by Christy Heitger-Ewing
I had just finished running on the gym’s treadmill and was heading towards the free weights when something—rather, someone—caught my eye. It was a frail girl, maybe 13 or 14, carefully climbing up onto the Stair Master. Her spindly arms looked like dry, brittle sticks—the kind children use to fashion a snowman—and her boney thighs seemed as if they might snap right in two if a gusty wind blew by. Her dull, thinning brown hair was tied back into a tight ponytail, and her pale skin lacked color and elasticity. When I passed by, I glanced at her sunken, lifeless eyes. She looked so tired. So hopeless. So sad. It was obvious that this poor soul was battling an eating disorder.
I picked up two eight-pound dumbbells and began curling them towards my chest. As I counted down my sets, my mind kept flashing to the sickly teen on the Stair Master. I knew all too well what she was going through because I had suffered from anorexia when I was 12 years old. I’ve never felt so scared and alone as I did during those anorexic days. When my weight plummeted to 73 pounds, Mom and Dad admitted me to the hospital, where I stayed for over a month. Just like this girl, I felt tired, hopeless, and sad.
“I should say something,” I thought. But the words wouldn’t come. Week after week she came to the gym—feverishly working to burn off the few calories that her body so desperately needed. As I watched her slowly whittle away before me, I desperately wanted to tell her that I understood her pain and fear. But I was speechless.
“What do I say to this girl, God?” I prayed. When the disorder had ahold of me, I didn’t react well to anyone who approached me. I was stubborn and selfish and refused to listen to anybody’s advice, no matter how well-meaning their intentions were.
“If I use the word ‘anorexia’, Lord, will she shut down?” I prayed. “If I ask her how she’s feeling, will she tell me to get lost?”
I wondered if it was best to mind my own business and do nothing. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of urgency of needing to approach and say something. The words that might come out—that I didn’t know. I just knew I had to say something.
There. It was settled. The next time I saw her, I would talk to her….
Only there was no next time. The girl never returned to the gym again. I didn’t know why, but given her fragile state, I feared the worst.
“Why didn’t I say something?” I thought. I was disappointed in myself for chickening out. What if my talking to her could have made a difference in her health? Now I’d never know.
For a long while, that teenager’s fate haunted me. Then about a year later, I experienced déjà vu. I was at the gym and had just finished a set of upright rows when I spotted a familiar frame over by the elliptical machines. It wasn’t the same person, but the outward appearance was nearly identical—gaunt figure, pale skin, thinning hair, lifeless eyes. Another victim of anorexia.
A rush of emotions washed over me—empathy, sadness, fear, panic. I couldn’t let this girl get away without my at least trying to reach out. I know that’s what God would want. Maybe she wouldn’t appreciate my butting in to her life, but I wanted to make sure she would continue to have a life. I knew all too well how anorexia drained the joy from one’s existence.
I set down my dumbbells. My eyes frantically scanned the gym, but I couldn’t find her. She wasn’t on the cardio equipment or by the free weights or on the floor mats. My heart stopped. I couldn’t believe I had once again blown my chance. Tears of regret rolled down my cheeks. I stepped into the locker room to splash my face with water. When I looked up from the sink, I saw her standing by the lockers.
“It’s now or never,” I thought.
I took a deep breath and gained my composure.
“Hi,” I said, reaching out my hand. “I’m Christy.”
She looked at me kind of funny.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
She furrowed her brow.
I leaned in and said quietly, “I just wondered if you were struggling with anorexia.”
She smiled awkwardly and shook her head.
“Oh, no, no!” she insisted as she quickly pulled a baggy sweatshirt over her head. “I just got over a really bad flu so I lost a few pounds.”
“I don’t mean to pry,” I said gingerly, “I just wanted to check in with you because I’ve had anorexia. I know how horrible it is.”
Again, she shook her head.
“Oh, well, that’s not the case with me. I’m good,” she said. “I’m fine.”
Clearly, this girl was neither good, nor fine. But I couldn’t force her into treatment or even into admitting that she needed help. All I could do was offer compassion. I jotted down my name and e-mail address.
“Here,” I said, handing her the scrap of paper. “In case you ever want to talk.”
She took the paper from me and smiled. Then she did something that really surprised me. She leaned in for a hug.
“I’m Nikki,” she said in a whisper.
“I hope to see you around, Nikki,” I said. I really did.
While it was difficult to open up to a total stranger, I knew I was doing what Jesus instructs by helping a lost sheep find its way. I prayed that this girl would go home and think about our chat. It might propel her to reach out to a friend or parent or someone she trusted. Maybe she would consider getting professional help. Even if she wasn’t yet ready to seek treatment, perhaps she felt good knowing that a stranger cared enough to ask if she was OK.