Why “To The Bone” Gets Anorexia Wrong (And How To Change The Narrative)

As an anorexia survivor, I am befuddled and stunned by To The Bone.

Not only is it “shallow, sexist, and sick” but it is not even a good movie. An article in the Atlantic says the film, “is a mostly unremarkable film about anorexia, in that it follows the model of virtually all existing films about the subject.” It is to be noted that as I’ve written before, almost all eating disorder movies are awful, so “following the model” is not great press.

I am not even going to elaborate here on my disappointment with Project Heal, a major eating disorder advocacy organization that publicly endorsed the movie and even had a viewing party for the film. In addition to this, most treatment centers were quiet on taking a stand, and as Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh writes in a refreshing departure from generic “viewing guidelines” put out by almost every eating disorder organization, “We are all under pressure to promote the film or just talk about it, which is also good publicity.”

Project Heal co-founder Kristina Saffran suggests in a BBC interview that To The Bone is meant for the general public, in that the movie aims to open up a larger conversation. In this blog, I’m going to be talking about my concern about this portrayal of anorexia to the larger community.

To The Bone will open up a conversation, but I’m not sure if it’s the right one.

I see the movie as Marti Noxon’s story and as her message of hope. Ellen/ Eli is a brooding twenty something, full of teenage angst and emo, pro-ana Tumblr drawings. Chocolate, dances in waterfalls, and somewhat hallucinatory, dreamlike moments compel Ellen/ Eli to choose life at the end of the movie… or so we think. The movie ends with the possibility of hope and new beginnings as Ellen/ Eli re-enters treatment.

If the film is indeed a loose adaptation of director Marti Noxon’s own anorexia struggle, viewers are led to believe Ellen/ Eli does end up in recovery. Noxon and fellow film actors consulted with Project Heal in the making of the movie and have done subsequent promotional eating disorder awareness campaigns.

The movie might seem as if it has a pro-recovery message, but it doesn’t.

Despite the movie ending with Ellen/ Eli choosing hope over despair and death,  I will argue that the movie highlights hope instead of recovery. 

Hope and recovery are separate but related constructs, and it is dangerous to meld the two concepts. You can have hope without recovery and recovery without much hope. Let me explain.

When I was forced went into treatment for the second and final time, I was not at “bottom,” or so I thought in my nutrient-deprived mind. I wanted a month longer to get to however much lower I could get my weight. Did I have a reason? Did I want to die? I didn’t have a reason, and I didn’t want to die when it came down to it.

I also did not have hope.

When I entered treatment, I subconsciously knew I didn’t want to die, but I had no reason to live, either. My starved brain and starvation-based depression had me living in a cloud of darkness. When the brain is deprived of nutrients, it does not function optimally. I was not capable of hope or feeling much at all, actually.

My first morning of treatment, I was given breakfast. I looked down at the plate, having not eaten breakfast for at least a year. My immediate thought was, “I guess I’m eating breakfast now.” And I ate breakfast. It was not “orgasmic,” as To The Bone would absurdly indicate. It was just breakfast.

So I ate. I talked about my depression and hopelessness with my therapist. In full disclosure, it didn’t get any better for months. I didn’t feel happy to be alive or worthwhile as a human being. Sometimes I don’t even to this day.

The big difference between Ellen/ Eli’s hallucinatory revelation and my story is behavioral: I sat down to breakfast. I didn’t fake my way through treatment. I went through the motions. I ate snacks that challenged me.

It was not perfect, easy, or fun, but I did it with the anticipation that perhaps someday, I would feel happy. Someday, maybe, I would smile and mean it, fall in love and feel it, and find a career and enjoy it. Maybe someday. But that someday did not come into fruition for a long time.

Sometimes, eating disorder sufferers have to do the hard work of recovery without a reward.

Sometimes, we don’t have the luxury(?) of hallucinating in a desert to realize life is worth living.

Sometimes, we are plagued with ambivalence years into recovery, or worse, relapse and feel deep shame for the perception of letting others down.

Hope is a building block of recovery, but it is not the only building block. It is great when it’s there, but if it’s not, oh well. Doing the hard behavioral work is what helps people recover.

To be candid, there is nothing that is recovery-focused in To The Bone. I suppose it’s great Ellen/ Eli finds hope and returns to treatment at the end of the movie, but if this were real life, she would have to find an actual treatment center. To The Bone glamorizes a “treatment” that is a) not treatment and b) provides unnecessary, misleading, triggering details of some people’s experiences.

