Michele (47) is house mother to 76 boarders at Rustenberg Girls’ High School in Cape Town. She told THISLIFE ONLINE how she overcame an addiction to compulsive eating that was controlling her life
‘I feel free’: Michele Bakker says she has uncovered her true self after years of miserable overeating | Photo: Nicky Elliott
‘LIFE IS A PRECIOUS GIFT. I pray that sharing my own testimony about my struggle with weight will encourage you to remember how precious your life is.
Have you seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? The main character, Tulah, hides behind the counter when an attractive man walks into her café. She hides behind big glasses, frumpy hair and baggy outfits because she doesn’t believe she deserves any attention.
All women have individual, unique beauty, but few of us believe it. Or, if we do, we think we somehow don’t deserve it. We see a beautiful dress and say, ‘I could never wear that’. We dismiss compliments. We hide behind make-up. We won’t risk reaching out to others as we fear rejection. We don’t follow our dreams as we fear failure. We wallow in self-hatred and drown ourselves in discontent, then find ourselves hiding behind angry silences.
These feelings often result in our hiding in the comfort of things like food, alcohol or drugs − whatever will numb the pain. We don’t realise that in our hiding, something precious is lost, something beautiful: our true self.
Going back to the beginning
I was seven years old when I first realised I was fat. I was bigger and rounder than the others, with rolls around my tummy. At birthday parties I’d stand at the table and eat while the other kids played games and scampered back for the odd handful of Nik Naks. Occasionally they would laugh at me, which – of course – pushed me straight towards the comfort of the colourful cupcakes. Thus began the cycle. Food became my comfort and companion.
When I was 10, my parents got divorced and my small world came crashing down around me. With my father’s leaving came an overwhelming sense of rejection. My mother worked full-time so meals became haphazard affairs: convenience foods, take-aways or anything that could be found in the fridge. And the fridge, well, it became a shrine for me.
Then: trapped in her body but determined. Now: empowered and joyful!
I was very sensitive so when friends were mean or rejected me, I was hurt. I never felt a sense of belonging at school. I wasn’t part of the cool group or the leader of the pack.
Academically, I struggled. I was moved from one school to another. I never felt confident in what I could achieve. Countless psychologists couldn’t determine what the problem was. Because there was something supposedly wrong, I had to be tenderly and sensitively treated. ‘If she’s happy when she’s eating, let the child eat.’ I was happy when I was eating – for a while, anyway. But often in the heavy aftermath, I would withdraw behind closed doors.
My relationships with boys reflected the turmoil I felt within. My first boyfriend broke up with me after three years. He rejected me. I thought I was going to marry my second boyfriend, but that ended after eight months. I had to break up with my third boyfriend because he treated me like dirt. With every relationship came an intense fear of rejection.
Happy house mother, happy girls. Michele on a walk-and-talk with two of her charges
To deal with my pain, food and overeating became my protection and my comfort zone. Slowly the weight piled on. I would get hypnotised by the sight of food and soon it controlled my entire life.
I became extremely overweight. By my 30th birthday, I weighed 133 kg [around 20 stone or 290 pounds]. I used to cry myself to sleep, wake up the next morning and dread facing the day. I used to think, ‘I’m so fat, I’m so ugly. I hate myself. Which clothes will fit me today? I’ll wear something that will cover me up.’
I refused to look at myself in the mirror. I dreaded walking to the shops as everybody would see how huge and awful I looked. I could never fit comfortably into a chair so I dreaded going to the movies. I was too big to fly in a plane. And then there was the constant ridicule and rejection from others. I’ll never forget walking into a shop and the assistant saying, ‘You’re too big, we don’t have anything that will fit you here.’ At my lowest, I had given up hope altogether. The depth of my depression became so intense it was physically painful. My whole life I had held onto this weight, it was my security. But I hated it and hated myself.
‘I still fall off the wagon but I remind myself how good I feel when I’m slimmer and how it honours the temple that is my body,’ says Michele | Photo: Nicky Elliott
I felt trapped in my body and couldn’t get out. All I wanted to do was lose weight, yet there was a part of me that couldn’t begin the journey. I was scared, desperately afraid of what I’d have to face or deal with. I had never felt competent, needed or loved. I had no sense of belonging, no concept of self-worth. I wanted to die. These are just some of the dark, lonely, hurtful emotions I felt at that stage of my life. But my journey wasn’t to end there. Contrary to what I believed at the time, I now believe God had NOT forsaken me and I was still to see His incredible plan for my life unfold.
I wasn’t a Christian but I was so desperate at times that I used to go to a nearby church during the day when nobody was there. I would literally lie on the floor crying out for help. ‘Lord God, I don’t know anything about you, but if you’re real, if you care, if you love me, help me, save me from this darkness and pit of hell.’ God heard my cry and one morning I experienced an indescribable feeling of love and peace wash over me. I knew it was God. I made a decision to let Him into my life and into my heart.
