinion.  It took a third party to confront us before we made the appointment.  People think parents should be the first to notice, but that is not true.”

Holly Oswald

Holly Oswald is a regularly contributing writer to the blog. Holly lives with her husband, Luke, in Nebraska. Being one of six kids, she enjoys spending time with her large family. Holly also spends time reading, drinking coffee, deciphering her Greek New Testament, writing, and being outdoors. Her travels have led her to Texas, Kansas, Indonesia, Uganda, China, Italy, and Hungary, and she likes fixing international foods. Holly currently works as an elementary school para, assisting with writing and English language learning. She and Luke are also involved in children’s ministry at their local church.

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