The perfect storm in which an eating disorder emerges is different for every sufferer, but I can tell you it never begins with vanity or misplaced self-control.
From the moment I was pressed against my mother’s chest to nurse, food has sustained and nurtured me. It makes sense, then—seems resourceful, even—that I turned to it at a time when everything ached: There was the guilt from a never-quite-justified breakup with my beloved best friend; insecurities thrown by an equally insecure boyfriend; depression; internal and external criticism about my body; a job that made me feel listless; loneliness and ignored abuse.
Soon enough I realized that if it all became too much, eating comforted me for just a few minutes.
But the heartbreak was unrelenting. In many ways food helped me keep getting out of bed, but it wasn’t long before I realized my body was changing into something I’d been told the world, and men, wouldn’t like. I loathed seeing my internal pain manifest in curves and lumps in the mirror. How, then, would I continue tending to this anguish and feel comfortable with my physical appearance? The answer to this question is how my relationship with food became disordered.
When I finally consulted a professional, I ended up with a team (they loved calling it that) of three people assigned to my recovery. Each one needed to know my story (a glorified list of the traumatic events that led me to their couch), which I reluctantly cemented on paperwork and then many times in person. Even the people I normally overlook—the desk clerk, the assistant, the medical technician—all needed to know, Why are you here today? Not to mention my coworkers, who I’m sure quietly observed the uptick in late arrivals and early departures for appointments, and my manager, who had to approve them. All I remember saying, over and over, is I have an eating disorder. The appointments broke my heart every week for months. I had to log in a journal anything I ate, and then face a wall opposite the scale at my weekly weigh-in, resisting eye contact with whoever asked what I’d eaten for lunch. And the worst part, after tithing regularly for years, was having to ask my church for help with the piles of bills. I offered myself to this process and God’s healing, thinking it would be humbling, but I didn’t expect it to strip me of self-respect.
The worst part, after tithing regularly for years, was having to ask my church for help with the piles of bills.
Now that I’m one year in, I’ve noticed mental health isn’t a popular topic in our churches, where we admire those who stand strong and steady in spite of their hardships. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in recovery, it’s that we aren’t static beings: We move with the life and decay around us, and the fallout of sin—whether ours or someone else’s—alters every one of us.
Healing, for me, has little to do with food, which surprises people. But food is rarely the problem; it’s a symptom. These days my counselor and I may talk about a recent fight with my husband and almost always discover a trigger that transported me, like a time machine, into a previous, unhealthy relationship. Or maybe she notices that it’s now the month of May and I haven’t transitioned from my winter dresses to summer ones, and we look at a distinct trail of people I’ve known who unduly glorified bodies—mine included. We have these conversations not to assign blame or victimhood but to validate the fact that I’ve been through difficult circumstances, and they haven’t left me unaffected. I’m different, and that confession alone heals.
But these conversations aren’t just for me or people with classifiable trauma. Anything hurting in us deserves our digging and tending to and validation—for ourselves and for those we love. I think of one of my friends who has been asking big questions about the balance of her life and career. She grew up watching her parents swing between overspending and scraping by and recently realized it informed her career path—working overtime, and excelling, at a reputable corporation. Those memories are painful for her to recall, but they also keep her grounded when five o’clock comes around: Will she stay at the office because she needs to finish a task or because she believes her future is just as insecure as it was when she was younger? Or consider my mom, whose scholarship covered all her needs in college—until the cafeteria closed for certain meals on the weekend. Today her pantry, refrigerator, and freezer are packed like a winning game of Tetris. And knowing this about her, my dad exhales a little more grace every time the drawer full of cheese gets stuck.
We move with the life and decay around us, and the fallout of sin—whether ours or someone else’s—alters every one of us.
For so long, I thought offering myself to God, becoming a ‘living sacrifice,’ meant giving my time and resources—every task, thought, hour, and dollar—for His name. So when it came to recovery, I was more or less prepared to give up hours filled with appointments and prayers, thousands of dollars for care—and maybe that’s still true. But now I see that sacrificing my whole self to God also includes my hardships, mistakes, shame, confronting what’s broken, and giving up my dignity in the process. It hurts, but it’s also the first time that I’ve paused on Jesus’ blessing of the poor in spirit and felt more comforted than confused. His words resonate in my chest, giving meaning to the great helplessness I’ve been wading in for months. Could He have also said, Blessed are the undignified, those who’ve lost all self-respect? And if so, what hangs in the balance?
I’d say it’s the five friends who’ve confessed to me they too struggle with disordered eating. My words resounded with them, and now one is out of recovery, two are in, and two are working towards. People I love finding freedom and healing feels a lot like what I imagine the kingdom of heaven to be. And when I’m speaking with someone and wonder what’s left them different, that feels like a gift, too. Being curious about a person’s formation has brought grace and empathy to my relationship with my husband, coworkers, close friends, parents, and even acquaintances.
With the passing of time in recovery, I see more hopeful days than hard ones, and sometimes that empowers me to believe it will at some point be a distant memory. I’ve even forgotten about my disorder occasionally. But the path of healing is not a linear one, and when those familiar thoughts and behaviors cycle around again, it’s only a matter of time before I remember the bruises behind them—and how it would be easier to look away. But confronting what hurts, while it threatens my confidence and ability, is the only way I know to offer God everything.
Illustration by Yasmine Gateau