This is the second article in a series that explores issues often viewed as too sensitive for public discussion. Our intent as a newspaper is not to provoke controversy, but rather to spur on authentic dialogue and positive vulnerability among Taylor's students. The story below explores what it is like to be a student suffering from an eating disorder-while trying to balance other pressures of life.
By Kari Travis | Echo
One bowl of ice cream.
It sat in front of her for 20 minutes while she fought. For gravity, for air, for logic.
One bowl of milk, cream and sugar.
It sat in front of her while facts twisted in her mind. Ice cream-anywhere between 125 and 350 calories per half cup. The sweet concoction was tantalizing, but a single spoonful was poison.
One bowl of fear, doubt and insecurity-long frozen and forgotten, now melted in a puddle of creamy confusion.
The bowl stood its ground; she cracked under the pressure of battle.
"I'm not touching it!" Ellen Aldridge declared. "I'm not touching it!"
Terror engulfed her. If she lifted the spoon to her mouth, she would never stop eating. The panic crashed in-
Arms wrapped her in hugs, and above the clash of thoughts in her head, Ellen heard other voices.
These belonged to friends-fellow patients in the treatment center-who were gathered around her. And they knew the truth. This was not about ice cream, or sugar or calories. It was not about losing weight.
It was about losing everything- her habits, her behaviors and even her identity-so she could again find something worth living for.
Ellen has struggled with body image since she was 6 or 7, but her eating disorder didn't truly develop until high school. Rough home experiences during those years, including her brother's attempted suicide, made emotional healing and resolution a risky venture.
In Ellen's world, there was only one reliable solution to the problem.
A competitive athlete who excelled on the floor exercise and vault, Ellen relied on her sport to tumble, tuck and twist out tension she wasn't able to resolve in other areas of life.
During her freshman year of high school, Ellen tore her ACL, taking her out of training during sophomore year.
"By then, I put so much of my stock and identity in gymnastics that losing that was like losing myself-it was like losing everything," Ellen says. "The only way I knew how to deal with life was going to the gym, getting physically exhausted and then going home and crashing."
"I came up with this formula in my head where I was like, 'Well, since I'm not burning calories in gymnastics, I need to stop taking in calories,'" Ellen remembers. "'And that's how I'll maintain and stay the same while I'm not training.'"
When Ellen returned to the gym after a year off, her eating patterns continued. Her constant goal was to take her skills to the next level. The formula-like a physics formula-made sense to her.
Reduced mass equaled an increase in flight ability.
An increase in flight ability equaled a higher performance level.
But Ellen forgot to take in one part of the equation: Loss of mass equals loss of muscle. And as Ellen's muscle tissue deteriorated, so did her ability to complete and land rotations on tumbling passes and vault skills.
The results were disappointing, but by the time Ellen reached her final year as a competitive gymnast, she was hooked on her eating behaviors. After she graduated high school and quit gymnastics, the habits only escalated.
"I thought, 'Even though I'm not going to be the gymnast anymore, maybe I can make my new identity the thin, fit one. And then people will like me for that.' So the summer after I graduated high school was the summer I started purging. I think at that point I realized, 'This is not normal anymore.'"
Ellen arrived at Taylor that fall after making a promise to her parents that she would go to therapy while at college. In reality, Ellen saw her new surroundings as a chance to act under the radar-to go about her daily habits without detection.
That plan worked.
"I was like, 'This is really cool, because nobody knows me; I'm just this anonymous face in the Taylor community-I'm invisible-I can do whatever I want. Nobody asks me where I'm going or what I'm doing.'"
Though the year started well, it quickly spiraled into a destructive lifestyle Ellen thought she could control. Meals were battles fought in secret, especially when Ellen was surrounded by wingmates from First South English.
"I would start with something really healthy . . . a salad. And then people would always be like, 'Oh, Ellen, you're so healthy. You always eat so healthy. I want to be like you.'"
Then, she purged.
Ellen hid it from everyone, including her roommate, Lauren Harvey.
Lauren hadn't previously encountered a friend with an eating disorder. In spite of that, she noticed odd patterns in Ellen's behavior-things like erratic sleep cycles and severe mood swings. Months went by. Ellen said nothing to Lauren.
On a dark November night, the truth came.
"She asked if we could talk, so we climbed onto my bed and I sat Indian style facing her," Lauren says. "She told me that she had been struggling with an eating disorder for a couple of years and it was a constant weight on her back she couldn't shake. She told me she had bulimia. She told me she hadn't told anyone before and she would like me to keep it a secret."
