As told to Cliff Williams
“That was the turning point for me—when someone said, ‘Will you let me help you?’ and I said yes.”
Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Robyn on October 4, 2023. She was in her early thirties when we talked. “Robyn” is a pseudonym.
Robyn’s eating disorder started early. “In first and second grade, I became concerned about my body and began weighing myself. By the time I was in fourth grade, I had a great deal of shame toward my body. I had a strong desire to be thin.
“In middle school, I had some pretty severe anxiety and depression, but it never got dealt with: ‘You’re a good kid. You come from a loving family, so you’re just fine. Keep pushing on.’ I was never a problem at school, so most people didn’t see my thinness as a problem.
“The disorder became more active when I was fourteen or fifteen, and when I was sixteen and seventeen, it got bad. I spiraled down. Within six months, I had lost thirty pounds. I was skin and bones, down to nothing—ninety pounds, my lowest of lows.
“What provoked the spiral was that I had to miss out on a basketball season because of a bone tumor in my leg and knee surgery. That was when I had my first major bout of depression. I went inward, and everything went off the charts—the food restricting, the obsessive weighing and exercising, the self-hate. That was all I could focus on. I couldn’t pay attention to what my friends were doing or anything else that was happening around me. My weight became a complete fixation.
“Some of my severe depression was rooted in the fact that I constantly compared myself to my older sister. I tried to measure up to her, but I never could: ‘I’m never going to be like her. Never going to be worthy. Never going to be good enough.’ But I desperately wanted to be good enough.
“At the time, I didn’t know I had a problem. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was restricting my food and that I was obsessive.”
Robyn’s older sister found out that she had a problem with her eating. “One day as I was about to leave for soccer practice with my sister, she said, ‘If you don’t tell Mom and Dad, I’m going to.’
“So I wrote a letter to my parents and told them I had an eating disorder. I folded it up and laid it beside my mom, who was taking a nap. I walked out the door and went to soccer practice.
“My mom called me at soccer practice and yelled at me. My parents’ way of handling my problem was to get me in trouble for having it. When that happened, I shut down even more and became totally closed off. My behaviors got worse. That’s when I got down to ninety pounds.
“My parents put me into a treatment program. While my friends were enjoying life, dating, and doing things, I spent only a few hours each day at school and then my mom drove me to the treatment program.
“I got better. Then I got bad again. In my senior year of high school, I turned to self-harm—cutting and burning myself. My eating was no better.
“My soccer and field hockey coach caught on to my eating disorder. She became the one person who was always there for me, my go-to person for everything. I told her about the cutting and other stuff. One afternoon I said to her, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to keep doing life.’
“She called my parents, who picked me up and took me to a psychiatric facility for self-harm, eating disorder, and suicide watch. I had multiple bouts of pretty severe suicidal episodes, times when I felt I couldn’t keep going. I never made any attempts, though, and I was genuinely trying to fight the depression and self-harm. That was during my senior year of high school and all through Christmas break.”
While all these things were going on, Robyn was being sexually molested by a neighbor. “It lasted five or six years, until I was seventeen. At first I didn’t recognize what was happening, because there was a slow process of being groomed. Then it happened more often until it became a regular thing.
“Over and over, he told me what I now see were lies: ‘No one is going to want you. You are unlovable. You will never be good enough.’ The constant repetition made me believe these assertions. I told them to myself, day after day.
“He stopped molesting me at one point because he didn’t want someone who weighed ninety pounds and was just a skeleton. When I got healthier, the molesting started up again. I began to believe it would be better to be unhealthy so as to stop what he was doing to me.
“I hated my body. I felt so much shame toward it because of what he used it for. I wanted to hide. I wanted to disappear.
“I knew it was all wrong, but I had so much shame that I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. I just couldn’t.
“My family now knows about the molesting, but we don’t talk about it. Nor about my eating disorder. I think that is both a cultural thing and a family thing. I also now think the silence at the time of the eating disorder and the sexual molestation contributed to their continuation.”
In college, Robyn continued to experience ups and downs while doing therapy. “I started believing that the ongoing battle with anorexia and bulimia was going to be my life and that I was never going to get better. My family would just have to accept it.
