A medical student describes her experience of an eating disorder.
Jesus promises 'you are made new in me' (1) - anorexia screams 'your identity is in how much you weigh.' Jesus says 'everything is under my feet' (2) - anorexia tells you 'if you control what you eat things will fall into place.' Scripture reassures 'inwardly we are being renewed day by day' (3) - anorexia demands 'fix this yourself'. God opens our eyes to our slavery and sets us free - anorexia tells us that we are free and blinds us to our slavery.
Apart from personal experience, I don't have much wisdom to offer. But, like most of you, I'm a medical student and I guess like some of you (as this isn't uncommon) I'm recovering from anorexia. Like all of you I'm a broken sinner whose greatest need is Jesus. But because I know this would have helped me, I'm going to share my story.
I first developed an eating disorder when I was about 14. I'm still not sure of the triggers. It became a secret, a challenge to cut out food, to exercise more, to shave off the pounds. I never really did anything about it and although I got better, those thoughts always remained in the background.
For me, and indeed for many people I have spoken to, it never started with a desire to be thin, or a focus on appearance. I honestly don't think that seeing size zero models had anything to do with it. The reasons behind it are complex and will be different for everyone, but I think it stemmed from a need to gain back the control that I thought I'd lost.
We're told all the time that we can do whatever we want, be whoever we want, if we just have more self confidence, if we just try hard enough we can do anything - and our hearts know that these promises are empty. Anorexia admits that we're broken, the world is broken, we're not free. It promises that if we control our weight things will fall into place, just a few more pounds and it will be enough… and yes, it works, we do feel better. Suddenly there is something concrete to control and focus on.
During medical school, it all came back again. The secrecy around eating. More and more foods becoming 'unsafe'. Feeling guilty when I was full. The need to be in charge of what was going in. Relishing that feeling of hunger. Fear. Shame. Inadequacy. Go over your calorie limit - you're a failure. Lose a kilo - you're on a winning streak. Life became so much simpler. Was I sick? Or was I sinning? I felt sorted, cleaner - but I was enslaved.
It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't glamorous. You're all medical so I don't need to tell you about the physical effects. It didn't start off this way but my eyes did change and distort the image I saw in the mirror. I was literally blinded by my sin. I didn't think that image was an idol for me; but maybe it was. It certainly became one. At a conference we were asked 'whom do you worship?' and although I was still trusting in my God, I was worshipping this god too. And my heavenly Father hated it. He is so jealous for our affection (4) and loves us so much, yet I was running after false gods, things that will fade and spoil and perish. (5)
Anorexia didn't just cloud my vision of my outward appearance - it stopped me seeing my 'inward' identity clearly too. I still knew that I was freely forgiven in Christ but felt condemned. I knew that I was made and loved - but felt worthless. I knew that I had been set free - but felt the bonds of slavery were too tight. Well-meant attempts to remind me that looks don't matter left me ashamed, frustrated and alone. 'I know!' my head screamed. But it didn't change how I felt. Actually, relationships with friends and family were the hardest thing. I was worried that I was a burden and I felt that they saw me differently. I was (and still am) proud, and hated that I needed help.
And then I looked to that ultimate broken relationship: our relationship with God. That relationship of first importance marred so badly that we can't even stand in his presence without being consumed. (6) And then I looked to Jesus. In Revelation, we're inspired to stop weeping and behold the Lamb, slain for us. (7) And now, incredibly, it's restored. That relationship is made perfect; 'it is finished', (8) 'once for all'. (9) We will be made perfect, forever. God's grace really is enough. His grace really is enough.
I don't think we can ever stop reminding ourselves of that. In a world where dependence is shunned we need to listen to the call to put our pride to death and depend fully on him who really can make us new.
Jesus says 'Yes, you're broken, yes you're sinful, yes you're enslaved and you're right, you can't fix this...but I have come to set you free.'
