Five years ago, I arrived home from college to celebrate Christmas, happily anticipating the family, food and holiday celebration. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and siblings were everywhere. Halfway through the round of hugs, my anorexic sister appeared. She looked positively sickening, all bones and angles. When she hugged me, I almost vomited…I was hugging a skeleton. What had happened to my sister? I knew that she was struggling with under eating and over exercising, but I had no idea it was this bad. I was unable to be near her, look at her, touch her….it made me sick. Her sickness caused all kinds of horrible emotional reactions in me. And because she was the one that was sick-I wasn’t-I felt guilty for being on this emotional rollercoaster. But her anorexia had overtaken my life and I had no idea how to cope.
According to The National Institute of Mental Health, between 5-10% of girls and women (5-10 million) suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Anorexia is the leading cause of death in young women aged 15-24. Collectively, eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest death rate. The most startling statistic of all is that approximately 50% of Americans personally know someone with an eating disorder.
Confession #1: I was angry with her all the time.
I am not proud to admit it, but I was furious with my sister for making choices that led to the destruction of her body and hurt my family. My parents were consumed with worry, my other sisters were strongly tempted to mimic her illness and my brothers were ignored. Anorexia is a mental disorder, but it begins with a choice to exercise excessively and self-induce starvation. I was angry with her for making such a harmful decision in the first place. She always seemed much smarter and stronger than that. However, my anger finally disappeared after realizing that my sister was actually deceived. She believed Satan’s lies about her body and was spiritually deceived, resulting in a physical and mental disorder.
Months passed before I realized that my anger toward my sister was destroying me just like her disease was eating away at her. Anger and frustration are natural responses to self-destructive behavior in a loved one, but living in that anger is sin. Anger will not cure an anorexic or help family members cope with the sickness. The Bible takes a clear stance on anger in the heart of a believer. James 1:19-20 says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” And Ephesians 4:31-32 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Choosing to live in a spirit of anger is sin and will hurt your relationship with the anorexic just as much as her illness does. I confessed my sin and repented before God. Later, at the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I asked my sister to forgive me for being so angry. God used that in a powerful way to mend our relationship!
Confession #2: I was consumed with worry, to the point that I could no longer pray.
Just thinking about my sister made me ill with worry. I was terrified that I would never get my sister back. The worry was eating me alive and it drove a wedge between me and God. I lost months of time with God because of anger and fear for my sister as she battled anorexia. Oh, I had quiet times, or rather times when I searched the Scripture for a word about my sister and times when I begged God in prayer to heal her. I didn’t spend time with God because I loved Him. I didn’t give Him my worry and rest in His comfort. I merely opened my Bible and worried over it.
That is the exact opposite of what the Bible commands us to do. 1 Peter 5:7 tells us to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” And Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious about nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” It is vital that you immerse yourself in truth during times like these. You will be unable to help the anorexic if you are on shaky terms with God. In difficult circumstances it is imperative that we do not abandon the basics of our Christianity: reading Scripture, praying, accountability, and Christian fellowship. Your church is God’s gift to you during this time: don’t keep this pain to yourself…share your burden with fellow believers! Allow other Christians to live out Galatians 6:2, which says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” There will also be times when you need to limit the amount of time you pray for the anorexic, because she should not consume your time with God. Focus on praising, thanking, worshiping, and listening to God….only then will you have the strength to deal with it all. It was incredibly difficult to trust God with my sister, but when I finally placed her in His capable hands I found peace and was able to actually minister to her.
Confession #3: I was disappointed in my sister. How could she be a Christian and do this to herself?
I was so disappointed in my anorexic sister. She was a strong Christian before she got sick. She always had her quiet time and she prayed often. Then she became obsessed with her body and, in doing so, destroyed her Christian example to her sisters and friends. I was so judgmental of my sister and her struggles. I had no idea what she was going through, but I thought she should be able to overcome this eating disorder. God humbled me with this verse, ““Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37 My sister took her focus off of God and made an idol of her body. All of us are weak at various times in our lives, and those weaknesses can pull us away from God. My sister focused on the appearance rather than the heart, which led her into her anorexia. When I stopped judging her and expecting her to fix herself, I was finally able to understand a little bit of why she was struggling. Only then was I finally able to truly pray for her and with her.
Confession #4: She made me want to become anorexic too.
Merely standing in the same room with my anorexic sister made me feel fat. A fellow anorexic’s sister, Amy, could relate: “Even now, when she is so deep in her anorexia, I regard my sister with a mix of awe and disgust. I can’t help feeling so large and ungainly around her. I know she is sick, but when I am around her I feel so ugly and huge around her! It tempts me to obsess about weight too.” It is obvious that anorexia causes extreme weight loss, so even normal-sized people feel fat compared someone so desperately skinny. Satan uses times of stress and trial to attack us in areas of weakness. He was using my sister’s illness to tempt me down the same destructive path. When I realized what I was considering, I stopped right there and prayed that God would protect me from the temptation to become anorexic. A wise woman counseled me to write key Scriptures on note cards and carry them with me to ward off Satan’s tempting lies to join my sister in her anorexia. Two of the most powerful verses were Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And Psalm 139:13-14, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
But it wasn’t just how she looked; it was also the attention she received. My sister’s anorexia made her the center of attention. My parent’s entire world revolved around keeping her alive. Strangers were complimenting her “model-skinny” looks and friends fussed over her. When I stood next to her, I felt completely invisible and overlooked. I was actually tempted to join her in not eating so I could get someone – anyone – to notice that I was still alive. Vicky explained it this way, “I felt completely neglected by my family, which in turn made me completely disgusted at myself for being so self-absorbed while my sister is the ill one.” As I turned to God in prayer, He opened my eyes to see that the people who were complementing her were just as deceived as my sister. They didn’t see her hideously gaunt figure in a swimsuit. They were merely applauding her for fitting into a socially accepted mold. This entire situation was sad, not something to be envied. But most importantly, if I truly love my sister there is no place for jealousy or even resentment of the overabundance of attention she received from family and friends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us that “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
According to the doctors my sister was the only one afflicted with anorexia, but not one family member escaped that battle unscathed. Eating disorders have a devastating effect on family and friends. While there are no rehabilitation centers for family members of anorexics, there are some things you can do. First, focus on your relationship with God. The harder the circumstances, the more time you need to be spending in His word. Second, you cannot fix the Anorexic, but you can love her. Third, don’t deny that this illness affects you too. Find a prayer/accountability partner that can walk with you through this difficult time.
Five years have passed and my sister still struggles with her eating disorder. But as long as she lives her life believing Scripture, God gives her victory. I learned powerful lessons through my sister’s fight against anorexia. I learned to turn to God with my emotional struggles. I learned that living in the truth of Scripture is the answer to my every problem. I learned that God truly works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Additional help on this issue is available at: www.liveatpeace.org