Breaking the engagement with ED, the secretive, obsessive lover
by June Alexander and Emily Murray
What happens when you become engaged and marry while experiencing an eating disorder? To illustrate what can happen, here are two love stories. The first story is mine, which began when I was 16 and fell in love with George, and the second belongs to Emily Murray, who fell in love with, and recently married, Josh. Our love stories occur decades apart. The effects of ED and a strong religious faith are common to both. However, our stories differ in one crucial way: George was excluded from my recovery team, while Josh has been part of Emily’s team since day one.
When I married at age 20, my untreated eating disorder came too. In my local community, I presented as a wife, mother, journalist, sister and daughter, as someone who made time to teach Sunday School, mow the church lawns and bake cakes for the school fair, who had everything one could possibly want. People would comment on all that I did and say, “My, you are so well organised.” However, my diary reveals a different story: daily lists and pledges reflecting attempts to gain some order and escape constant inner torment. Years later, in recovery, I would learn that these lists and pledges, laden with self-harming thoughts and feelings, were not of ‘true me’. For many years, even my diary behaved more like a disloyal friend or lover, than a trusted confidante, aligning with ED’s thoughts and behaviors instead of my own.
The rules and regulations, and the act of codifying them in my diaries, represented the only way I knew of coping and managing anxiety and pressure. For a time, they did help me to survive. But simultaneously they were strengthening ED, disconnecting my authentic self from my body, and further isolating me from George.
ED thrives on secrecy that generates worthlessness and despair, and encourages self-abuse and social isolation. I was incapable of recognizing this at the time, and George and my family didn’t understand what was happening either. I was considered aloof, impolite and self-centered, but my diary chronicled the true story – the disintegration of self, as the eating disorder made itself at home in my mind.
Moods seesawed from this:
“The good news is that I’ve stayed on my diet and weigh xxx. I haven’t weighed this little since our wedding day, almost eight years ago! If I can hang on to this control, everything will be okay.”
– Author’s diary, December 15, 1978
“I’ve been disgracing myself perpetually all day by compulsively eating. I am so fat. Ugh! I’m ashamed to have George feel me!”
– Author’s diary, October 6, 1979
Eventually, ED swept me into a meaningless void. I lost touch with ME completely, and also with George. In my 20’s and 30’s, efforts to “keep busy as a way of coping” were never enough; I became a non-person.
Love for my young children gave strength to share my inner story with a doctor for the first time. In my mid-30’s, when a correct diagnosis was made, ED retaliated and convinced me that George was the cause of my inability to feel at peace. Once this thought took hold, our marriage was destroyed in a matter of weeks. ED had reduced my choice to “leave home or die.”
Of course, ED went with me:
“Three years have passed since my marriage breakup, three years of searching, seeking identity, purpose, meaning, in life. I’ve concluded I am a prisoner to myself. If I don’t set myself free, and take a stand, I will live the rest of life feeling frustrated, and unfulfilled; I will not know the joy of inner peace, or achievements I can enjoy if my energies are set free in a positive way.
I can see … much of my creative energy has been wasted in a negative way; I have turned it on myself, my own private obsession with food has robbed me of my true self. I have had some hard lessons. I know I can live with myself only if I accept that my mistakes, my bad experiences, can be the catalyst, the seeds, for new beginnings and fulfillment.”
– Author’s diary, 1989
My healing took an important step forward when a minister of religion joined my recovery team and patiently offered repeated assurance that “God is in favor of new starts.” This assurance was repeated many times as I sobbed to him in shame, guilt and despair about not only the loss of marriage, family and self, but also integrity, moral values, dreams, soul and structures on which daily life hitherto had been based.
Biologically, things were as good as they would get. Which left the psychosocial aspect – including the effects of living environment, relationships and support on my psychological state. For me, my diaries testify, this part of the healing process required overcoming many challenges. For a long time after the breakdown of my marriage to George, who was everything (safe, secure and stable) that ED was not, chaos continued to accompany me everywhere.
* Read more about my love story and healing journey in my memoir, A Girl Called Tim, and Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer.
Never did I dream that I would have an eating disorder during my engagement. Never did I dream that I would be “medically unstable” as a 20-year-old college student. Never did I dream that I would be so ridden by anxiety and depression that I feared eating. Never did I think that I would be experiencing the most painful and the most joy-filled thing in my life at the same time. None of that was a part of the plan…at all.
