Starving to be Perfect

I was tuning my guitar for youth group worship when my friend Sarah ran up excitedly. “Hey, Josh,” she said.

“I got my roll of pictures from our retreat developed. I thought you’d like to have this one because it’s of you playing music.”

I glanced at the photo. “Wow, that’s great,” I said, smiling. “Thanks!”

As she went to find a seat, I slipped the photo into my guitar case. Later that night, when I was alone in my room, I took the picture out and stared at it.

I hated it.

I look so hideous, I thought. I’m so big, my guitar looks like a little toy. I want to be a musician? Who’s heard of a fat rock star?

I’d been overweight for as long as I could remember. Now, I was one of the biggest guys in my junior class. I hated being the best friend and never the boyfriend. I hated being the funny guy people laughed at and not the cool guy they envied. I want to be more than the happy–go–lucky chunky guy, I thought. I am tired of being fat. I am done with this.

I decided that if I wanted to weigh less, I just needed to eat less. So early in the winter of my junior year, I started cutting back. Within weeks, I was hardly eating anything. Some days at lunch, I’d eat only a pack of crackers. Soon, I’d lost three pounds. I was so happy. Wow, this is working. I thought. Now, if I cut out the crackers, I will be that much closer to where I want to be.

It got to a point that I was proud that I’d eat less in a week than most people eat in a meal. During a weeklong summer camp, all I ate was a slice of pizza, a little fruit and some fries. But usually, my daily menu was a cup of plain noodles (there was no way I’d eat sauce!) and an occasional bagel.

I lost a lot of weight and I lost it fast.

By the first day of my senior year, I was a new man. It’d been about nine months and I was 70 pounds lighter. When I walked through the halls, all eyes were on me. I wasn’t “the fat kid” anymore. I was getting attention and lots of compliments. It’s working, I thought. Now, I’ll just eat a little less and I’ll be perfect.

The only problem was my parents. They kept asking questions and trying to make me eat. One night at dinner, my mom loaded a plate full of chicken and broccoli for me—knowing that if I served myself, it’d stay empty. We sat there for a long time as my parents ate and watched my plate carefully.

“So how was youth group, Josh?”

“Fine.”

“How’s your music class going?”

They played it off like we were having a nice family conversation. But I knew they wouldn’t let me leave until I ate. Finally, I stabbed a big lump of chicken with my fork and stuck it in my mouth. When I finished my plate, Mom smiled and took the dishes.

“Well, I’m going up to my room to work on all my homework,” I said and ran up the stairs.

As I went up, I thought, Sure, you can make me eat, but you can’t make me keep it down.

I went straight to the bathroom and made myself throw up.

It wasn’t easy making myself vomit, but soon, I was doing it two or three times a day. In my mind, throwing up kept people from asking questions and gave me an out if I ever ate too much. I was now in complete control of how much food I was digesting.

In early March, I weighed myself for the last time before my parents hid all the scales in our house. It had been almost a year and a half and I’d lost about 110 pounds—almost half my original body weight. I stared at myself shirtless in the bathroom mirror. My eyes were sunken in. My ribs were showing. But I thought, You have that little roll there. That’s fat. I set my new goal: double digits.

One week, I showed up early for youth group to run through worship songs when my youth pastor, Mark, stopped me. “Hey Josh,” he said. “I don’t want you to play tonight.”

“What?”

“There’s something you need to deal with first,” he said. “You know what it is.”

I knew what he was talking about. Several times, Mark and a youth volunteer named Sharon had each confronted me about not eating. I knew they’d been talking to my parents. None of them understood that my not eating was helping me become who I wanted to be.

Mark held out his hand to take the guitar from me. “Until you deal with your own life, I can’t let you be a leader for others in this youth group.”

“Whatever,” I said and walked away.

Sitting in the back of the room for worship that night, I thought, The band sounds horrible. Good job, Mark.

A couple of days later, Sharon and I were chatting after a church event. I just had to say something about Mark. “It really bothered me, Sharon,” I said. “How am I hurting anyone? I’m just making myself better!”

“Josh,” she said. “I am saying this because I care about you: Something is wrong. This has to stop.”

Part of me wanted to leave, but I kept listening because it was Sharon. We’d been close for years. In junior high, her husband was my mentor.

“When I was in college, I was anorexic and bulimic,” she said, looking directly into my eyes. “I know you are too. And I know this isn’t the best thing for you. I know it feels like you are in control, but it is controlling you.”

I silently listened as she told me anorexia could cause lower resistance to disease, bone and muscle weakness, dehydration and kidney failure, heart failure, and even death. She said she noticed how different I acted now, how I kept people at a distance, and how irritable I was. She said that my vomiting would cause dental problems because of all the acid. I didn’t buy any of it. I felt fine and I thought I looked the best I ever had. “Look, it’s my life,” I said. “I’m not hurting anyone else.”

“You’re killing your parents, Josh,” she said. “Mark worries. I worry. And you’re a leader in this group, but the people who look up to you see you’re not eating. Everyone knows what you’re doing.”

“I’m hurting others?”

“Yes, Josh,” she said. “But I want you to realize why it hurts others: You’re hurting yourself.”

As I drove home, my mind raced. Sharon’s words replayed in my head: “It’s controlling you.” I thought about how I decided who to hang out with, what to do and where to go. I realized that avoiding food and hiding my secret determined everything in my life. It controlled me and even kept me from seeing that I had a problem. In fact, in a year and a half of not eating, I hadn’t once talked to God about it. I didn’t realize I should.

As I sat in my driveway at 2 a.m., I prayed: “God, I’ve got a problem and I can’t deal with it alone. If it were up to me, I would keep doing it. What I thought I could control is now controlling me. It’s become more important in my life than anything else, including you. I got myself into this, but I can’t get myself out.”

Everything seemed a bit different the next day. No, I wasn’t instantly cured of my anorexia and bulimia. But as I focus more and more on what God wants for my life, I am less and less controlled by my eating disorder. In the first year or so of my recovery, I slipped up a few times and found myself not eating or forcing myself to vomit. Even today, I will sometimes feel those old urges whispering to me. What changed that night was my attitude: I began to want what God had for me more than what I wanted.

I also had a new attitude about the people who really cared about me. Before, I thought my parents were jerks when they removed the scales from our house or made me see a counselor about my eating disorder. But after that night, I realized everything they did was out of love. I started to embrace their help. My youth group prayed for me. Mark often hugged me and told me he was proud of me. Sharon met with me almost every day to go through the Bible and show me what God says about how we’re created and how much he loves us. My parents and friends would keep me accountable by watching me eat and sitting with me until the urge to vomit went away.

What I most learned from my loved ones was this: Even at my very lowest point, they loved me. But they weren’t the only ones. When I got to the point of saying, “I can’t do this,” God was right there loving me—the person he created me to be—and waiting for me to love that person, too.

Josh Cromer is the bassist for Christian band Overflow. The band’s debut album, A Better Place, includes “Cry on My Shoulder,” a song about God’s desire to help us in our darkest times.

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