2 years ago I shared a story that is very close to my heart. I talked about my younger sister’s struggle with Anorexia Nervosa and how it has impacted her life and my life. This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week so I thought it would be time to share again the battle my sister has gone through over the years in hopes that someone out there reads this and gets help for themselves or their loved ones.
To start things off, you probably should get to know my spunky baby sister. Her name is Lea and she is 22 years old. She graduated last May with a Bachelor’s in Pastoral Studies and is currently working in a church while writing a few books on the side. (She’s low key a genius.) Lea is my best friend and always has been. We are 3 years apart but that has never impacted our relationship. From the moment Lea was born she was mine. I was convinced at 3 years old that she was my baby and I had to protect her against everything in this world. I laugh because my mom will tell stories about us when we were little and how I always did what Lea wanted to do in order to make her happy. Apparently I was quite the push over big sister. If I was playing with a Barbie my sister wanted, I would give it to her. If I wanted to go to McDonalds and she wanted to go to Dairy Queen, we went to Dairy Queen. This was constant but it never phased me. I was happy to please her.
Lea was a spunky carefree child. I envied her because she wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. She was bold and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. I remember one time when she was 5 and I was 8, we were at track practice with our mom while she was coaching. During practice, my job was to keep an eye on Lea. Somehow we ended up inside the school where the track was at and we spotted a fire alarm. Lea was attracted to it like a magnet. She kept telling me how she wanted to pull it and I was in hysterics telling her it was a terrible idea. I told her how much trouble we would get in but she didn’t care. After taunting me for a few minutes she decided to pull the trigger. She grabbed the alarm and pulled it down sending the whole building into evacuation. Obviously I was mortified and my mom was livid. I was sobbing constantly saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” while Lea couldn’t stop laughing at what she did. It cracks me up now just thinking about it because it was a classic “Lea” move. She just wanted to have a little fun and didn’t think about the consequences. This was the Lea I knew. What I didn’t know at the time was that, even at 5 years old, something troubling going on inside her brain.
When she was in first grade, Lea started exhibiting some major OCD habits. She had thrown up at school one day and had convinced herself that she threw up because of school. She started to refuse to go to school because she was certain she would get sick. She started washing her hands excessively to “kill the germs.” And when I say excessively, I mean for 5 minutes straight under hot water. She refused to touch any surface that wasn’t sanitized first and she would never touch another person, let alone let them touch her. Her obsessiveness with being clean and healthy continued for years. It also slowly lead into what eventually would become her eating disorder.
My sister and I were close in many ways but one of the biggest things we shared growing up was our love for gymnastics. Gymnastics was our life. We had practices at least twice a week but even when we weren’t in the gym, we were doing something gymnastics related at home in the basement or outside on our trampoline. We had the same friends because our closest friends were the girls on our team. As much as I loved gymnastics, Lea loved it 10 times more. It was her passion for 8 years of her life. That’s why it became incredibly concerning when she stopped caring about gymnastics altogether.
When Lea was in 8th grade she made the varsity cross country team. Our mom was the assistant coach and is an avid runner. Both Lea and I HATED to run but we joined the team because we knew it would make our mom happy. When she joined the team, Lea started to realize how talented and fast she really was. She would win races without even trying that hard. Before she knew it, she was on varsity as a middle schooler.
After her 8th grade season she decided to continue running on the off season. At the time, we thought it was because she wanted to keep her varsity spot. We later found out, she kept running because she was losing weight and liked it. She became crazed with running. She started to run before and after school daily. When gymnastics started, she continued her crazy running schedule. She would run twice a day while also attending our daily 2.5 hour gymnastics practice. She would run in the morning before school and then every night after practice. It became so intense that I started to really worry about her health and her mental stability. Within a few months running slowly morphed into her new obsession. It became the most important thing in her life, more important than gymnastics.
Over the next year, Lea started running up to 10 miles every day while eating low calorie meals that were considered “healthy.” She stopped eating sugar and would find alternatives to anything considered “not good for you.” Within months she dropped so much weight that she was down to a mere 80 pounds. It took time for my family to fully see what was going on. At the time, my parents were so impressed with her choices and were so proud of her for working so hard that they didn’t see the major red flags right in front of them.
At the age of 13, the day of my 18th birthday, Lea ran her first marathon. Marathons usually have a minimum age requirement because it’s NOT SAFE for children to put their bodies through that. This particular race required you to be 18 years of age or older. Thanks to the day falling on my 18th birthday, my mom registered her as me. I was livid for many reasons. I was jealous because of the attention she was getting on the day I officially became an adult but I was also mad because my parents were letting her put her body through that . She was 13! I tried to express my major concerns but they just thought I was jealous she did something I could never do.
