Someone tweeted a link, and, liking the title, I clicked. I found a fine writer and a gifted artist at Imperfect Prose. I found a wife and mother. And over time, I found a young woman who was brutally honest about her eating disorder. She didn’t dwell on it in her blog posts, but she was open and vulnerable. And I remember thinking how that openness, that vulnerability, could help a lot of people.
Eating disorders are one tough group of diseases, wreaking havoc on the sufferer, the family, and friends. Emily Wierenga has worked her way through, but it's still not easy. And what she's learned can be of enormous benefit to others.
Welcome to Chasing Silhouettes: How to help a loved one battling an eating disorder, Emily's new book that is equal parts story, vulnerability, information, encouragement, and hope. I caught up with her recently, and she found the time to answer a few questions.
Q: Reading this book is having one’s eyes opened to what is clearly a terrible and life-threatening situation. There were parts of this story that chilled my heart, and none more than the image of a nine-year-old Emily beginning the process of starving herself. A nine-year-old child?
I agree; it’s a young age. Yet I didn’t feel young. I felt very, very old. I had absorbed so much by that point, and constantly over-thought everything, and my parents had put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders (me being the oldest of four). So in my mind, I was much older than my age.
Sadly, mine is not an uncommon story. As I note in my book, “Recent surveys indicated that four out of five ten-year-old American girls have been on a diet; and children as young as six are dieting. Many seven-year-old girls are refusing to eat birthday cake because it contains too many calories.”
Q: Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia have deep roots in family dynamics and relationships. Your parents and siblings clearly participated in the writing of the book. How did they respond to reading what you had written?
I cannot begin to express the admiration I have for my parents, siblings, and husband. Even now, their humility and openness to sharing their hurts, their memories, and their forgiveness brings tears to my eyes. It took me so long to realize the damage I’d inflicted; so long to gain the strength to look back and see what I’d done, the rubble I’d left in the wake of my destructive behavior. They picked themselves up with God’s grace, dusted themselves off, and helped me to rebuild my confidence and our family. I couldn’t have done this without them.
Q: Each of the major sections of the book is structured with a story, including perspectives of both the person with the disorder and family and friends; observations and insights by medical professionals; practical advice on what to do and not do if you’re trying to help; and then a prayer. How did you come to structure the book that way?
I believe in the power of story. I believe it is the foundation for Jesus’ ministry, the language God used to speak creation into existence, and the narrative that drives our lives...but I know too that we need more than story. So while I interviewed my parents, my friends, and my siblings, garnering their perspective on the situation, I also knew we needed to provide solid direction. There are a plethora of books out there detailing eating disorder stories, but there isn’t a lot of hope. Families and friends need solutions. They need concrete, practical advice. And having (finally) acknowledged the pain I put my own family through, and realizing the lack of solid, biblical resources out there for those with loved ones battling an eating disorder, I interviewed well-known doctors and counselors and nurses in the eating disorder field, to balance out the intimate perspectives of myself and my family.
Q: The major breakthrough comes when someone suffering with an eating disorder decides they want to live. No friend or family member or pastor or counselor can make that decision for them. It’s as if they must choose life or death.
I love that you said this. It is one of the most important things for caregivers to understand: healing does not depend on them. There is nothing you can do to make a disordered eater choose to get better. Rather, it takes a personal revelation, a divine revelation, a holy experience, which I believe God orchestrates to touch the person’s spirit. Granted, there are things you can say and ways you can live to inspire healing. But it is not your responsibility to heal your loved one. And the same thing goes for the inception of the illness. You did not cause your loved one’s sickness. There may have been things you said or did that affected it, and for those, it’s good to ask for forgiveness, but don’t feel guilty for your loved one’s disordered eating. Eating disorders are highly complex illnesses, with numerous factors, some of them biological.
Q: I don’t want to skip over the prayer part. You emphasize over and over again the critical importance of God and relationship with God in wrestling with an eating disorder.
I honestly believe God is the only one who can truly bring healing to a disordered eater’s mind and heart. Knowing first-hand the spiritual battle that one engages in, the darkness of anorexia nervosa and the way it leads one into the shadows of death (making a young child want to die), I cannot explain it other than a spiritual attack. And with that in mind, it is only God who can cast out the spirits. Only God who can break the spell, so to speak, and bring sight to the blind. I was so blind. I looked in the mirror, at 5’6”, and 60 pounds, and I saw a beautiful girl. A few months later, after having been rehabilitated and gaining weight, I looked back at a picture of myself then and nearly vomited at the sight of a skeleton.
It was terrifying, the wool that had been pulled. I don’t know how non-Christians explain it apart from the spiritual. For me, even as a young child, I could recognize the “negative voice” as demonic, one that wanted me to die. And the scary part is, it starts slowly. It starts with believing one or two things about yourself: perhaps, “I shouldn’t put so much butter on my toast,” or “I look fat,” but then it escalates. And suddenly you’re not allowed to eat anything and you’re standing naked in front of the mirror counting your ribs.
I’ve provided prayers in this book because I know my parents ran out of strength; they didn’t know how to pray over this daughter that had shrunk inside her pink pajamas. And I ache for parents and siblings that long to cry out to God yet don’t have the words. Here they are, free for the taking—please, use them, until you find your own again.
Part 2 of the interview at Faith, Fiction, Friends
My review of Chasing Silhouettes at Faith, Fiction, Friends
Post by Glynn Young.