Briana Cullimore’s desire to be healthy led to a continuing struggle with multiple eating disorders and depression. She discusses using restriction/food as a coping mechanism, fighting with her parents over a treatment plan, coming to terms with needing help, and using the Atonement to help repair her parental relationship. She has seen her attitude change from anger to gratitude for her trials and experiences and offers insights into why certain aspects of Mormon culture might make some girls and women susceptible to eating disorders.
When did your eating disorder begin?
It started the summer of 2011, before my junior year of high school. I had gained weight in the winter, which we later found out was because of a thyroid problem. Over the summer I worked out and ate healthy to lose the weight. After losing the amount I had gained in the winter, I felt good so I just decided to keep up the pattern. Eventually I started taking it to the extreme. I would exercise 3-4 times a day and would only eat protein and vegetables. Around the time that school started my parents were getting worried because I was at a pretty low weight and my thoughts were completely consumed by working out and eating healthy. I became paranoid about anything I ate and would freak out if I had any sort of carbs. On top of that I was a perfectionist 4.0 student taking hard classes at school because I knew my junior year was important for college. And I was going to early morning seminary. Trying to balance school, seminary, training for sports, working out, and being hyper focused about what I ate became too overwhelming and I would lash out at my family because I had so much on my plate and on my mind. I was an emotional wreck with terrible mood swings. My parents wouldn’t let this go on, so they decided that the only option was to go to an eating disorder clinic.
Do you have a negative opinion of eating disorder clinics because you felt like they treated you badly, or they didn’t listen to you or you were just in a space where you felt “don’t tell me what to eat, don’t tell me what to do”?
I have a negative opinion of eating disorder clinics because I felt like they didn’t have my best interests at heart. At this point I didn’t think I had an eating disorder. I wasn’t fasting, I was just eating healthy and working out a lot. So I was being forced to go to this clinic very much against my will. When they took my initial vitals, I weighed 95 pounds (I am 5’5) and had a heart rate of 37. They wanted to admit me to inpatient right on the spot because they said my heart could give out at any moment. This obviously scared my parents. They stopped listening to me and only listened to what the eating disorder clinic people told them about me. Nobody ever included me in the decisions that were being made because they said I was thinking irrationally because of my eating disorder. It was a miracle that I convinced them to not admit me to inpatient, and instead to intensive outpatient.
But in the following weeks they continued to believe that I needed to go to inpatient and would continually threaten to send me there if I didn’t gain weight fast. I didn’t want to go to inpatient because it would mean that I would miss school, and I couldn’t miss school. My mom said that I might have to repeat my junior year. As you can imagine, that made me extremely upset and was not an option in my mind. And it drove the wedge deeper between my parents and me. I didn’t know what to do because the amounts that I kept having to gain before each check-in kept getting higher and higher. I told the eating disorder clinic people and my parents that I would gain weight, but I wanted to do it in a healthy way because I knew that if I started eating really unhealthy, I wouldn’t be able to stop. But nobody believed me. And that’s exactly what ended up happening.
Over winter break they said that if I didn’t gain a huge amount of weight by the next checkup, I would be admitted over Christmas. So I started binging. I ate horribly and I ate a ton. And when I had my checkup, they commended me for what I had done. They wanted me to keep doing it. But at that point, I would have done it anyway. The rubber band had snapped, and my life has never been stable since. Because when I snapped, all forms of self-control and will power snapped with it. So I blamed the eating disorder clinic for this new eating disorder that I had developed, for destroying any form of will power I had, and for turning my parents against me and convincing them that this was the only way for me to get better.
I know that’s common, going from restricting in whatever form, it’s like the pendulum swings to the direct opposite of that.
Yeah, I think it’s difficult to go from restricting to eating whatever you want so quickly. And I knew about that pendulum, and I voiced my concern many times to the eating disorder clinic and to my parents, but nobody believed that would happen to me. The reason I would be in a horrible mood is because I wanted to eat those things like cinnamon rolls and pasta and cereal. But my self-restraint was incredibly strong, and so I refused to give into those cravings. But the pressure of gaining weight back so fast became too much, and my parents and the clinic were forcing me to eat these unhealthy things. So I snapped. And I went to the complete opposite of the spectrum. After restricting for so long, I couldn’t stop eating unhealthy things
Often food, drugs, or other behaviors are used as a self-medication or coping mechanism for stressors or anxiety. What do you think is underneath your situation? Have you gotten to that space yet?
