Eating Disorders: A Deadly State of Mind

Anorexia and bulimia do more than just distort your view of reality. They keep you from seeing yourself as the Lord sees you.

A while ago, this letter from England arrived at the New Era offices. Jacqueline, the girl who wrote to her friend, thought the letter might also help others.

Dear Claire,

Before I started to write this letter, I prayed I would be able to write things that will help us both. About two years ago, I saw myself facing a problem I still haven’t cured.

It began one day when I looked in the mirror and instead of thinking, “You look all right,” I thought, “Oh my, Jackie, you are so fat!”

I decided to go on a diet. I cut out sweets, cakes, fatty foods, and breakfasts. By cutting those out, you don’t get much of a choice in the school canteen.

I lost weight. But instead of thinking, “You’re getting thinner,” I thought, “You’re still fat.”

I remembered when I was a little girl and feeling sickish, I would stick my fingers down my throat hoping I would throw up. So I decided to do that. Each time after eating, I would go into the bathroom and make myself sick. This went on for quite a long time without anyone knowing, at least that is what I thought. I remember saying to my sister Louise, “Look at me. I’m so fat!” She would say, “Don’t be silly. You’re getting skinny. If you keep going on about your weight, you have got a problem.”

One day I was so convinced I was fat I decided to eat only two ice poles (Popsicles) a day or just one orange. Many days I would go up to my room and cry because I was fat. I would pray to Heavenly Father to make me thin.

I rang my friend Andrea and remember crying on the phone to her saying I was so fat. And she would say, “No you are not. You are skinny.” I almost lost another friend because of it.

I used to sit in the bath and feel fat and then go and make myself sick. I would bother all my family by saying I was fat. But really, by this time I was losing a lot of weight. I remember excusing myself from school and going to the toilets. But as I had had only one orange that day nothing much would come up. Since the beginning of it all, I had been throwing my packed lunches away.

My sisters Lynne and Louise kept telling me I was insane. I cried and cried with my friend Andrea. And my friend Julia wouldn’t visit because she knew I would just talk about my weight. I could never understand that they thought I was skinny.

This went on for months and months. My dad got furious with me for not eating. One day I went upstairs to the bathroom to make myself sick when I heard my mother ringing the doctor’s office. I ran out, and she said, “I heard you, Jackie. I am making an appointment for you.” I said I wouldn’t keep it.

One day at church our Relief Society president said, “Jackie, I’d like to speak to you after sacrament meeting.” Thinking nothing of it, I said yes. She took me into a vacant room and told me all the Relief Society sisters were worried about me. I didn’t realize at first what she meant. Then she said, “Jackie, what I am about to say to you is because I love you. We all love you.” She looked worried, but continued, “You have anorexia nervosa, Jackie. Tell me the truth. Do you make yourself vomit?”

I paused, then answered, “Yes.”

“Do you do it a lot?” she said.

“Yes,” I answered truthfully. By this time I was crying. She told me the Relief Society and Young Women presidencies were worried because I was becoming so thin. She told me she had spoken to my mother, who said it might help if someone outside the family would speak to me.

Well, I told her everything. I hadn’t heard much about anorexia, except that Karen Carpenter had died because of it.

Then I went home and cried. By this time I weighed 7 stone (98 lbs.). I should have weighed 9 1/2 stone (133 lbs.).

The Relief Society president’s words did not stop me. I still didn’t eat. My hip bones were sticking out, which looked awful as I am tall. I thought I had more to lose. My dad tried to shame me out of it, but that made me do it more. My mother took me to the doctor, but I wouldn’t listen. By this time even my monthly cycle was disrupted.

One night I was in bed crying, but this night was different. My father was working, and I went into Mum’s bedroom. She knew why I was crying. I told her everything, and she cuddled me and said she would help me. But the one thing that stopped me starving myself was when she said, “Would Heavenly Father want you to do this to yourself?” That made me stop and think.

One day at school, I went to the toilets to make myself sick. Before doing it, I looked up and thought, “No, my Heavenly Father has given me this body, and I am trying to destroy it.” I walked out of the toilets and back to my classroom.

I am so grateful to my mother for what she said. It made me face my problem and listen to my doctors. I am still conscious of my weight. I still sometimes make myself sick. I still have this problem and am not over it completely.

Claire, I am writing this because I know you have the same problem. I know exactly how you feel. You think no one understands, but I do. I love you. If you’ll help me, I’ll help you.

