Benj speaks, not me this time

This blog is about my fight with my eating disorder.  But this fight is not mine alone.  I have a husband who has been in this fight almost from the start.  He’s had a front row seat, but in a way, his mouth has been taped shut by ED’s manipulation and lies.  When he told me he wished he could give his side of this battle, I told him of course he had to – the people living side by side with the victim of ED are the first line of defense in their loved one’s life.  ED doesn’t allow his victim to seek help.  It’s got to be the bystanders who take a stand.  It’s the innocent bystanders who receive the ugliness of ED because ED doesn’t want them anywhere near; he doesn’t want them where they can expose him.  Benj is one bystander and he has been hurt more than anyone.  He wrote.  It hurt me to read, but we remind ourselves that this is ED, this is the disease that almost broke us.  And Benj needs to share what others may need to hear.  Please read this post.

Benj speaks . . .

Since November 7, the day I walked into Melrose Center with Rhonda, it’s been hard to describe what life has been like. I’m seeing a side of Rhonda that I haven’t seen since our college days, which date back to the late 90’s. It was the summer of 1999 when Rhonda went to Nicaragua and I remember thinking to myself that I might not see her again. When she left, we had no intentions of dating and I certainly didn’t think we’d ever be getting married – I expected that our lives would head in 2 separate directions.  As I look back, I see that my thought about not ever seeing her again did actually come true, until now that is. The Rhonda that came back from Nicaragua in 2003 wasn’t the same Rhonda that I saw leave in 1999.

Now fast forward the story. Nicaragua has played an important role in Rhonda’s family. Rhonda spent 4 years there, Rhonda’s sister Joni lived there for 12 years and met her husband there. My father-in-law was instrumental in the establishment of a Farmer-to-Farmer program. For many reasons, Nicaragua has been a good thing and a source of good memories. For me, it’s a complete opposite. Although Rhonda and I got engaged in Nicaragua, I don’t have many positive thoughts towards that country. I would be completely fine if I never ever went back to Nicaragua. Nicaragua was one of the triggers. You see, I view that as the place that began to change the lady that left Sioux Center in the summer of 1999. The irony of this journey is that it was Rhonda’s trip back to Nicaragua last October that was my final straw in dealing with this Eating Disorder. The girl that I got to know so well during high school and college came back from Nicaragua a different woman. Not only in a physical way, as the weight melted off like butter, but the fun, outgoing and social organizer didn’t come back in the summer 2003. Nicaragua was a place that stole the life from my dear friend.

The thought that Rhonda had an eating disorder didn’t enter my mind until a friend had told me that Rhonda needed help. I didn’t know what to think, primarily because I didn’t know much of anything about the disorder. That conversation first happened 5 years ago. I had a narrow view of it, that of the narrowly-defined anorexic or bulimic conditions. I didn’t see that in Rhonda, so surely she didn’t have an eating disorder. If she did, I kept telling myself it wasn’t that bad.  I viewed the issue as a weird and crazy need to always be exercising. I knew Rhonda was conscious about her health and weight, but I had no idea of the battle going on in her head. In looking back, it always struck me as odd that when I would suggest a more practical training plan for her marathons, she would immediately get defensive and that one suggestion would cause more strain and anger to surface. It wasn’t about the marathon, it was about the running to reduce calories, to make herself look the way she thought she should. Marathons were a mask, it was something she could so easily hide behind.

Looking back, I can clearly remember the times when people would ask me about her running and how thin she was getting. Early on, I was enabling Rhonda by lying to those people and passing it off as her passion for running and working towards the next marathon. You see, even then, in my head, I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Over time, I began to see the problem, even though I didn’t understand completely what was happening, I knew something was wrong. At that time, I had no idea what was going on in Rhonda’s head and that was the easiest way to get off the subject of her running and weight, to lie by making up a story that appeared believable. I didn’t know what truth actually was. Today, I still get upset at myself for lying to those people. If I could remember each one, I’d go back and apologize. They probably don’t remember the conversation, but for me, it is so ingrained in my head.

I don’t remember the exact time or reason, but I remember Rhonda coming home from Nicaragua during her 4-year stretch and looking sick. Her cheeks were sunken, her collar bones protruding and her arms resembled a number 2 pencil. I still remember that day and still wonder what others thought. Surely, others had to see her the same way I did and wonder what was happening. But why didn’t anyone say something to me? Did they ignore it like I did? Were they scared to say something? If nothing was said, was it assumed that the problem would go away over time?

Looking back, I think about the chapel that Rhonda gave to the students of Unity Christian High School. That took place nearly 3 years ago where Rhonda publicly opened up and shared her struggles. I thought we had a break through and that by sharing her story, the excessive exercise and poor eating would slowly fade away. I left Unity that day feeling like a weight had been lifted, I didn’t have to try hide or lie my way through the situation and could move on. It took a few months, but slowly, the regression began. I wasn’t prepared for this – it was a blindsided attack by the eating disorder. So when I started to realize that we were back on the eating disorder path and the downward spiral, I could feel the life being drained back out of our family and the frustration began to mount.  Now, I knew the feeling and we were headed back. I felt as if I had no control.

