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Published November 03, 2013, 09:03 PM

Family, faith help Minnesota woman as she battles anorexia

ST. JOSEPH, Minn. - The past 22 years have been a tornado of pain, hope, fear and, finally, strength for Julie Ehlert, 39, because of anorexia.

By: Amy Bowen, St. Cloud Times, INFORUM

ST. JOSEPH, Minn. Julie Ehlert still needs to hear her father’s voice to reassure her that she’s loved, accepted and welcome at home.

The past 22 years have been a tornado of pain, hope, fear and, finally, strength for Julie, 39, because of anorexia.

The mother of four still hears the nagging anorexia voices in her mind.

“You eat too much.”

“Exercise more.”

“You are trash.”

“No one loves you.”

She knows they will always hound her. The insecurities are a constant.

The St. Joseph woman is recovering from her battle. But for the first time, she feels confident that her eating disorder will be defeated.

“The voices are still there,” Julie said. “They are quiet, but mine is loud. I tell them to shut up.”

The persistence of her father, Steve Erlander, is the other constant in that struggle.

For Julie, it took decades of treatment and repeated mistakes to show that you can survive an eating disorder and prosper.

Julie credits an unshakable faith and her family, especially her father, for supporting her through the illness’ sharp turns.

Steve stuck with her at her lowest of points – points that easily could destroy the deepest of family bonds – and celebrated the faintest hopes.

His unending support has helped Julie quiet the demons that plagued her mind.

Julie’s slide into anorexia was gradual.

She was 17 in the early 1990s when she says she was raped by an acquaintance. She didn’t tell anyone.

“I went on this downward spiral of depression. I wanted to be loved, but didn’t know how to express it,” she said. “I felt like it was my fault.”

Yet, Julie excelled at school. She was a member of the National Honor Society and a gifted athlete. She was on the diving team and played basketball.

She hid the pain. That pain was compounded when she injured her knee while playing basketball her senior year.

The pounds started to slide off her healthy frame.

“I found something I could control,” Julie said. “I didn’t know how to deal with the unknown issues.”

She hid her hunger from her parents. She covered her body with baggy clothes. When asked if she ate, she told her parents she wasn’t hungry.

Steve, now of St. Cloud, thought his middle daughter was healthy and happy.

“I was pretty ignorant,” said Steve, a retired social studies teacher. “I saw myself as being aware. And I wasn’t.”

Julie’s descent into the illness continued into the summer of 1993. The new high school graduate broke her arm in a car crash.

She started college that fall. Her friends introduced her to the diet drug fen-phen, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled off the market in 1997 because of the risk of heart damage.

Julie became addicted, popping up to 20 pills a day.

Julie’s arm broke again in December 1993, and she withdrew from school and moved home.

“I came home feeling like a complete failure,” Julie said. “I was on a non-eating binge.”

She dropped 32 pounds in about five months.

She ate rice and bread. She mixed fen-phen with alcohol, soda and water.

Exercise became her new obsession. Julie logged 10 miles every day.

She worked as a restaurant hostess and was quick to pick up extra shifts. Showing customers to their tables meant more walking and more calories burned, she reasoned.

Julie would stay up all night, fed by her multiple doses of fen-phen during the day.

Steve and Betty, Julie’s mother, still didn’t realize Julie’s illness.

“I was angry at my wife because we didn’t see it,” Steve said. “We didn’t pay much attention, and we thought we were.”

Julie moved to Anoka in late 1994 and hoped to be a normal college student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

She rented an apartment with a roommate. Everything seemed normal, but Julie always walked a tightrope of staying healthy and letting her eating disorder rule her life.

She remembers the first time she discovered purging, a common behavior associated with eating disorders. She watched a film starring Tracey Gold, a TV actress who battled anorexia. The film, “For the Love of Nancy,” discussed vomiting food.

Julie latched on to the idea. She cooked, ate and vomited massive amounts. It did not matter what it was or how it tasted. If it was in the cupboard, she ate it.

She vomited in secret.

Her roommate once caught her after a binge. She made an excuse to leave and hid in the nearby woods to vomit.

She hated the binging and purging, but the voices in her head yelled at her.

“Eat it because you are trash, and you might as well eat trash,” the voices screamed.

Julie believed them.

Julie’s eating disorder was revealed to her parents in early 1995. The family was at a weekend church retreat.

The camp director pointed out that Julie was not eating. He noticed her pushing the food around her plate. She never took a bite.

Her parents confronted her. Her secret was out.

Julie knew her behaviors were unhealthy and wrong. She hoped this was the end. Her parents were dedicated to getting her help.

“We started getting more involved and started talking,” Steve said. “In her situation, it was a lot of self-esteem issues, body issues and boyfriend issues.”

She started on a roller coaster of treatment. She sought inpatient treatment but was told she wasn’t sick enough. Julie used that as an excuse.

“I was functioning,” Julie said. “It gave me a reason to think I was healthy.”

Julie started redefining herself after learning she was pregnant in 1997.

She worked to be healthy for the baby. She moved home with her parents, ate, gained weight and gave birth to a premature, but healthy, girl.

But her boyfriend asked her to move to the Twin Cities with their baby when she was released from the hospital.

The cycle started again.

She didn’t speak to her parents for months. Steve was heartbroken.

Julie relapsed. She didn’t have a job or money. Her boyfriend had a drug problem; they had a new baby, and she wasn’t speaking to her family.

It was too much.

“The first thing was to stop eating,” Julie said.

She left her boyfriend for the final time in 1998. She got a job, and she and her daughter lived with her parents. She and her dad worked at church retreats.

Julie saw a future when she met her husband, Cory Ehlert, at a church retreat. She was honest with him about her struggle.

He accepted her, even if he didn’t completely understand anorexia.

“He was a hero,” Julie said. “He loved (my daughter) from the start. He knew about my junk.”

She and her daughter moved in with Cory in 2001, and the couple got engaged a year later.

The eating disorder dominated as her wedding approached.

Julie insisted on using an intense kickboxing video every day. She restricted her diet to Perkins bread bowls.

She discovered she was pregnant again before the wedding.

Her resolve strengthened. She continued treatment and stayed healthy during her pregnancy.

Her son was born in late 2002. She and Cory married 10 months later.

Faith has always been the undercurrent in Julie’s journey. She just needed to embrace it, Steve and Julie said. God was right there, and she just needed to turn around and find him.

With acceptance, her body and mind started to break free from anorexia.

Her eating disorder has diminished within the past year.

The once-demeaning voices screaming in Julie’s mind are finally quieted to whispers.

Julie is now managing her eating disorder.

“She’s in a really good place,” Steve said. “We have to still be here. We have to keep our arms open and spirits up.”

Julie’s own voice speaks over the anorexia. Her messages are clear.

“You are loved.”

“You are strong.”

“You are healthy.”

“You have hope.”

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