Much love, Jacqueline

Jacqueline is in the process of recovery, but eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia are very difficult to overcome.

Jane Blackwell, head of the Eating Disorders Clinic in Salt Lake City, commented about young people like Jacqueline who fall into eating disorders as teenagers. “They are at a vulnerable age. They are not comfortable with who they are. They say, ‘Maybe if I look a certain way, everything will be okay.’ Eating disorders become a way to cope.”

Anorexia is self-induced starvation marked by severe weight loss. Bulimia involves a cycle of binge-eating large amounts of food, then purging by throwing up. In bulimia, weight fluctuates. People may suffer from one or both eating disorders, and both cause serious health problems such as ulcers, internal bleeding, damaged teeth, loss of hair, low pulse rate, damage to heart and other major organs, depression, and even death.

Society puts stress on young people to look a certain way. In sports, dance, or teams with weight requirements, teens are sometimes punished or scorned for not weighing some idealized weight.

“People are not built the same and can’t look the same,” said Dr. Blackwell. “But we act as if they should. We criticize how we look in front of each other. We let boys comment about hating fat girls. Why do we comment about other people? Are we supposed to be works of art to entertain each other as we walk along? Not everyone is going to look alike. Not everyone is going to be svelte. I think it is inappropriate for us to comment on the appearance of others.”

Teens with eating disorders need to develop different ways to talk to themselves. Instead of saying, “I look fat,” concentrate on the loveliness God has given you. See that you have energy and health. See how you look when you feel at peace with the world.

Can you learn these different ways of talking to yourself alone?

“I don’t think so,” said Dr. Blackwell. “It takes practice. Sometimes it takes loving but intense confrontation. Parents will comment to me about their daughter who is anorexic, ‘She is such a lovely girl. Just get her to eat. She’ll be fine.’ But we could tube feed her, and she still wouldn’t be fine. It is not just getting her to eat. Her problem lies in how she disciplines herself by avoiding food or rewarding herself with food.”

When friends notice behaviors that are red-flag symptoms of eating disorders, they can confront their friend in a loving way: “I know this is hard, but you have a problem with food. I’ll help you go talk to someone. I’ll go there with you. Let’s get information about it.”

Your friend may not agree. She may seem happy, but underneath she doesn’t see herself as important enough to make the rest of her life healthful. She may need to understand that others may care more about her than she does for a while as she confronts her problem.

Many who have these disorders hide them from their friends and family. When confronted, they will deny their behavior or promise they will stop. Eating disorders become an obsession as controlling to a person’s life as drugs or alcohol.

Eating disorders are a symptom of other problems, often tied to attitudes such as low self-esteem and feeling life is out of control. Anorexia and bulimia are health and life threatening, a deadly state of mind.

Do You Have an Eating Disorder?

If you agree with two or more of these statements, you may have a strong tendency toward eating disorders. Get help now!

  1. 1.

    I try to be thinner than all my friends.

  2. 2.

    I panic if I gain two pounds.

  3. 3.

    I use laxatives for weight control.

  4. 4.

    I go for long periods without eating much as a way to lose weight.

  5. 5.

    My friends tell me I am thin, but I don’t believe them because I feel fat.

  6. 6.

    I like to eat alone. I make excuses so I don’t have to eat with my family.

  7. 7.

    I sometimes eat huge amounts of food and then make myself vomit.

  8. 8.

    I enjoy making treats for others as long as I don’t have to eat any.

  9. 9.

    The thing I fear most is becoming fat.

  10. 10.

    I get upset if I can’t exercise as much as planned.

  11. 11.

    My family makes me angry when they keep pushing food at me.

  12. 12.

    I tend to be a perfectionist.

Red Flags of Anorexia or Bulimia

  • Preoccupied with physical appearance.

  • Skips meals or tries to avoid meals.

  • Disappears after a meal and heads to the bathroom.

  • Sensitive to criticism.

  • Likes to cook for others, but won’t eat with them.

  • Exercises excessively.

  • Takes lots of laxatives or diet pills.

  • Thinks there is a magical diet that will change everything.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark

[illustration] As you seek help, remember an important part of rising out of the self-centered hopelessness of eating disorders is to develop charity. By helping others, you’ll find peace and stop criticizing one of God’s greatest gifts to you—your body. (See D&C 88:123–25.)