Back to Nicaragua, the fall of 2016, Rhonda and her sister head down to help Josh, Joni and Mathis move home. The place that brought so much joy and happiness to others, reared its ugly head and forced me to deal with the Eating Disorder. I don’t think I’ve ever shared this, beyond my sister-in-law, who went on the trip, that Josh & Joni making the decision to move home was a decision that saved a wife, mother, sister and daughter. It makes me sick to think back to what life would be like if Josh & Joni still lived in Nicaragua. What would I have done – would I have done anything? A question that shouldn’t haunt me, but does. I often wonder how long Rhonda would have survived –  how long would she have lived? Would I have awakened one morning to find that my wife and mother of 4 boys passed away in her sleep? Yes, that sounds cold and morbid, but the reality of the initial doctor visits at Melrose painted the very realistic and grave condition that Rhonda was in. It wasn’t our choice that day. It was the Doctors decision to place Rhonda into the treatment facility. For a split second, I felt at peace because someone else was looking at Rhonda and telling her that she was not ok. For once, it wasn’t me.  I don’t think I’ll forget that moment in the exam room, Rhonda sitting on the couch, me pacing back and forth as the Doctor began to share. As the emotions began to flood my mind regarding the health of Rhonda, I had a flood of additional emotions. I started questioning why I had let this go so long, why didn’t I put my foot down sooner, why did I cave so many times and not force action, why didn’t I completely believe the friend that told me Rhonda needed professional help? Was I scared to offend someone? Again, as I look back, I need to share that there was a part of me that didn’t want to face the truth, that the truth would be hard and that I didn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of knowing. I thought by sticking my head in the sand, acting like the eating disorder wasn’t a big deal, that it might just slowly go away.

So what has it been like for someone to share his wife with an eating disorder? To this day, I struggle to define the feelings. Hurt, anger, frustration, loneliness, bitterness. As time passed, I knew, and accepted, that this was the road we were called to travel. I couldn’t give up on myself, and I couldn’t give up on my wife and boys. Although I didn’t like it, actually despised it, I had to find a way to move forward.

The day I finally had it was October 10, 2016. I picked up the phone and placed a call to Melrose. I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea what to say, I had no idea what questions I would get asked. The call ended and my heart was pounding. I just realized that I started down a road and I couldn’t stop. I was committed. The key being “I” because I knew that there was a battle yet to come – telling Rhonda I had started the process of seeking help. I was also scared because while I was doing this, Rhonda’s support group and dear friends needed to be convinced that this was the direction we had to go. By now, I knew what had to be done and nobody was going to change my mind. The woman on the phone asked me why and how I had chosen Melrose, and to this day, I don’t even know if I answered her question. As I look back, I’m not sure it really matters. The call had been made.

Now, what does today look like? It’s still filled with hurt, anger, and frustration. But today, it’s towards the eating disorder that not only took so many years from my wife, but also from our marriage and family. But I can also say that those feelings become less and less each day. I’m still learning what the new normal really looks like. I know that I need to wake up every day and be prepared for another battle against the eating disorder.

Without really knowing it or trying to, I used a common phrase throughout, and that phrase was ‘looking back’. I believe it’s important to look back, to learn from mistakes, to see how people stepped in and supported us, to see that By Faith, we were being taken care of. We can’t spend all our time looking back. The decision has to be made to turn and face the future by looking forward.

Without a doubt, there has to be a balance of looking back. You can’t get anywhere, or know where you’re going, by looking back. At some point, you need to look forward. I learned a big lesson, as hard as it can be to look forward, you better do it sooner rather than later.  For all of us, looking forward can be scary. On November 7, I completely gave up my wife to a building full of people I had never met and knew very little about. Moving forward can be so painful, dark, and lonely. I remember the night I drove back from Minneapolis, trying to find the strength, courage, and words to call back home to inform our parents. At 40 years old, I wanted so bad to call and talk to my parents, but couldn’t contain the emotion to get a word out. I remember calling my dad that night, and secretly hoping he wouldn’t answer. The pain was fresh, it was real and it stung.  When he did answer, I only remember uttering the words, “She’s not coming home; she had to stay.”

What will I do because of this? I think that question is still being answered. Rhonda is still fragile, but we continue to battle together. I still feel trapped, like I should be doing more, but I don’t know what more means or what it looks like. For most females, telling them they look good today, or you look nice, or you look healthy, doesn’t work for someone battling an eating disorder. To them, those words and phrases get twisted and it brings fear that they are gaining weight. I’m still learning what to say and how to say it.  I know there are others who are hurting, just like I hurt. I know they are looking for answers to their own battles, as I did. I know they feel alone too. The one thing I know is that I can’t hide from the past. I can’t look back and act like it didn’t happen. It happened, now I’m looking forward so I can see where I’m going. What was once so difficult to utter and talk about has now come full circle. Day by day, it is becoming easier to talk about the eating disorder and that it’s here to say.  It had to hurt, it had to be lonely for healing to happen. Rhonda had to hit bottom, because that is where the eating disorder lived.

Moving forward has been about trust. Trusting that the strategies and coping skills that Rhonda learned at Melrose will help us battle the eating disorder. I can look back and see where we’ve been, but that will not get us to where we need to be. I have to trust, I have no other choice – I have to trust that Rhonda is fighting this eating disorder daily and won’t go backwards, nor give up. I need to trust that Rhonda will reach out to her friends when needed.  I have to believe that I can trust her again because I can’t go back.  I can’t handle going back to what it was like before.

It’s been said that everyone you meet is fighting a battle. I believed this to be true long before we had to deal with the eating disorder. Some battles are fought in a day, some take a decade and some may go on forever. But I’ve been taught again that life isn’t easy and life isn’t fair. Be compassionate and listen to others, for you do not know what their battle is today.

It was many years back when a friend told me that she could see the true signs of an eating disorder in Rhonda. Being honest isn’t always easy. But do you care? Do you care enough to be honest, knowing that you could make a difference in someone’s life? It hasn’t been easy for me to be honest and share. But I know I’ll make a difference for someone…. someone will have a better life because of our story.

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