July 1981 found me in the hospital. Seventeen years-old and 82 pounds of anxiety, depression, confusion, and despair. The psychiatric facility, a trip to hell and back, had only made matters worse. My home life was torture. A diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa in 1981 meant that nobody understood what was happening nor knew how to treat me. Socially, I was a freak. I felt I had nothing to live for.
That is when I opened the Bible I had brought with me and the pages fell open to Romans 8:28.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to purpose.Because of that verse, I kept reading. Because of that verse, for the first time in my life, I had hope. My spiritual development from that moment on has been a dizzying trip, complete with carsickness and full of ups and downs, twists and turns, growth and setbacks (or seemingly so), but that is beyond the scope here. But that day I had hope because I believed God when he said that all things, including the horror of my eating disorder, would work together for good.
In college, I thought that was happening. I thought God was using it. I could tell people my story and they listened and were amazed. Eating disorders were a hot topic in the 80s. Celebrities such as Karen Carpenter died as a result of her eating disorder so people listened. Everybody knew somebody with an eating disorder and so my story meant something. It seemed to have a purpose. Then things changed.
In 1988, shortly after Matt and I were married, I chose to tell my story to my small group at church. It was a group of about 10 couples. We were taking turns telling our stories ("testimonies" as they are called in church circles). The guy the week before me had told his story of drugs and crime and years in a motorcycle gang and how God had stepped in and plucked him out of it all. He was met with the "ooohs" and "ahhhhs" of admiration and approval. So the next week I told my story. It was met with horror. Discomfort. Silence. It was the silence that was the hardest. With the exception of one person, nobody ever spoke to me again. For the first time I felt shame. Shame about my story. The very story that I believed God was going to work for good.
I pulled back. After that I rarely told my story and when I did, it was with fear and trembling and so very much shame. And when I did, it was almost always met with silence or disinterest or, worse, condescension (my least favorite reaction on the planet).
Then it happened. It was 1997, I was the mother of 4 children. A couple from church offered to provide a babysitter and take us out to dinner. As we sat down at the table at the restaurant, the husband asked us how we came to know Jesus. I got brave and went first. And told my story. Then our food came. He thanked me for sharing and then he pointed at my food and said emphatically, "And you are going to eat every bite of that food!"
You know how in movies or TV shows and it does that little rewind thing to show what happened earlier, yeah, that. All of the sudden I was no longer the 33 year-old mother of 4 and wife of 9 years. I was the emaciated teenager, angering and exasperating those around me. I was a child. A naughty child, being told what to do. The shame was suffocating.
My past had followed me, but not in the way I had expected. I wouldn't share my story again.
And I didn't for many, many years. Perhaps I didn't because life has thrown me so many, many other stories. Perhaps I didn't because an eating disorder, for me, is a thing of my past, and distant past at that. But mostly I didn't share because of shame.
The reality is that people still don't understand eating disorders like they don't understand most mental illness. But there is something about eating disorders that is even MORE shameful, I think that other mental illness.
I think Christians love stories of guilt and redemption. That is why the druggie biker dude who shared his story the week before I shared mine was applauded for his journey. We have a theological framework for sin, guilt, repentance and redemption. We don't have a theological framework for complex combination of biology, family dynamics, trauma, and cultural messages that produce an eating disorder. Christians don't know how to "fix" that. They don't know what to do when they can't point to a willful sin and shout "REPENT!"
But, for whatever reason, I am wanting to share again. I am wanting to see God use that particular, horrible chapter of my life for good. I'm not sure why, because I only know one person right now with a diagnosed eating disorder. And yet I see so many that I suspect do struggle terribly, even if they may not be classified as such according to the DSM-5.
I think it is easier to hide an eating disorder these days. The cultural obsession with healthy eating and fitness can mask a far from healthy personal obsession. In fact, it is those of us who do not jump on the bandwagon of organic or paleo or vegan who are viewed with skepticism or considered uninformed.
I suppose that what I am trying to say is that if you are struggling with an obsession over what you put in your body or the shape and size of your body, I get it. I've been there. And while I have had what I consider an amazingly healthy attitude toward food for almost 30 years, my body image issues have been a bit slower in healing. Menopause ("when your metabolism slows down but your appetite doesn't") and aging are forcing me face some of my deep-seated beliefs of what gives me value and to let go of the last tidbits of a screwed-up sense of self. I am still a work in progress.
But if you have a tortured relationship with food or your body, please know that I get it and am here. I'm not hiding my story any more. And you don't have to, either.