Katelyn Swinsburg is a 21-year-old who works for Ignite Youth, a youth ministry based in Brisbane. She’s engaged to Matthew Ross and is studying an undergraduate in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations at the University of Queensland. She is passionate about living the life God intended, human rights, and alleviating suffering in the world.
When I first heard the words ‘eating disorder’ my heart sank. I was so disappointed with myself. This wasn’t me – I was the good Catholic girl.
I often get asked ‘When did it all start?’. Honestly, it didn’t have a starting point. It was always there, in the back of my mind. Little comments such as, ‘Size 10, wow you’re growing fast!’ and ‘Make room for fat-butt’ were damaging in my childhood. I would aimlessly flick through women’s magazines promising ‘Lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks’. I didn’t even know how much ten pounds was; all I knew was that I was supposed to lose it.
The stress of grade 12 took over my life. I began researching detox drinks and ways to lose weight so I would look stunning at my formal. I hardly ever saw my boyfriend, Matthew, or even took a moment to have fun with my family. I began exercising everyday before, during, and after school and started dropping the weight. My friends began to notice, but instead of being worried about my mental health they simply asked ‘How are you losing weight? What’s your secret?’ Ecstatic that my friends approved, I went deeper along this path of weight loss and quickly found myself in a place I couldn’t come back from.
When I graduated grade 12, I became very pedantic about what I ate. I would follow diet meal plans from fitness magazines, exercise in secret, and my life revolved around my next meal. I developed anxiety and orthorexia (an extreme obsession with eating healthy foods), which quickly developed into anorexia. I had anxiety attacks if I didn’t have control over what I ate, and I always had this strong fear that if I didn’t know exactly what was in my food, I would become fat, ugly, and unworthy. This fear soon became anger and I would lash out at anyone trying to convince me to put on weight. These voices in my head kept telling me they were trying to make me fat, that they wanted me to be less beautiful.
What was so ironic was that I was chasing this idea of perfection with everything I had and the more I chose to give in to society’s voice of perfection the more lost I became. Everyday was a constant battle between not feeling worthy of love by my family and by God, and feeling like a burden to everyone around me. I was trapped, unable to see past what I ‘had’ to look like. I’d lost the light, sparkle, and joy in my life. I finally realised I needed help.
By this time I had lost so much weight my body and mind turned into survival mode. I became my own backseat driver. My interactions, thoughts, and emotions were all a response process to what was happening around me. I was helpless within my own mind. Anger would respond before I could think of what to say. Anxiety would cripple me. My sickness was dividing my family, my relationship with Matthew, and my relationship with God. I felt I wasn’t worth His love. I had placed myself in such a deep hole I had no idea how to get out. I wanted to live without fear, without shame, and guilt of being a burden to those I loved. I wanted to love myself and be beautiful like the role models of women around me. My faith had never faltered throughout this time, however I was also doing a very good job of shutting off my heart from God, because I secretly didn’t want to be fixed.
My BMI reached an all time low of 14.5% (a healthy range is 18.5% – 24.9%) and I began to see the serious life-threatening consequences emerging from being such an unhealthy weight. I couldn’t sleep at night because my bones hurt too much, I was always cold, my immune system was damaged, my liver and organs were near to shutting down, and my blood pressure was so low I had dizzy spells multiple times a day. Everything came to a head the night before I went for specialists’ tests to find out why I couldn’t put on weight. I lay in my bed, cold to the bone, unable to get to sleep because my hip bones hurt my skin. In this terrifying moment I could feel my body eating itself alive. I was going to die if I didn’t change. I have never prayed so hard and so vulnerably in my life. Afterwards I crawled into my parents’ bed and sobbed through the night.
With the support of my family, Matthew, and my mentor, Laura, who spoke truth into what my mind was telling me, I set forth on the road to the life God intended for me. Once I had stepped over that threshold of desiring to become well, I was determined. I read scripture every morning and prayed with all my heart to my Father in Heaven, and my gosh it was the most beautiful time of each day. One morning about a month after I had began praying, I found this in one of the readings.
“Courage my daughter…. Your faith has made you well.” (Matthew 9:22)
This kept me going. Jesus had saved me. My purpose in life was not to end there, caught up in my eating disorder. I know now that I was never alone for a second of that journey. Jesus was walking beside me guiding the right people to me to help me through it. I still have days of vulnerability where I need God’s love to protect me from the messages I see around me but it’s in His love that I know I am perfect.
