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At the age of 15, I had already been heavily enslaved to a serious eating disorder for five years. According to my psychologist/counselor at the time, the eating disorder was accompanied by Borderline Personality Disorder and clinical depression. He prescribed three different medications that gave me headaches and made me more irritable–they didn’t really solve any problems. I seemed to be an introvert, but I excelled in many talents such as music, literature, and art.
Still, my parents thought that I needed “fixing.” We had recently relocated to the Midwest, and my new piano teacher was very involved with the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). The girls in her family dressed in ankle-length skirts, maintained natural-looking, frizzy hair, and wore virtually no make-up. The boys wore waist-high pants with old-fashioned belts and buttoned-up dress shirts on almost every occasion. To me, having grown up on the West Coast, they were strange. And in my opinion, eight children and two parents seemed to be a crazy amount of mouths to feed. I did not know that ATI families could easily have as many as 14 to 16 children, with the oldest practically raising the youngest ones.
My mom was exasperated with my self-destructive ways. She spoke with my piano teacher’s mother during my piano lesson one day and was convinced to take my father and me to the Basic Seminar held at their church. Thus I sat in an old church, tired and groggy, having to write notes and pay attention even though it was always late at night and I had school in the morning. There I was, listening to Bill Gothard talk about depression as selfishness and psychological disorders as false, man-made excuses.
Within a few weeks, I was sent to the Indianapolis Training Center (ITC) for a visit. Upon my arrival for a two-day stay, all the occupants of the old hotel building stared at me with shocked interest. I was already being judged as the girl wearing pants and too much make-up.
I wondered why I saw some of the other kids my age walking or sitting between two older peers, always with their heads down and never talking. I noticed them surreptitiously staring at me from the corners of their eyes, as if they did not want their older peers, standing around them like bodyguards, to see them looking at someone so different.
One month later, I was sent to the ITC as a Leader In Training (LIT). My belongings were searched–without my consent and not in my presence. The family in charge of the LIT program at the time had smiled at me and told me to just leave it in the office so someone else could help carry it up to my room. I gratefully agreed; I didn’t know that it would be searched. They took away my personal journal, my make-up, my medications, my books, some clothes, and my razors.
I was sent into a room with a few girls who were called my “leaders.” There, I was told the rules of the ITC that I, as an LIT, would be expected to follow:
Surprised by my extreme obedience, as I also have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and tend to do everything “to the T,” they let me out of the room after just one week. It was Christmas. Some holiday, I thought, as my team and a couple of other people were put in charge of the kitchen because most of the staff families had left.
I was 15 years old and began working 48 hours in the kitchen every week, not realizing that it was common practice for the LITs to work 48 to 56 hours on kitchen prep, housekeeping, and other hotel responsibilities during huge conferences. Constantly exhausted, I found little time to rest, because we began to do group Bible studies every waking hour. They changed our rooms and our leaders constantly, so that we would not become too familiar or comfortable with the ones we had.
It seemed as if I were automatically judged for being an LIT, even though I didn’t fit the usual criteria. Others had gotten in trouble for drugs, grand theft auto, and other serious crimes, and they seemed accustomed to being violent. I, however, was the girl with the eating disorder and depression. But the leaders never seemed to address the eating issues, just the fact that I was “conflicted youth”–and a Catholic.
I did enjoyed the music at the training center, however. I was fortunate enough to be given permission to receive private music theory lessons, and I studied with one of the greatest piano teachers I have ever had while at the ITC. And I think that I did learn a lot. I was allowed to participate in banquet serving and professional-level decorating for formal dining. I also learned to work hard and to put all my effort and honesty in doing all to the glory of God.
The worst incident that I endured started one afternoon, after school at the Learning Center. I returned to the room before dinner and was told that they had found the secret journal I had stashed behind my pillow. I had a lot of pent-up feelings and anxiety issues; writing and praying was the easiest way for me to ease my pain. They explained that they had read every word of my journal and then demanded that I answer some questions that they had about certain parts I had written. I broke down into tears, and, sobbing, explained to them that I was sorry. Then I tore up my journal in front of them. They also took away my book of poems that I would often write in front of them, and told me I was no longer allowed to write. I have never gotten my book of poems back.