From May to September of 2013 Lea dramatically lost weight and became more and more obsessed with not eating and over exercising. I was very worried about her and was not shy about my feelings. This caused some major tension in our house. My parents would get angry whenever I told them what Lea was doing was not okay. They were blinded by her new lifestyle. It wasn’t until her body started to show other side effects that my mom started to realize maybe something was wrong.
The left picture is May 2013 and the right is September 2013.
At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, Lea had her 14 year old physical. The doctor’s knew from her blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs that something was not right. They then heard about her dramatic weight loss and new work out regime. They referred her to see a therapist to talk about what was going on in her life. My mom figured it couldn’t hurt to have her talk to someone since she did have some OCD and depressive like tendencies. Within weeks of seeing this new therapist, the therapist requested that my mom take her to our state’s Children’s Hospital because she knew Lea needed much more help than she could offer her.
This was the start of our new normal. Over the next handful of years Lea spent days, weeks, even months at a time in in-patient facilities. She started off at the Children’s Hospital. She was at the hospital on and off for about a year. It was a constant cycle of the same thing. Lea would be admitted, stay a few weeks so her vitals would be safe enough to leave, come home, lose weight FAST, and end up right back at the hospital days later. Clearly, Children’s wasn’t working on the root of the problem. At Children’s, the sole purpose of sending someone with an eating disorder there is to get them to gain the weight back. Unfortunately, “just eating” is not the solution to this mental illness.
Because of the constant cycle between living in the hospital and coming home, the doctor’s realized she needed more. She then went to a few different places that focuses more on mental rehabilitation than physical. These programs did much more for her than anything she’d had before. It took a few years, and a few different places, but she finally found a place that worked for her. She found success in the Melrose Center for Eating Disorders in Minnesota. Not only did she receive medical help when her body was failing her, but also learned useful tools to help her overcome her mental illnesses.
These pictures were taken over 3 years of her being in treatment centers. 2020 on the left, 2019 in the middle, and 2018 on the right. As you can see, she would struggle for awhile, be at a “healthy weight” for a few months, and then struggle once again. This is unfortunately the ups and downs of her ED.
It’s been almost 9 years since she was officially diagnosed. She has spent over half that time living away from home in treatment centers. She has found God and uses that to lift her up daily. She uses her past to help others overcome their ED. But she still struggles on a daily basis. She has good days and bad days. She has heart problems because of what she has put her body through. Her bones are so deteriorated that she has osteoporosis at 22. She knows that her life isn’t going to be easy because ED will always be there lingering in the background. As her sister, the one who always wanted to protect her from everything, it kills me to come to this realization. The only thing I can do, is be there for her on the good days and the bad days. She has come SO FAR in her journey that I could not be prouder. Her ultimate goal in life is to go around the country speaking to middle school and high school kids telling them her story. She doesn’t want a single person to go through what she has and will stop at nothing to share her story. She is the strongest bravest person I know.
This is Lea today. Happy and doing what she loves. Preaching the word!
This is where I stop sharing her story and start warning some of you reading this. My parents are 2 of the most loving people on the planet. They have always been so supportive of us and have wanted nothing more than for us to be happy. My mom, being the track and cross country coach in our town, has had many athletes over the years who have suffered from an eating disorder. She knows the signs and symptoms but couldn’t identify it in her own daughter. We didn’t know it at the time, but Lea started showing symptoms through her OCD patterns when she was only in elementary school. No matter how old or young someone is, they could be hurting and not even know it.
Anorexia has the highest death rate above all other mental health disorders. It is serious and needs more attention than it gets. As a society, we aren’t aware of how to spot someone with an eating disorder, let alone help them through their eating disorder. We continue to idolize fit and skinny people because we’re told that’s what a “healthy” person looks like. Ha. WRONG! Over exercising and dieting is not the way to live a healthy lifestyle. Life comes with checks and balances for a reason. Our bodies need sugar. They need rest. They need carbs. Restricting ourselves from things like that, is the opposite of healthy living.
Please, take some time to really think about your own self and how you are living your life right now. Are you happy? Are you taking care of not just your body, but your mind? Are the loved ones in your life okay? Do they need someone to check in on them just so they know someone cares? Take care of yourself and those in your life. Love yourself for who you are and love your friends and family for who they are no matter what. We are all meant to be different and should embrace our individualities. You are beautiful and amazing. Never forget that.
(BTW: If you are interested in her amazing book/devotional, here is the link to purchase Reflections in the Midst of the Storm on Amazon!)