In March of 2016 I was diagnosed with anorexia. All of a sudden, “in sickness and in health” became a real and daily reality in my relationship with my fiancé, Josh. We didn’t understand why God wasn’t answering our prayers, why the progress seemed so slow, and why all of a sudden life had gotten so hard. Our relationship wasn’t filled with fun and laughter…often times it was filled with frustration, confusion, and pain. I wasn’t myself and my eating disorder had overtaken me. I was often irritable, moody, emotional, angry, frustrated, and sad because I was slowly starving. For a period, I wasn’t able to separate myself from my eating disorder. I thought the worst parts of my eating disorder were the best parts of me. I felt unlovable and hopeless. I often wondered why Josh would want to stay with someone who had an eating disorder, in addition to anxiety and depression. I wondered how he could possibly have loved me in the state I was in…I often wondered how much longer he could handle taking care of me.
It isn’t over-exaggerating to say that God has used Josh to save my life. I can’t count the number of hours Josh has sat with me while I cried and scratched my back until I fell asleep. He has genuinely tried to understand what most people will never understand. He wasn’t afraid to drag me out of isolation to go hangout with friends, but he also understood when I needed a relaxing night to unwind. He listens to my fears and reassures me of his love for me, as well as Christ’s love for me. He constantly prays for me and encourages me, reminding me of how far I have come. He reminds me that my eating disorder, anxiety, and depression aren’t my identity, and that I am a child of God. He encourages me to take care of my body while also not being afraid to have pizza or some ice-cream with him. Above all, he has loved me when I have had nothing to offer him in return.
My engagement didn’t quite go how I planned it. No one was there to take pictures or greet us with an engagement party. Josh and I had planned a trip to go fishing to get away from the stressful demands of school. That semester was the hardest time in my life. I hadn’t washed my hair in a few days, so just threw on a hat and pulled my hair back into a side braid. My nails weren’t painted, and I was wearing a tank top and athletic shorts. We both probably smelt like a combination of bug spray and sweat. We spent some time fishing and kayaking, and we ended the day just sitting and talking by the river. I jokingly asked Josh when he was going to propose and he kind of brushed it off and changed the subject. I expected that I would be proposed to later in the summer after school had ended, so I wasn’t too concerned with his answer.
Little did I know, Josh ended up proposing to me 20 minutes after I asked that question. I was truly shocked. His proposal was special, unexpected, and filled with joy. I didn’t think that he would propose to me until I was a little “less sick” or a little “less broken.” I didn’t expect to be fully recovered, but I didn’t expect him to propose to me until I was doing a lot better. In April of 2016, I wasn’t in a good place. Emotional breakdowns were plentiful and I was still in the very early phases of my recovery. Life was difficult and it was taking a toll on our relationship. He proposed to me when everything seemed to be going wrong and the bad days outnumbered the good. He looked at me and didn’t think that I was his girlfriend with anorexia; he looked at me and saw the girl he fell in love with.
This is the type of relationship that strengthened my recovery in ways that I couldn’t have done on my own. I was truly blessed to be surrounded by my supportive fiancé, family, and a few close friends. It’s important to understand that not every person in our lives is meant to be on our recovery team.
In recovery, I was taught that I needed to be able to identify the “safe” and “unsafe” people in my life. The “safe” people were the ones who would support me, listen, hold me accountable, and empathize with me even though they didn’t completely understand.
On the other hand, the “unsafe” people hindered my recovery rather than helped it; they were the people who continued to talk about dieting and weight loss even after I had confided in them. They were the people who didn’t try to understand and didn’t care to. I still have relationships with these types of people in my life, but they weren’t cut out for my recovery team, and that’s okay.
Other people cannot recover for me, but they can strengthen and reinforce new and healthy habits that enhance my recovery.
Emily has graduated from Tennessee Tech University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Ecology with a concentration in Nutrition and Dietetics. She is working as a camp counselor at Deer Run Camps and Retreats, and will begin her dietetic internship in Nashville, TN this fall. Emily enjoys writing, hiking, learning, reading and circuit training. She lives in Franklin, TN with her husband Josh, who has been by her side since day one in recovery. Emily believes that her recovery has strengthened her knowledge within the field of dietetics. Emily’s ultimate goal is to become a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) so that she can help others find the same peace that she has found in a life without “ED.”
To read more pieces written by Emily visit her blog at beautifullybroken.live!
If you have eating disorder symptoms
If you are in a loving relationship, and suspect or know that you are experiencing eating disorder symptoms, I encourage you to share your concerns and confide in your partner. Allow them the opportunity to be by your side as you reach out to access treatment and work through the recovery process.
If you are concerned your partner is exhibiting eating disorder symptoms and behaviors, let them know of your concerns, and offer to be by their side in accessing expert advice and engaging in treatment.
Love is a powerful tonic in healing from an eating disorder. And we all deserve love.