There is little that is pro-recovery in the entire movie. As Collins Lyster-Mesh describes perfectly:

There are no recoveries or recovered people in this movie. No one is abused, mistreated, or dies, but no one gets well or does any of the actual work of recovery from an eating disorder, unless you call having visions in the desert therapeutic. Insurance may not pay for that, but there’s no waiting list.

In eating disorder treatment and recovery, there is no lasting hope for the future without behavior change. Behavior change is not the only facet of eating disorder recovery, but it is a necessary precursor to life. Does Ellen/ Eli do the necessary work to get better, including eating more than one bite of chocolate the entire movie? We don’t know- that has been an artistic omission, and it is an omission that comes with implications.

The pro-ana commune that is passing as a treatment center in the movie is just a bunch of sick individuals talking about calories, restricting, cutting corners, and doing push ups. On a human level, it’s boring and sad, but on an advocacy level, it is terrifying and sad. Nothing about this is remotely pro-recovery. If this was a real treatment center, Keanu Reeves would have at least 10 malpractice suits on his hands for medical neglect and involuntary manslaughter (also maybe sexual assault depending on the nature of these nighttime “house calls” he does).

What scares me is not that these “unconventional methods” of essentially negligence will become in vogue (they won’t).

What scares me is what the larger public will see. What scares me is the conversation.

What conversation will come from this movie?

The movie may showcase hope, but it depicts a lot of other things as well. To The Bone is graphic, insulting, stereotypical, and crude. There are too many shots of protruding bones to count. I am concerned others will, perhaps subconsciously, file this away as a normative anorexia experience, or worse yet, see this pro ana colony as normative treatment.

The anorexia conversation needs to change. Anorexia films portray the same story over and over– a tragic, rich, white, straight, emaciated female with a “dysfunctional family” has anorexia.

To The Bone puts Ellen/ Eli into a tragic, starving girl Hollywood “type.” She looks waif-like and tragic as her family members fight in family therapy. She is an artist, but it appears that she is not working or going to school. She is emo, makes witty comments, and always wears dark eyeliner. She and the others in her “treatment facility” are not only able to access treatment but are able to take months off without working.

In my opinion, Ellen/ Eli is not a sympathetic character. She is two-dimensional and lacks depth. Yes, she is snarky and has enough eyeliner to star in a middle school PSA, but she has no hopes or dreams. I can relate to the narrowing of life that comes with an eating disorder, especially since she is sick the entire film. However, it doesn’t lead to interesting character growth.

Eating disorders are small and narrow diseases, and so is this movie. 

Anorexia is complex and multifaceted, and I saw none of that in To The Bone. To be frank, I didn’t feel anything at all for the characters or plot except for disgust at the triggering details that were unnecessarily included. Although I am also a white woman with privilege who struggled for years with anorexia, I do not relate whatsoever to this story.

To The Bone might be part of Marti Noxon’s story, but it is only a small part. The interesting part of Marti Noxon’s story is one that is untold by this movie- how she overcame anorexia and ended up being a successful director. That is interesting.

We don’t know where Ellen/ Eli would be in 5 years. She might open a successful indie art studio in New York City, or she might be dead. The audience does not get a window into her life or recovery. That does a disservice to survivors and the general public alike.

To The Bone does not get a pass just because it opens up a conversation.

I would be horrified if someone went up to me and said, “Do people actually get fed with bottles as part of recovery?”, or, “Do you think her mom’s postpartum depression caused her eating disorder?”, or, “Ellen got to wait until she ‘hit bottom’ so that’s what I’m going to do,” or, “Do you have ‘calorie Asperger’s’ too?” The list of misleading portrayals could go on and on and on.

We do need to have frank conversations about eating disorders.

However, To The Bone is not an adequate medium for doing so. The work should focus on awareness of the anorexia experience but also recovery and dispelling myths rather than perpetuating them. And if we’re going to make an eating disorder movie, at least can it be good??

We can do better than this. Everyone deserves better.