I think for me it was my need to feel in control of things that were going on. I’m a perfectionist and it’s hard for me to not feel in control of the things going on around me. I don’t like unpredictability. There was a lot of change happening in my life, and I don’t do super well with change. With everything that was happening and maybe with going into a new grade, and with a lot of big decisions coming up with college and moving out, I think that food became something that I could control really well. The amount of time I put in towards working out and eating healthy was directly correlating to the results I was getting. If I worked hard, then I lost weight. I liked how simple the equation was. I liked being able to control what I ate and how I exercised because it was one of the few things I had complete control over.
I think binging became sort of this other form of coping mechanism for anxiety. When I was anorexic, being very controlled and knowing what was going to happen helped me, because that’s how I always operated my life. But when I started binging it became this outlet that “You know, I’m super stressed out and freaking out about stuff, there’s food.” I have always had a big sweet tooth, so it tasted good and made me feel better for the time being. So food went from being an outlet for control to a crutch.
How has your eating disorder affected your daily life, including your schoolwork?
When my eating disorder switched from anorexia to binge eating, I felt like a large part of me, the strict, rigid part that could control things and get things done, had been torn out. When that rubber band snapped, it didn’t just snap with my health, it snapped with everything that I did in terms of lifestyle, my outlook on my life, my time, and my perception of myself. For a while I tried balancing the two – the very strict aspect of my life requiring the utmost willpower, and this very haphazard and unpredictable aspect of my life that resulted from having absolutely no willpower. As a perfectionist, I had always been on top of things, never got less than an A in school. After a while, though, I finally couldn’t keep balancing both, and I ended up withdrawing from fall semester my sophomore year of college. All amount of willpower was completely drained, and I stopped caring about school. I honestly thought I would never go back. My parents got scared when they discovered I hadn’t been going to my classes because this was so unlike me. They both came to Utah on separate occasions to try to get me to go back. But in my mind, I felt like there was no chance that I could repair what had been broken. My anorexic lifestyle could still fall in line with being productive, whereas when I binged, it was the exact opposite.
It also tremendously hurt my self-esteem. I went from being able to fit into whatever I wanted to suddenly not being able to fit into anything. At my heaviest I had gained 75 pounds. That’s almost double what I used to weigh. I was fat and embarrassed about my appearance. I wore baggy clothes and never wanted to go out or be around other people. I was depressed and frustrated that I had gotten to this point, that I had no willpower, and felt absolutely no self-worth.
How did it affect your spirituality and relationship with God?
It affected it a lot. The whole time that I’ve been on this journey I was very frustrated with God. I didn’t understand why he was having me go through this. Probably more so with the binging, because with the binging came very severe depression. Over the last four years I’ve gone up and down with weight a lot, but whenever I start binging again and stumble, I have these moments where I feel like I can’t do it anymore. I felt like God wasn’t answering my prayers and wasn’t helping me when I felt like I was doing everything I should be doing. So whenever I would stumble, I drifted further and further away from the church and started making more and more mistakes that prevented me from feeling the spirit. At various points in time I stopped going to church because I didn’t feel like I was getting any benefit for going. I thought, why should I go to church and do good things when I’m just going to have to continue to deal with the same trial. I stopped relying on Heavenly Father and just fell into a vicious pattern of more sin, depression, and more distance from Him.
At what point did you realize that you needed help?
I was feeling so depressed and hopeless. I had such a bad relationship with food and honestly didn’t know what else to do. I had been completely humbled and had no pride left. I knew that other people had received help from Heavenly Father, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to try one more time. So I poured my whole heart to Him and begged for help. I couldn’t continue to live this way anymore.
What have you learned during this process?
I’ve learned a lot about the nature of trials and have been able to understand the true scope of the Atonement. I’ve become more empathetic towards the things that people go through. I’ve experienced frustration, embarrassment, hopelessness, pain, and guilt. It has changed the way I view other people and gives me a greater appreciation for those who have gotten through hard times. Although these last few years have been extremely difficult, it has made me who I am today.