It is hardest to deal with the way I was treated when I had a brief conversation with another LIT during school. We secretly passed each other notes. We found that we had a lot in common and promised each other we would be friends as soon as we got out. She told me she saved my phone number and address in her journal. I panicked, and warned her that they read our journals when they find them. She told me not to worry. She told me we were safe.
A week later, I saw her through the open glass windows of the LIT office. Her eyes were wide with fear and glossy with tears while her leaders sat on either side of her with disapproving, silent frowns. At that moment, I knew what was about to happen. My leaders punished me with silence as we went through the buffet line for dinner. Silence as we ate our food. Silence as we finished our chores. We went up to our room and continued to clean. I could tell by the way they were behaving that I was in trouble again.
A little while later, we went downstairs to the office. I had learned the way of sneaking side glances through the corners of my eyes–like those LITs I had seen on my first visit so long ago–so I saw the papers labeled “Projects” that the new LIT family leader held in her hands as we passed the glass windows of the office. “Projects” were indigenous to the Prayer Room. We sat down and she lectured me. She told me that what I had done actually put my weekend plans in jeopardy. It was to be my first visit with my family, at home, in over 11 months. It was a four-hour drive from my home to Indianapolis. I asked the LIT leader if she had told my mom that she might not be able to come after all. The LIT family leader said that she hadn’t, not yet anyway.
Knowing my fate, my leaders led me as a prisoner to the Prayer Room, aka Solitary Confinement. It was an empty room. The windows were barred with metal bars. The only furniture was a small twin bed and a small circular table and chair to do my written Project assignments on. There was a bathroom with the mirrors ripped out. Previous LITs had apparently carved words into the walls of the room. I felt as if I were a mental patient in a psychiatric ward, only treated worse.
Due to the permanent damage to my body resulting from my eating disorder, I am now constantly dehydrated, have low blood pressure, orthostatic hypotension, electrolyte imbalances, anemia, and extremely dry skin. I was in the Prayer Room for only a day when my skin began to itch from dryness. My mouth, too, was dry, so when my leaders would show up twice a day with food (and they always seemed to bring me food I disliked the most), I would ask for extra water and some chapstick next time they came. They always promised to “ask permission” from the LIT family leader.
I never got the chapstick or extra water. Instead, I was constantly thirsty and my lips became so chapped that they cracked and bled. I could barely move my lips to talk without pain. I sat on my bed instead of sitting at the table to do my projects because I was lethargic due to dehydration and lack of food.
Many of the projects were assignments in memorizing whole chapters of the Bible. I did so with my usual ease, and was lectured for memorizing everything too fast. They told me I was supposed to reflect on the work, not rush through all the assignments, and that I would get more assignments as soon as I finished anyway. Afraid of becoming punished more, I refrained from telling them that I was just learning at my usual pace–I assumed it would be perceived as talking back. I also got in trouble for not fixing my bed once, because I was sitting on it.
The LIT family leader told me that my visit home was still in jeopardy (it was supposed to be the next day) and that I would probably not be able to go. Again fearing a reprimand, I didn’t remind her of what she already knew: that my mom would be driving four hours to Indianapolis, and that she would be furious if she came all that way, was not able to see me, and had to drive all the way home alone.
My mom arrived at the ITC and they hadn’t told her all that was going on. They let me leave the Prayer Room to pack my belongings. As I got my luggage, I told myself that I would never, ever come back to this place. I crammed everything I could into the suitcases, while listening to my leaders tell me that it wasn’t necessary for me to take everything home at this time. I smiled and told them I just wanted to be prepared, and explained that most of my clothes at home didn’t fit me anymore–which was true.
Mom and I walked to the elevators and out the door. Mom helped me throw my luggage into her SUV and we drove away. As we drove on the highways, I noticed a difference in the cars–as if I had suddenly fast-forwarded to the future; it also seemed that way as I heard about movies and other things that had come out while I was an LIT. I felt as if I had lost a year. I was now 16, but I felt as if I were 30. A couple of days later, at home, I had a long talk with my parents, and they were convinced that I should stay home.
For a couple years after I left the training center for good, I still felt that I was sinning if I even looked at a boy or dressed in pants at all. I couldn’t help but constantly read the books they had given to me, almost as if in fear that in not doing so I would become ungodly and a failure. It took a while for me to become normal again. And it also took me a long while to realize that I could wear pants and wear make-up the way I liked it, be married and have a career, and still love and serve the Lord my God.
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