I can honestly say that it was only through this meeting that I was able to see that the way I was living and feeling about myself was not what He intended me to feel. After many sessions of counselling, incredible support from friends, bible study and prayer support groups, God began His healing in me.
In February 2003, I joined Weight Watchers. A close friend who doesn’t have a weight problem came to the meetings with me. I don’t know what I would have done without her constant encouragement and insistence that I face the dreaded scale each week! Like many overweight people, I used lies, manipulation or anything else I thought might work to get out of attending the weigh-ins.
There were times I would be crying on the pavement, begging my friend not to make me go in and get on that scale, but somehow she always managed to get me inside. I don’t think I lost any weight at all in my first few months of attending the programme. It was going to be a long, slow and often frustrating process. I would need all the strength and perseverance I could muster. But this time I knew I wasn’t alone. I had my friends to encourage and support me and God to guide me.
Journal extract – May, 2003 Today a Christian spiritual counsellor prayed that the Lord would show me my correct weight. She prayed that my friends would not say ‘How is your weight going?’ but rather, ‘In what area of struggles can we pray for you?’ This is because it’s more important for me to be healed in all areas of my life than it is for me to lose weight – this will happen in God’s perfect time. She believes that as soon as I take my focus off my weight and focus on God, the weight will drop off.
And she was right. As soon as I began to deal with the various issues in my life, I began to realise that food itself was not the problem. I started to see the loss of each kilogram as having dealt with the next layer of deep-seated issues, and I was so happy to say goodbye to that kilo! Slowly I began to shed the kilos over the following four years. To date I have lost 50 kg.
I also started exercising and slow jogging, thanks to another wonderful friend who insisted on helping me to get started. She would put her hand behind my back and push me – hold my hand and pull me. I would say to her, ‘Why are you doing this for me?’ She’d reply, ‘Because I love you and I’m going to help you.’ I joined a local gym and managed to walk a kilometre or two. Finally, I became fit enough to run a few 10km races, and for the first time experienced the awesome camaraderie of taking part in a race.
Once the running bug had bitten, I was fortunate enough to win a mentorship with Professor Tim Noakes at the Sports Science Institute. During his programme I was trained to run Cape Town’s 2005 Two Oceans half-marathon. I, the same person who couldn’t walk a single kilometre and was 50kg heavier than I am now, finished the race! Finishing was overwhelming and when I received a medal, it felt like pure Olympic Gold!
Michele: ‘My turning point was connecting with God’
Since then I’ve completed many half-marathons and marathons and ultramarathons, including the 89km (56 mile) Comrades Marathon. I give God all the glory and praise for what He has done in my life. Psalm 103 is so relevant: Praise God, O my soul; all my inmost being. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
what I know now
People often ask what my turning point was. It was only when I developed a relationship with Jesus that I was able to grasp how much He loves and values us. In Him we have a sense of value, a sense of worth and a sense of belonging: For God so loved the world that he laid down his life for you and for me! And nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8.31).
There are many days that I think, ‘Is this really me? I must be dreaming.’ I can finally fit comfortably in a chair or a bath, and wear lovely, fashionable clothes. I feel free, free from being in bondage to all those issues that I’d tried to cover up with my weight.
If you have an eating issue, you are on an individual journey. I won’t tell you that it will be easy, sometimes it feels like you are running against the wind. You’ll face difficulties and disappointments, trials and tribulations, but it is only through setbacks that you’ll learn and get stronger.
Michele has found that she needs to be consistent about exercising
To date, I have kept the weight off, but am not quite at my ideal goal weight! I am consistent with exercise five days a week and can truly say I love my cycling and running. But I would lie if I told you I have this eating plan all in total control on a perfect path and that it was easy. Very often I find it so hard, and I really have to dig deep. There are times when I’m so tired of being aware of making the right food choices that I want to throw in the towel. I face the issue of being tempted by too much food, the wrong food, and the desire to comfort eat.
I can fall off the wagon and gain a few kilos, but before it gets out of control I remind myself of how good I feel when I am slimmer: how it affects my confidence, my exercise, my clothes and my health. Most important, my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and I want to honour God with what I eat and drink. I try to make better choices and have smaller portions. And so the journey continues.’
STRUGGLING with disordered eating? Read our article on fixing your relationship with food here and consider getting help! Try the Addictions section of our life support directory, and for help with depression and anxiety go to our Grief/Loss/Struggles’ section. The directory is also useful if you’re seeking purpose in life.
KEEN to connect with God as Michele did? Consider the Alpha Course, an opportunity to explore life and the Christian faith in a friendly, open and informal environment virtually anywhere in the world. Each session includes food, a short talk and a discussion where you can share your thoughts