By Jewell Johnson
“Look, Mom,” Jenny said, holding her jeans out from her waist. “These don’t fit anymore.”
I laughed as our daughter folded over the waistband. “Eleven is not your size anymore,” I said.
But I didn’t laugh a few days later when Jenny dashed into the kitchen and said, “I ran to the dairy and back. I’m going to do that every day.”
“But, Jen, that’s five miles. Why all the exercise?”
My husband Lee and I had known for about a year that something was wrong with our 15-year-old daughter. Besides losing weight, there was the frequent smell of vomit in the bathroom. Yet I had no name for the problem until leafing though a magazine one day, my attention was drawn to a picture of a girl. Her cheeks were sunken and the look in her eyes seemed familiar. The article said she had anorexia nervosa, a disease that afflicts young women. As I read, reality gripped me. Although I had never heard of the disease, I knew it stalked our household.
Searching for Help
I took Jenny to our family doctor. After examining her, he encouraged her to be a “good girl.” He obviously wasn’t familiar with eating disorders.
With the arrival of our new baby, we put Jenny’s situation on hold. In a household of six children there was no time to worry about vague problems. Besides, what could possibly be wrong with a girl who was a cheerleader, homecoming queen, and the city’s Junior Miss?
Shortly before Jenny was ready for college, we felt it was time to deal with her extreme thinness. “Jenny, before you go away, Dad and I feel you should see a doctor,” I said.
“No, Mom! I’ll eat. I promise.”
We dismissed our concerns and sent a sick girl to a college 900 miles from home.
As I drove Jenny to school after Christmas vacation, she said quietly, “Mom, I really don’t want to go back.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine once you’re with your friends,” I said, dismissing her plea for help.
On campus I made an appointment to see the school psychiatrist. After looking at her records, he said, “Your daughter is a bright, highly motivated student. Whatever problem exists, I predict it will be gone by the end of this semester.”
I left the college with those words ringing in my ears. Two days later Jenny was on the phone begging us to let her come home. We took her to a psychiatrist who identified the disease and admitted her to a hospital.
Problems of Recovery
Although Lee and I didn’t know it then, we were on a vicious ride that would take us on a round of doctors’ offices and psychiatric wards for 13 years.
“How can Jenny recover from anorexia?” was the question Lee and I often asked each other. Only now the problem included another disease—bulimia. With anorexia nervosa the person eats little and exercises vigorously, while people suffering with bulimia eat huge amounts of food, mostly at night, then purge themselves by vomiting or with laxatives.
At meals we’d watch Jenny devour her food, and with cheeks bulging and salad dressing running down her face, she’d reach for another piece of bread, spread it with honey, and stuff it into her mouth. After Jenny left the table, our family sat mute, staring at each other as we listened to the shower running and the toilet flushing to cover up the sounds of Jenny vomiting.
One day Lee had enough. After dinner he told Jenny, “You’re going to stop this foolishness!” And he barred the door to the bathroom.
“Please,” Jenny begged. “I’ve got to do this!” As they struggled, she proceeded to vomit on the floor.
We never tried that again. Instead we intensified our prayers. “What can I do?” I asked Lee after one of Jenny’s nightly eating binges. “All the mayonnaise is gone. The brown sugar and pudding mixes are gone, too.”
With frustration equal to mine, he shouted, “Don’t buy any more groceries!”
Hope and Despair
There were times when Jenny tried to control her nightly binges. I cried one evening when she handed me a nylon hose. “Mom, tie my foot to the bed so I won’t get up in the night and eat.”
Our family prayed and continued to take Jenny to psychiatrists. She spent another month in the hospital. Not once during the hospitalization did she induce vomiting.
“We’re over the hump,” the doctor assured us when she was discharged. But one day later Jenny was back in the old cycle of eating and purging.
I began noticing an occasional beer can in Jenny’s car. About the same time I read a startling fact: “People who suffer from bulimia also crave alcohol and are often depressed.”
“Jenny will destroy herself one way or the other,” a voice seemed to whisper.
One evening our younger daughter received a call from a bartender in the next city. “Come and pick up your sister Jenny. She’s in no condition to drive.”
It was then that Lee and I made the most difficult decision of our married life; we asked Jenny to leave home. I cried as I helped her pack her belongings. “How will she pay rent and buy food?” I asked Lee. He had no answer.
One morning the phone rang. “Mom?” Jenny’s voice sounded hollow. “I have nothing to live for. I’d be better off dead.”
My head pounded as I considered the implication of her words. “Jenny, you must get help.” My mind quickly ran through a list of people. I pounced on one name. “There’s a chaplain where I work. Why don’t you call him?”
Two days later, Jenny called. “I saw the chaplain. He said we’re not perfect, none of us. That’s why we need God’s help—and all the time I tried to be so perfect. When I wasn’t, I thought, What’s the use of trying?“
Jenny continued to eat and purge. She was extremely thin and at times she drank, but she assured me, “I’m doing the best I can.” She no longer talked about suicide.
One day Jenny went for a routine dental examination. Not knowing she had an eating disorder, the dentist said, “When you purge, the gastric juices eat away the enamel.
The enamel is thin on the inside of your teeth. I hope I can save them.”
Jenny asked me to meet her at the mall. “If I lose my teeth, I’ll kill myself,” she said. In the middle of the mall, we held hands and cried as I prepared for the worst.
This time Jenny turned to the Bible. “God says he will restore what the locust destroy” (Joel 2:25), she said. “Can I ask God to heal my teeth when I’m the one who ruined them?”
“Healing is a gift,” I said. “Yes, you can ask God to heal your teeth.” Soon the dentist began treatments to preserve the thinned enamel.
Every day was a struggle as Jenny relearned normal eating patterns. Often she slipped back into the old habit of gorging and purging. I stood by, cheering her better days and praying—on good days and bad.
One day she said, “Things are shaky, Mom, but God and I together, we’re going to make it. Keep praying!”
Thinking about the nights of prayer, the pain, and the struggles, it’s clear that praying for Jenny has drawn our family closer to God. Lee and I have learned to trust him more. Jenny has completely recovered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia. She is engaged in her profession and is a faithful attendee in her church.
Looking back I cry, but now I cry for joy.
Jewell Johnson is a freelance writer in Fountain Hills, Arizona.
Healing for Eating Disorders
Warning signs of eating disorders:
• Rapid weight loss
• Excessive exercising
• Toying with food during meals
• Use of diet pills, laxatives, or enemas
• Hair loss
• Distorted self-image
• Complaints of being “too fat”
• Denying hunger
• Poor sleeping habits
• Loss of menstrual cycle
• Going to the bathroom after eating to induce vomiting
• Complaints of feeling cold
• Alcohol or drug abuse
ChristianAnswers.net: “Is There Help for Eating Disorders?” (lists additional resources)
I’m Beautiful? Why Can’t I See It? Daily Encouragement to Promote Healthy Eating and Positive Self-Esteem
By Kimberly Davidson (Tate Publishing, 2006)
Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach to Treatment of Anorexia, Bulemia, and Disordered Eating
By Gregory L. Jantz (WaterBrook Press, 2010)
Mom, I Feel Fat: Becoming Your Daughter’s Ally in Developing a Healthy Body Image
By Sharon A. Hersh (Random House, 2001)
When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Other Caregivers
By Abigail Natenshon (John Wiley & Sons, 1999)
Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder
By Sheryle Cruse (New Hope Publishers, 2006)
Starved: Mercy For Eating Disorders
By Nancy Alcorn (WinePress Publishing, 2007)