“The most deep-rooted lies involving my eating disorder were the same ones I came to believe because of being molested: that I was unlovable, not worthy, not good enough. At the time, I wasn’t aware of this similarity. And I didn’t notice that the shame and self-hate in the one reinforced the shame and hate in the other. In both cases, I had lost the desire to get healthy. I believed that no one was ever going to love me.
“I almost didn’t want people to love me or like me. I didn’t want them to see the other side of myself. I myself didn’t want to see that side. I was nearly to the point at which I didn’t want to love myself.
“I continued to compare myself with my sister. She had everything together, and she didn’t struggle with eating. I felt that I had to strive to measure up to her standards. But I never could. She is a wonderful person, but she was always criticizing me then. At one point she called me “Thunder Thighs,” a derogatory phrase for people who have extra large thighs. I had legs that were good for playing soccer, but they were not extra large. Still, I kept replaying in my mind the negative things she said to me.
“People didn’t know what to do. They were like, ‘Just eat, and you’ll be better.’ But I couldn’t just eat. And I couldn’t tell them what was really happening—the lies I believed, the not eating, the molesting that was feeding the eating disorder. It was all a mess.”
By the time Robyn had graduated from college, she had been to six or seven treatment centers. “I still had not been able to overcome my eating disorder. I didn’t know who I was. In college I at least had a little more sense of identity, but as soon as college ended, I had to become an adult. For two years, I was merely the anorexic believe-it girl who couldn’t get it together.
“All the lies came right back. I used laxatives and diuretics. I exercised, purged, lied, didn’t eat, and hid what was going on. I got myself into another downward spiral. I did not get to my lowest weight then, but I was probably less than a hundred pounds. My body was not in a good spot healthwise. I was twenty-three, and I couldn’t function.
“I found a treatment center that my parents wanted me to go to. I wanted to go too. At the same time, I did not want to go. But I went.
“I did not get better. I did not want to get better. I fought it and fought it. Insurance was paying thousands of dollars a day for me to be there, and I was refusing even to want to change.
“My psychiatrist and one of the program directors there called my parents and said, ‘Your daughter is getting worse. Her heart is not well, her kidneys aren’t well, her blood work is terrible. You need to come here immediately.’
“I did not know that they had called my parents. When they showed up, I thought, ‘No, no, no, no, no!
“My family all wrote me letters about why I needed to get better. Some of them were meaningful, including my dad’s. But my sister’s letter hit me hard. She said, ‘I know how desperately you want to be an aunt to your nephew.’ (He had been born a few weeks before I left for the treatment center.) ‘However, if you continue the way you are, you are not welcome in his life, because I’ve watched you slowly kill yourself for six, eight, years. And I will not let my son watch you die.’
“I realized then the impact I had made on my sister. She, indeed, had watched me slowly kill myself. I did definitely want to be an aunt. I knew I needed help, but I still wasn’t there yet.
“My parents left. I had the letters. And I was in distress.”
The Dietician and the Nurse
Change came when the dietician at the treatment center took an interest in Robyn. “She pulled me into her office and said, ‘Robyn, you have so much to live for, and you can recover. I want you to give me two weeks, just two weeks, of trying it my way. I want you to let go and let me help you. Can you trust me for two weeks? If you hate what we’re doing, you can go back to your eating disorder. It will still be there.’
“I thought about it, then went back to her office, where I broke down and said, ‘Fine. I’ll give you two weeks.’
“They had nurses be with me every moment of the day and night—while I was sleeping, even when I went to the bathroom and was showering. I was never alone.
“I was angry at first—angry that they were following me everywhere and angry with myself for having gotten myself in that situation. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do anything without having eyes on me. I was sad that I was hurting so badly that I was slowly killing myself and sad that it took so many people to help me to see a glimmer of light.
“After going through these uncomfortable emotions, I surrendered. I laid down my condition and put it into someone else’s hands. I became grateful for the nurses who sat with me, followed me, and talked with me. They had hope for me, and because of that, I felt supported.
“All that was the turning point for me—when someone said, ‘Will you let me help you?’ and I said yes.