I always think of that scripture in which Eve talks about how, if we never experience pain, we would never be able to experience joy and happiness, and that’s so true. I’ve experienced my lowest of lows, and lots of negative things, but consequently, I can appreciate certain things in life that I have taken for granted for so long. I have become so much more grateful for what I’ve been given and for the people that have come into my life. I have been able to notice the tender mercies in my life so much more. When I pray I am sometimes to the point of getting emotional because I could have been in a situation where I could’ve had a completely different trial, and I don’t know how I would have gone through that. It is astounding to me how much Heavenly Father knows each of us.
What have you learned about the Atonement?
I’ve gained a much stronger testimony of the Atonement throughout this whole process. I think what strengthened it the most was experiencing the enabling power of the Atonement. I used to only think of the Atonement when I sinned and needed to repent. But I because of the eating disorder experience, I realized that I was holding onto a lot of anger, frustration, and guilt. I couldn’t fully repair my relationship with my parents because I still couldn’t forgive them for the things with the eating disorder clinic. They had apologized many times, and I knew they truly felt bad and wished they would have handled the situation differently. I felt bad because I wanted to forgive them, but I kept blaming them for the situation I was in, which meant I hadn’t moved past it. I had been praying to be able to let go of that bitterness.
I was asked to prepare to give a talk on this past Easter. The topic was the Atonement. As I was researching the enabling power of the Atonement, I started getting really emotional because I realized that this was how I was supposed to relieve that burden of anger towards my parents, as well as the burden of guilt that I continually put on myself whenever I make a mistake. Christ suffered for us so that he could take away our sins. If we repent we are giving that to Him. But that means also giving him the guilt that we feel and the anger we might have towards other people. Christ suffered so we don’t have to suffer. So why am I forcing this burden on myself when there is someone who wants to carry it for us? It was such a revelation for me and allowed me to truly move forward.
I know you’re still in the process, but how have you found healing as you move forward?
One of the big things is that I keep telling myself that this is a process. Life is truly a journey, as cliché as that is. In the past, if I would make a mistake and maybe binge one day, I would say, “well, I screwed up,” and would binge for the rest of the week. I think that goes back to punishing myself for the things that I did. Now I’ve really taken comfort in the fact that I still have a long life to live. If one day I mess up then it’s one day, and I can just keep getting back on the path. The Atonement has been huge to be able to forget about the things of the past and really move on. I’ve taken a lot of comfort in thinking about how I can help the Lord with these gifts he’s given me, and how I am supposed to help other people. Maybe in the past I would think it would be nice to be the weight that I want and not have an unhealthy relationship with food, but that was more of a selfish reason. Now I want to help other people with the things they struggle with, and I can’t do that until I get my stuff in order.
What advice would you give to girls who might be struggling with an eating disorder? Do you feel like there are any cultural aspects particular to Mormonism that would predispose girls to eating disorders?
I think that within the Mormon culture, there is a striving towards perfection, or to make it look like someone is perfect. Oftentimes we don’t like to admit that we are struggling with something and we put on a persona that everything is okay. I didn’t like to admit like there was something wrong with me. But holding everything inside really doesn’t help anyone. Admitting that you need help gives you the opportunity to get help and gives someone else the opportunity to help you. And if they look at you differently, then that’s their problem and not yours. It has taken me a really long time to get to the point where I realize that I need to stop caring about what other people think about me and if they look at me differently based on the things that I struggle with.
Also, one of the reasons we are given trials is so that we can grow and so that we can help others. And one of the best ways to help others is sharing your experience and how you got through it. I have been so blessed to have the gospel in my life to give me this unique, eternal perspective about trials. It gives me purposed to keep evolving and to keep improving. If I had any advice to give to people who might be struggling with an eating disorder, it would be to stay close to your Heavenly Father through the entire process. Our purpose on this earth is to show Heavenly Father that no matter what we are going through, we will continue to stay close to Him. Heavenly Father wants to help you, but He can’t do that unless we ask Him for help.
At A Glance
Name: Briana Cullimore
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Education: At BYU studying social studies teaching
Favorite Hymn: If You Could Hie to Kolob
Interview Produced by Nollie Haws