Jesus faced every temptation and when he was in the desert, he used God's word to fight the devil's lies. (10) Early in the morning after a particularly bad night I wrote a list of lies that anorexia told me...and crossed them out with God's truth. Sounds obvious, but, unsurprisingly, Jesus had a good method:
- You have to eat clean to be clean - You are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- Your identity is in how much you weigh - I will give you a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). They had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads (Revelation 14:1).
- You're disgusting - 'I am fearfully and wonderfully made!' (Psalm 139:13), 'You are God's handiwork' (Ephesians 2:10).
- Nothing can ever be OK - 'I will wipe every tear from their eyes' (Revelation 21:4).
- You have no purpose - 'You are co-heirs with Christ' (Romans 8:17).
- You are trapped in this - 'I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with your heads held high' (Leviticus 26:13).
- If you just lose a few more kilos you will be happy - 'I have come that you may have life and have it to the full' (John 10:10).
- You are guilty - 'You have been set free from sin!' (Romans 6:18)
- Nobody wants you - 'I will prepare a place for you' (John 14:3),'Nothing can separate us from the love of God' (Romans 8:31), 'He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us' (2 Corinthians 1:22), 'Nobody can snatch them out of my hands' (John 10:26), 'I have loved you with an everlasting love' (Jeremiah 31:3).
Memorising scripture is not only a joy, but also a biblical exhortation. A wise older brother once told me that, aside from a love of the Lord Jesus Christ, discipline is the most important thing in the Christian life. In stamping God's word more firmly onto those flint-like hearts we become 'thoroughly equipped for every good work' (11) so we can be more ready when trials come. Although we definitely aren't promised to ever find out the reasons for our trials this side of heaven, (12) we certainly are promised that he uses everything for our ultimate good, even if we may not always see this here on earth. (13) We might never be OK this side of heaven! In God's grace he even uses what we intend for evil for our good. (14) Having said this, when we are shown a snippet of how our trials are used we are richly blessed...and at the risk of sounding clichéd I honestly think that my Father has used this to draw me into a deeper, more satisfied relationship with him.
Getting and giving help
Speaking practically, I'm not trying to say that anorexia is purely a spiritual problem, or that I know all (or in fact any) of the answers. If you're struggling, I would encourage you to see your GP; I've found the eating disorders service helpful in gradually getting eating patterns back to normal and in talking through why it is so tempting to relapse. Recovery is tough, and speaking to someone removed from you personally who understands what it is like can be really useful. Supporting a friend is tough too. All our relationships this side of heaven are broken, and we're going to need grace on both sides. Talking openly to my friend (who I love very much) about that was such a relief, and I pray that reminding her that she does not have to fix it was reassuring. Your friend who has anorexia is still your friend and will still really want to love and bless you! Therefore, if you're a friend then it is wise to just treat them normally, still share your pain with them - and make sure that you don't start to define them by their illness. Just as you wouldn't refer to a patient with diabetes as a 'diabetic', don't do this to your friend who has anorexia, even in your heart. I know that isn't easy. One friend came with me to my first few appointments and waited outside for me each time... she never lectured or tried to fix it and her constant friendship is such a blessing. I know that she prays for me when I can't pray, and she points me back to Jesus gently without making me feel condemned. The best thing is that she doesn't treat me any differently and still lets me share in her struggles as we walk alongside Jesus together. Jesus wept with Lazarus' sisters before he raised him from the dead, and this sister weeps with and for me before she tries to do anything. I thank my God for her every day.
I know that I should be able to put my name on this. And I'm sorry for leaving it anonymous. Because there really is now no condemnation (15) and my Father has for me a white stone with a new name written on it. (16) There is no shame! But my broken heart is yet to be perfected and I think adding my name would tempt me into glossing over my sin.
And this article isn't supposed to be about me. It's supposed to be about Jesus. Honestly, he says to all of us that 'my power is made perfect in weakness' (17) and we can be completely assured that all his promises to us will stand true. I'm still a broken sinner. And I still forget God's goodness every day. But let's lift our eyes to the Lamb who was slain, and trust in that hope, firm and secure, our souls anchored to his word. (18)