In a country sporting all-you-can-eat buffets and fitness centers galore, it's not surprising many Americans are duking it out with food. What is shocking is the tactics that some use — starvation, bingeing and purging — to reach their goals of control and acceptance.
While the number of young women with anorexia and bulimia increased in the past decade, take note: The misuse and abuse of food isn't an issue restricted to teen girls; women, men and teen boys struggle with eating disorders as well. Here, two people share their stories.
Sandy Richardson, 42, started the downward spiral of anorexia and bulimia a month and a half after she married at age 24 — about the time she rededicated her life to God. At 5 feet 4 1/2 inches, Sandy went from a healthy weight of 128 pounds to 98 pounds.
"Through treatment, I realized my eating disorder was my way of trying to keep my husband's love," she says. "I thought if I could look good on the outside, he would never look on the inside and see the ugliness there: a past of alcohol abuse and promiscuity."
Once she started losing weight, Sandy received praise from her husband, Scott, and co-workers in the Air Force. Almost everyone she encountered seemed to equate being thin with being healthy.
As a military couple, Sandy and Scott moved frequently. She worked 14- and 15-hour days and didn't always see him at meal times. When they did eat together, Sandy ate a normal meal and forced herself to throw it up soon afterward.
"I had never heard of anorexia or bulimia," she says, "so I didn't know I had a problem. To me, it was dieting — self-control — and that was a good thing. But the vomiting? I thought it was disgusting."
Along with emotional distress, Sandy's limited food intake and purging took a physical toll on her body. She had no energy, a weak immune system and ear and kidney infections. Her menstrual cycle also disappeared. Doctors attributed Sandy's poor health to stress and said they'd treat her as problems appeared.
One day, as Sandy flipped through a Christian magazine, comparing herself to everyone on its pages, she came across an ad for Remuda Ranch, a Christian treatment center for teen and adult women with eating disorders.
After calling Remuda and learning more about the battle she had fought for 13 years, Sandy started treatment and stayed at Remuda for 72 days. "My time at Remuda turned out to be a life-changing event. I felt unconditional love and acceptance for the first time," she says. "I learned who God is and what His nature is really like. It changed me completely."
Sandy's road to recovery wasn't an easy one, but through the course of several years she became well, both emotionally and physically. She and Scott, along with their two teen daughters, live in Wickenburg, Ariz., not far from Remuda Ranch, where Sandy now works as executive director of the Remuda Foundation.
Chris Riser, 32, also knows the transformation and healing God can bring to a person with disordered eating. As a 10th-grader, Chris enjoyed playing sports and was well-liked at school and church. He always felt accepted and comfortable with who he was.
But when his parents moved their family from California to Colorado, Chris was devastated and suddenly became very concerned about his weight. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds when he started his bout with bulimia.
"My response to the move was, 'I can't control where I'm going to be, but I can control my eating, my food and my weight.' I was trying to make new friends and fit in with a new youth group, and my eating habits became very strange," he says. "I didn't eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, but I'd snack voraciously after school. My parents didn't notice the change because I was at school all day, and I worked four nights a week."
After high school, this self-described perfectionist attended college and participated in an internship as a youth pastor. And all the while, his pattern of skipping meals and bingeing continued. Instead of purging by vomiting, Chris purged with exercise. He dropped to 130 pounds; not a life-threatening weight, but certainly unhealthy.
"When I was working at McDonald's, I'd sometimes eat six or seven cheeseburgers, six or seven boxes of chocolate chip cookies, drink lots of soda and then top it all off with two apple pies," he says. "If I wasn't at work, I'd buy a gallon of ice cream and eat the whole thing. That's a lot of ice cream!
"I tried to throw up, but I could never do it. I'd get frustrated with myself and would exercise even more. We're talking insane amounts of exercise! I'd run five miles down the street, run back, play a couple games of basketball, run another couple miles and then go for a long, hard bike ride."
Chris' mentor confronted him twice about his eating habits, and Chris agreed to see a counselor. But after three visits, he decided to forgo the counseling and allow God to deal with him directly.
"I asked Him to help me stop," Chris says. "I think my walk with the Lord increased at that point because I was trusting Him to help me. I'd try to eat three meals and not eat at other times. I'd do well for a couple of weeks and then totally blow it. But by the time I was 26, my continual struggle to eat properly was over."
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