Hugs were exchanged. Lauren assured her roommate she would be supportive and encouraging.
Then, Lauren kept Ellen's secret. Today, she says it was one of the biggest mistakes she made. But the territory was new, and Lauren was unsure how to handle it.
"I kept it all to myself and it was a lot to bear," Lauren remembers. "I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I understand the gravity of the situation. I have learned throughout my time at Taylor that sometimes the most loving thing isn't the thing that seems the most loving. Eating disorders are serious issues, and not telling someone about it could be really dangerous."
High-risk eating patterns and disorders like Ellen's are a widespread problem-and have grown more prevalent across the U.S. in recent years
Twenty-five percent of college women rely on binging and purging as a weight-management technique, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
While no campus-specific statistical information is available to show hard numbers about the prevalence of eating disorders among Taylor students, Bob Neideck, director of the Taylor Counseling Center, has anecdotal experience dealing with both eating disorders and disordered eating.
Taylor's counseling services treat a handful of clinically diagnosable eating disorder cases each year, Neideck says. Additionally, problems of food obsession, addiction and disordered eating are prevalent, and are no longer limited to just female students.
However, the issue tends to snowball most within female circles on campus.
"Girls talk about it in a sense of, 'Oh, I ate too much; oh, I can't eat this,'" Neideck says. "And then they watch each other. They watch what everybody eats. They sit quietly and go, 'Ha, I ate less than her.' They might not announce it, they might not say anything about it, (but think) 'Oh, she went up and got a dessert. I didn't. Okay, I'm all right.'"
"There are a lot of emotional dynamics that play into it that I don't think the Christian community or Taylor causes, or doesn't," Neideck says. "But you get 40 girls on a wing who are driven, who are trying to succeed, who are kind of insecure because they're young and they're trying to sort themselves out-put all those things together and it's like, 'Wow, she's so much thinner than I am.' You start to compare, because people naturally compare."
At times, Ellen felt trapped by comparison in her dorm-unable to speak openly about her problem, and unable to look away when food was a centerpiece during wing interactions.
When she overheard wingmates talking about health and dieting, her addiction fed on the knowledge that she wasn't the only one obsessed with losing weight. Still more frustrating to her were the girls who didn't seem to pay attention at all to what they ate.
And the private battle raged on.
By winter 2011 Ellen reached the climax of the crusade against her own body. After eating two pieces of pizza for dinner one night, she tried to purge.
Ellen's body was in shock. Sick and terrified, she couldn't move from her bed.
That night, she ended up in the hospital, suffering dehydration and excruciating kidney pain.
"I thought, 'This is it,'" Ellen recalls. "'What I've been doing is finally catching up to me. My kidneys are failing.'"
Though the problem was a simple urinary tract infection, the incident was enough to scare Ellen into believing she was not invincible.
She saw the truth at last: Her addiction was out of control.
Finally, after years of hiding, she stepped out and asked for help.
The summer between Ellen's freshman and sophomore years, she checked into Selah House, a treatment center in Anderson, Ind., for women with eating disorders.
It was the toughest move of Ellen's life-what she calls a 180-degree turn from her situation at Taylor. All control was gone.
"That sense of freedom and independence that was so intoxicating to me-all that was taken away," Ellen says. "I had no freedom. No independence. I was watched literally 24 hours a day. Bathroom. Shower. Sleeping. Never alone."
But while she could no longer rely on binging, purging or exercising to release the anxiety induced by every meal, Ellen was relieved to be in an environment where her destructive behavior was not an option.
For the first time in years, Ellen ate three meals a day. She learned how to digest food again. And while her body hurt and healed, so did her heart and mind.
Sometimes that meant crying over a bowl of ice cream-an action that in any other setting would be severely misunderstood.
"All these people got it," Ellen says. "And they would hug you, and hold your hand, and be like, 'Just take one bite. You got it!'"
During therapy, Ellen truly became a Christian. That change was the reason for her sustained recovery after she walked out of Selah's doors five days before the beginning of her sophomore year at Taylor.
"I was dead when I got here," Ellen says of her first year at Taylor. "I was dead spiritually. Emotionally. Almost physically . . . the whole treatment aspect itself in learning how to eat again was helpful-but until that moment, I still knew I would go back to my habits right when I got home."
Recovery is not instant, Ellen says. While she hasn't sobbed all over a bowl of ice cream in a while, she still struggles from time to time. Every day is a step on the long road to restoration.
And the transformation of Christ's power is what helps Ellen taste life-and what gives her a restored sense of self-worth.(Thumbnail photograph by Kari Travis.)