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Food and loathing

Health | Eating disorders wreck lives and families, but grace can heal the physical, mental, and spiritual wounds

Within the last decade, awareness of eating disorders has exploded, and pictures of women with spines jutting out like spikes and arms hanging like rails have become common. If Angelina Jolie shows up with veiny arms, tabloids speculate about her weight. The disease fills gossip columns, but the deeper stories remain misunderstood. I’ve gone into five of those stories. 

One is the story of 25-year-old Jessica Perez from upstate New York, now with cropped and jet-black hair, gray-blue eyes, and 10 piercings stamped into her ears, lips, nose, and belly button. She also has five hand-inked tattoos, thin X-shaped scars stretched across her chest, and a waist that bears Harry Potter’s Horcrux symbol—remnants of her self-cutting days. 

Severely depressed and self-hating, Jessi cut and starved herself because that was the only way she knew to stop her emotional pain: “The physical pain is something you control. You can start it, and you can make it stop. It’s something you can’t do with depression.”

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Jessi was about 11 when her father abandoned the family without explanation, leaving her mother distraught and Jessi gradually curtailing her food intake to stifle her anger and sadness. By 13, she had full-fledged anorexia and an addiction to cutting herself. At school, she hung out with a bunch of “severely depressed” misfits. At home, she tiptoed around her new stepdad and stepsiblings.

Eleven years later, Jessi has gone through four hospitalizations and one eating disorder treatment center. In all those years she never had a period. It takes months for her to recover from an illness. Her body involuntarily regurgitates rich, heavy foods, so she spends hot summers sucking on fruity push-up popsicles, chewing on Twizzlers, and sipping fat-free milk.

Jessi is 5-foot-5 and barely weighs 55 pounds. She says she feels comfortable at that “good, functioning weight” because she can get by without panicking about her weight. She can’t cartwheel or run up the stairs, but she can dig up sod in the garden and mop the floor. 

At times, Jessi wonders what she’s living for: “I’m very lost.” She thinks about God but doesn’t exactly know who He is: “I feel so helpless ... I’ve always tried to be a good person. I feel like I would not have suffered the way I have without some kind of purpose behind it. If God doesn’t have a purpose for this, then this universe sucks.” 

Another story: Melissa (Missy) Miller, 34, has struggled with an eating disorder for about 20 years, and still struggles with it day to day.

Although financially dependent on her parents, Missy still blows at least $200 a week on groceries for herself, spending an “obscene amount of time” at Whole Foods staring at nutritional labels and hoarding food she doesn’t eat. Her fridge must always contain her daily staples: low-calorie items such as broccoli, lettuce, and hummus. When she runs out of them, she drags herself to the store no matter how tired she is— because she just has to. Why? She doesn’t know.

Recently, Missy weighed herself. She had reached 94 pounds, the highest she’s been in a very long time. She stepped off the scale and resolved to stick to her motivation to recover, but not before—and after—experiencing a spasm of terror. 

As Missy tries to explain her reaction to the weight gain, her eyes well up. She gulps air, flailing her bony arms as though trying to fend off the panic attack she feels each time she thinks about her weight: “It feels like dying. … I feel like I’m walking around with tumors.”

When she checked an online chart, she was still well under her healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) and already panicking. She realized that as much as she professes trust and faith in God, doubt keeps her from recovery: “I’m living in sin and darkness, and it’s putting a wall between God and me no matter how much I want to tear it down ... I have this latent sense that He can heal—but not me.”

Story three: Adam Nettina is 23, a recent college graduate, and about 30 pounds under his healthy weight. The last time he was at a healthy weight, he was a ripped freshman at Catholic University of America, pressing weights, and running additional laps around campus after his ROTC training.

Depressed and dissatisfied with school, Adam became addicted to the euphoria his daily exercise regimen and strict dietary rules provided him. He transferred to Utah State University and intensified his disordered behaviors until he was hospitalized his junior year. 

—Sophia Lee is a USC senior and WORLD intern

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