“I was in that treatment center for almost a year—for my birthday, Christmas, Easter. Then I transferred to a day hospital in a different city. At one point I was going to that hospital three days a week. Then it was two days, and then weekly counseling. After that, I went back home and did an evening program. Altogether, it was sixteen months of constant, intensive treatment.”
A Life-Changing Job
Robyn got a job at a local school working with special needs students. “I loved doing that. And because I was healthy, I was able to start running again. Then I was asked to be a coach for an organization at the school for third through sixth grade girls that encourages positive body image and self-esteem while training the girls for a five-K run. So I started coaching. I have been doing that for nearly ten years now and have not had to go back to treatment.
“Each fall I coach ten and eleven year olds, and in the spring I coach the younger girls. Right now, in the fall, I have girls who are struggling with body image and comparison. I talk to them about positive self-talk and how to catch themselves before negative self-talk becomes a spiral. They know that I too have struggled with body image and self-esteem.
“There is so much power in stories. Other people’s stories inspired me to get better. Now I am able to tell my story to girls who need an older friend.
“One of my girls has an eating disorder, and she and I talk one-on-one from time to time. She’ll ask me questions, such as, ‘How do I fuel myself enough when I run?’ Her parents are very aware of her eating disorder, and I have gotten to build a relationship with them. They know my story.
“Last week, I texted the girl’s mom about a compulsive pattern I was seeing with the girl. The mom texted back saying that they were seeing the same thing at home: ‘Glad we’re on the same page.’ Her mom and dad have asked me to continue mentoring their daughter.
“I love having conversations with the older girls. I have become someone they can talk to in the same way I had a coach I could talk to when I had difficulties in high school.
“I don’t think the girls know how much they are helping me. They all think I am the one who is coaching them. But their impact on me has greatly aided in my continued recovery. When I am struggling with anxiety or depression, even now, I say to myself, ‘I can’t get back into my eating disorder, because I wouldn’t be able to coach.’ And I love coaching. All my girls are wonderful. They’re crazy and goofy, but they’re a joy to be with.”
A New Life
Robyn’s life has changed in a number of ways. “I now have a good relationship with my sister. I hated the letter she wrote to me more than ten years ago, but at the same time I am grateful for it. I would never have wanted my nephew or niece—my nephew now has a sister—to see their aunt in the state I was in then or watch me slowly kill myself. That is not the example I want to set for anyone.
“My sister’s two children are my everything. As soon as I got out of treatment, I was at their house every other weekend. Now that they live in another state, I see them every other month. This coming Friday morning, I am going to fly out and take them to a football game in the afternoon. I love it that I am making memories with them.
“I no longer feel unlovable. When I didn’t feel lovable and didn’t have a purpose, I didn’t care much about getting better: ‘I can get better. But for what?’ Now that I feel lovable and have a purpose, I want to keep on living.
“There are days, though, when I think, ‘This is too hard,’ or ‘I can’t deal with this right now,’ or ‘I just want to die.’ I’m not suicidal, but sometimes I am so overwhelmed by stress or anxiety and depression that I want to escape.
“When I was in the midst of the eating disorder, I felt very lonely. Neither my sister nor any of her friends or my friends struggled with an eating disorder. I felt that I did not belong and that no one understood me.
“Now I can be a support for those who are walking through the same things so that they don’t feel overwhelmed or lonely. That keeps me going. I feel as though I am on a wonderful journey. It all is my way of seeing how God has used my recovery so that I can inspire and encourage young girls.
“I run a lot, usually every morning with friends. I did my first Ironman last year. That’s a triathlon in which you swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, and do a full marathon, 26.2 miles, back to back. Doing things like this is another motivator to continue to stay healthy.
“If I had not changed when I was at the long-term treatment center, there’s a good chance I would have died. Your body can withstand not eating for only so long before it begins to shut down. At least five people I knew at the center have died in the last three to four years. I get sad every time I hear about another death.
“I have learned that my identity does not come from what someone does to me. When I was being molested, I let the molester have control over me. I have gotten that control back and am my own person now.
“I want people to know that there is hope even though it takes a lot of work. If someone else can shine their light, then you can see that light at the end of the tunnel. And if you get there, you can say, ‘Wow! All the hard work was worth it.’”
© 2023 by Cliff Williams