In 2014, I felt called to travel to China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and teach English, travel, and homestay with impoverished families. Whilst I was overseas I took the opportunity to indulge in the amazing foods they had over there and didn’t hold back from overeating- every day. At first I was anxious about gaining weight and looking fat, but after the first few weeks of eating so much foreign food, I began to regain healthy weight and started to look like myself again. Three months later it was time to return to Australia. I had gained 20kgs and I had every intention of returning home to start working off the weight – but now I wasn’t afraid of ‘being fat’. I knew that it didn’t matter what size I am, I am worth the same as anyone else.
However, after my three months overseas dining out everyday, overeating, and drinking a fair amount of alcohol, something happened that I had not anticipated – I began to battle with a binge eating disorder. Overseas I had binged because I was missing home or because of stress and emotional comfort eating. Being back home in Australia, my daily situation had changed, but my eating habits did not. I had flipped the scales to the other side! Now I couldn’t stop eating, and I was struggling to find my way back to normal eating habits. At first I was ashamed because I was going against what was considered the perfect body. But the truth is, who had the right to tell me I’m ‘imperfect’? My wide hips, natural hair, fearless determination, teenage acne scars, asymmetrical eyebrows, and tiny hands are not worthy of love? Better yet, God’s love? Jesus knelt and kissed lepers. He gave his life for me out of His love for me.
“Mother Teresa didn’t walk around complaining about her thighs.
She had things to do.” – Sarah Silverman.
I felt called to start university again and study International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies, because I wanted to change the poverty and injustice of sex trafficking I had seen overseas. They deserved better. And I wanted to change the world!
For the next six month, whilst Matthew was away serving as a missionary with NET Ministries in Melbourne, I studied and got back to my normal self and a normal weight. I struggled. I cried a lot. I wanted to be skinny again. But I knew I was worth more, that I was a strong, powerful, and beautiful daughter of God, who WILL change the world.
I now have control over my future, my life, my mind, over who I wanted to be. My eating disorder history has changed the course of my life and has had lasting effects on my body and future fertility. Whilst I was anorexic I was on the birth control pill for my irregular cycles and acne. Once I came off the pill in July 2015 to start natural family planning for our marriage at the end of the year, I soon realised something wasn’t right. Aside from a one light bleed early on I hadn’t ovulated in 9 months. My Creighton practitioner picked up on it and sent me for tests to see if I had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Praise God it came back clear, but I have now been diagnosed with post-pill amenorrhea which was caused by a combination of being on the birth control pill for 5 years, being stressed, and having an eating disorder.
So, I am now on progesterone supplements to hopefully combat my infertility and see us on our way to having a family one-day. Honestly, if I had known this when I was sick, it would have changed everything. Having a family is one the biggest things I desire in my life, and potentially not being able to do this is heartbreaking. Now, with 7 months to go until our wedding day, I am the most blessed and happiest I could ever be. I am eating foods to aid in fertility and always building myself up, never tearing myself down. This is so important not just for myself, but for my family, my future family, and for my marriage.
I am getting married on December 11, 2016 to my incredible fiancé Matthew, and needless to say these issues have never left me. From the moment I tried on a wedding dress I was asked the question ‘Are you thinking of losing weight for your wedding?’ This question both annoys me and makes me, as a woman, feel pressured to have to conform to what an ideal bride should look like. But what is that exactly?
For the past 4 years I have worked in bridal wear, fitting thousands of brides into their wedding dresses, and I know first hand that most brides are size 14+. All of them are different shapes, sizes, lifestyles, and values when it comes to their bodies. NO ONE is the same. Therefore, no I will not be losing weight for our wedding. What I WILL be doing is making sure my mind, body, and soul are all healthy and given the love they deserve. Something I do have to be careful of is thoughts like ‘losing weight for my wedding’. Women with a history of eating disorders should identify when manipulative thoughts like ‘maybe a kilo or two’ could potentially lead to a relapse.
For me, I have come to know that I am more precious than those temptations. The tempting thought to try and become ‘skinnier’ is not worth the pain and suffering I cause myself and my family. And I will never go back to that point again, especially not before the most exciting day of my life- our wedding day! There is only pressure placed on you if you let it be.
Thanks to God, I am stronger now than I have ever been. I will never go back to that place, for that slippery slope does not lead to Heaven. And my goal is Heaven.