Over 20 years ago I met Sarah Schiltz Elliott when she was a senior at Muskegon Catholic Central High School. Sarah was kind, loving and smart and during her junior and senior year she was accomplishing great things. But secretly Sarah was suffering from an eating disorder. I asked Sarah to share her journey.
A raging forest fire. Burning uncontrollably before it is even discovered, taking on a life of its own regardless of cause, engulfing everything around it, defying attempts to be extinguished from every direction, leaving devastation in its wake…long after the flames have been put out.
That is how I would describe addiction. Very specifically, it describes perfectly the raging fire of an eating disorder that I struggled with for almost 20 years. It became a battle I fought longer in my life than I had not. It surrounded and consumed me; engulfed me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually; fought back every attempt to be put out; continued to wreak havoc and destruction when it smoldered and would reignite seemingly without reason. Unlike many forest fires, however, it was not lit by one single spark; it was a perfect storm of sparks colliding and fueling itself, moving quickly from a small fire to a devastating inferno.
I do not remember specifically when or how the behaviors started, but at 16 years old, my junior year in high school, I knew I was bulimic. A lifelong ultra-sensitive, driven to please perfectionist, I had grown to outwardly display intelligence, leadership, and confidence, housed in a body that I always considered fat and ugly, and directed by a mind that spun everything through a self-deprecating and negative filter.
Yeah, that is all in hindsight. At 16, I just knew I felt bad inside and was trying to get rid of it any way I could. I needed to be perfect, I needed to prove my worth by doing more and more things, and it all would be so much easier if I wasn’t so fat. That was the outward sign, the icing on the cake that sealed my imperfection. Issues of grief and pain were resurfacing, and I started going on “auto-pilot.” I was trying to compensate in achievements for what I felt was hopelessly missing and unattainable on the inside.
Bulimia seemed to fit right in, and was there before I realized what it was. I could indulge in the food I wanted, since even as a teen I was forever dieting and categorizing food as good and bad. It was an escape and increasing way to numb my pain, at least temporarily. Purging was both a relief and punishment for my “sins.” And the strongest fuel of the fire was that it fit with everything I believed about myself: I was disgusting and worthless, no matter what I portrayed or accomplished on the outside, nothing could make up for the inner wasteland.
The forest fire had found a huge reservoir of fuel as I descended into the hell of anorexia my first year in college. I was determined to lose weight this time, and was losing everything, rapidly. By the time it was apparent on the outside there was a problem, the fire was already way out of control. Six years later, overcoming the devastation and despair seemed even more insurmountable than ever extinguishing the flames.
Forest fires are battled from every front, but the conditions and stealth of the burn defy even the strongest desires and efforts to see it extinguished. During those six years, I was getting counseling, going to a support group, living at home, trying to work and go to college, and losing more of myself every day to this fire. I was learning about how and why eating disorders may occur, how it may have taken root in me, and cognitive skills that were supposed to help me take back my life. But with addiction and definitely my eating disorder, the only one who can really fight the fire is actually fueling the flames. This shameful shell of a person, disgusting and worthless, wasting so much time and space, giving nothing to anyone, seemed much more in line with what I had always felt was truly the person inside. I was fighting the fire with a little water, a lot of gasoline in the form of increasing despair and hopelessness that anything ever would, could, or even should be different.
In December 1998, the scale hit 85lbs. When my first thought was, “Hmm, I wonder how long it would take to get to 80?” I knew I was at a turning point. Continue the death spiral or fully surrender my control of the fire and how it would be put out. Only in my head was I ever alone in all of this. I had long ago abandoned the God I thought couldn’t or wouldn’t love or forgive me, but my family was always there, just waiting for me to reach out to them. Only I could reach out of the flames to get help; no one else could come get me. So I made the phone call to my mom, that I was done, and didn’t know what to do. In two months, I was on my way to the Renfrew Residential Treatment Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, for what would be the first of many steps that would finally end the raging fire that had taken over and nearly ended my life.
It sure would have been much better if the story of my eating disorder ended there. The Renfrew Center is a great place and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go there, but 6 weeks against a lifetime of perfectionism, mostly negative self-image, and deeply entrenched behaviors, was not enough to close the chapter. But it definitely changed the outcome of the story!
I returned to Michigan, sick of counseling, doctors, being weighed and monitored, making and following meal plans, and in general wanting to get on with life. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know what that meant, and I continued to struggle. I fell into old patterns of thinking and behavior, and lost ground. Again, I needed to give up trying to control what was constantly slipping through my fingers as I was still holding on to all the baggage. Letting go isn’t just about giving up control, it is about letting go of what is done, what is gone, and what can never be, and holding on to what can be changed, what heals, what forgives, what loves, what nourishes.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
My mom shared with me she had been praying and meditating on a particular scripture story, where Jesus is asked by someone for healing, and his response is “I have already healed you.” She felt this was His answer to her prayer for my healing, that He had already healed me. At the time, I thought, “Oh, I think she is hearing the answer she needs to hear, because no God who knows my heart and soul would have given her that answer!” But I clung to her belief anyway.
I met my future husband, Walt Elliott, in January 2000. Well, we met several times before that, but let’s just say I finally checked my email in January! Life went from “What am I going to do now?” to “Where am I now? Because I’ve been in so many places so fast!” We were married in 2001, we still celebrate our first date anniversary of February 12th every year, and our kids are 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. Oh, and we moved across the country and back in there somewhere, too.
I now fully believe and cherish the answer my Mom was given. I was healed. It took me a long, long time to realize it, believe it, trust in it. As I was able to find love and hope in my relationship with Walt, I realized maybe I was not so unlovable. As I found success in my work in California, I realized that maybe I was worthwhile, had something to offer this world. As I became a mother, I understood the strength of the faith, hope, and love of my parents that had never wavered, and I discovered that same strength within myself.
The raging fire that dominated my life up until I went to Renfrew was not extinguished for a long time, even after that, even as I got married, even as I appeared to be living a pretty normal life, even as we started a family. But the fire diminished in its ability to dominate, in its strength to shut out everyone and anything else that contradicted its condemnation of me, in its fight to drive me to kill myself. I was lucky that my body was able to withstand and recover from the toll of this fire. I have much to be grateful for. The raging fire has been put out; scarred land remains, but the flames are gone. My parents, siblings, extended family, husband, children, friends, and people I did not even know were praying for me, built a strong net of faith, hope, and love beneath me, that I have been able to take on as my own and rely on for strength. Recovery is not aiming for a perfect life. Recovery is recognizing that “Perfect” is in the eye of the beholder, that Life is more about giving, receiving, and sharing Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of these is Love. Accept what cannot be changed. Seek and find the courage to change what you can. Pray for wisdom to know the difference and the hope to give and share Love anyway!
Thank you for listening!
For those who struggle with eating disorders, there is help, hope, and Life. I know. For those who suffer in helplessness watching them, never let go of hope and love. The Love and hands of God could only reach me through others, since I felt I had chosen and deserved this path, and was too far gone even for God. Believe in and love the person, fight the demons that destroy. There are resources and information available for help. Two good places to start are http://nedawareness.org/helpline and http://www.anad.org/eating-disorders-get-help/.
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose amazing words transcend time and place: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”