 

80 (Mostly Sarcastic) Thoughts I Had Watching “To The Bone”

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  1. Movie starts off with Ellen writing “Suck my skinny balls” in art therapy. Love the way things are getting off to a brooding, angsty start already.
  2. Ellen and her sister are literally playing something called the “calorie game,” in which Ellen counts the calories of everything. Not sure why her sister is enabling such a weird fucked up game. Also most people with ED’s who count calories don’t play public games about it.
  3. Why is Ellen’s stepmom taking a “skinny” picture of her to attempt to show her how thin she is? When does that ever work? And what kind of weird parent takes pictures of her emaciated child to show someone probably with body dysmorphia she is too skinny?
  4. This movie is HEAVY in stereotypes here- the big clothes, the body hair (lanugo), someone asking Ellen about her emaciated self, “Do you think this is beautiful?” UGH.
  5. Dr. Beckham, Keanu Reeves, aka KR, is super hot and exchanging a weirdly flirty look with Ellen. On a human level, KR and Lily Collins are both super attractive and I get the sexual tension. In the context of this movie this is really weird and unethical, and I feel super uncomfortable.
  6. Now KR is checking out Ellen’s back bones while she’s in a hospital gown. So… he’s a psychiatrist who is doing a physical exam? What kind of doctor is this dude? I’ll tell you- it’s a doctor who doesn’t exist. No doctor does psychiatry with a little internal medicine on the side. But for now let’s go with it I guess.
  7. Why are there so many views of spines and protruding bones?? Like we get it she is skinny. Like scarily emaciated. Can we stop seeing pictures of this girl’s bones now??
  8. KR is saying some weird ass stuff: “I’m not going to treat you if you’re not interested in living.” Pretty sure doctors have ethical obligations to help people not die. Tbh sometimes people are treated for their own benefit without necessarily wanting to live. Also many people go back and forth about whether they want to get better, and they go through the motions of recovery anyway.
  9. I do appreciate the portrayal of the stepmom’s stupid comments, such as a cake in the shape of a hamburger that says, “Eat Up, Ellen.” Something similar happened to me and it was mortifying.tothebone
  10. There is so much dark brooding music in this movie. Why so much unnecessary angst? We get it. Ellen’s angsty.
  11. Now Ellen is entering treatment. I have a lot of questions about this treatment center, but I’ll start with this one- who is paying for this?? No discussion of money or insurance, which is always part of the picture unless someone is seriously loaded (ED tx is $$$$$$).
  12. Interesting how many people are seeking the “best” “unconventional” doctor and somehow have access to that level of care… No discussion of how many people DON’T have any treatment coverage whatsoever. The movie is clear: We are talking about people with serious privilege. Not just Ellen… anybody who is at this treatment center.
  13. Also this doctor is the “best” presumably because he is unconventional… where is the discourse around evidence-based treatment and actual treatment methods that WORK? Flirty, waterfall-going, existentially-empty doctors who run unsupervised programs are not generally go-to treatment options for young adults who are pretty much dying.
  14. Ellen meets a British guy named Lucas, and he is giving her a tour around the treatment center because apparently in this treatment center there is no staff (begging the question of why any normal human being or insurance company would pay for this).
  15. Note the fact that everyone is really preppy looking and white minus Lucas and one black girl. Talk about playing into the lack of diversity eating disorder stereotype….
  16. This group therapy session… just, ugh. Ellen traumatizes a poor girl by telling her how many calories are in her tube feed. There is so much wrong with this whole scene. Also in real life no one would EVER be allowed to talk about something like that in an eating disorder group therapy session. EVER. There are things called group guidelines.
  17. Did the therapist just tell a client matter-of-factly, “Now you’re thinking about how to burn it off,” in the middle of group IN FRONT OF EVERYONE?? Unspoken rule #15 for eating disorder therapists: Don’t suggest or infer the presence of ED thoughts/ behaviors in front of other people. If I learned I just gained weight at my dietitian’s office and she said, “Now you’re thinking about how to lose that weight,” I would tell her to fuck off. Then I would leave the session and never come back.
  18. No one here seems to be struggling with anything besides starving, purging, and being underweight… with the exception of the poor black girl who was probably thrown into this movie without any character context for the sake of artificially promoting diversity.
  19. At this treatment center people eat whatever they want apparently. You just need to gain weight and they don’t care how you get there?? What the actual fuck. Who cares how you get there? Everyone does!! What the hell, that’s why you’re in TREATMENT. I guess someone could binge to a normal weight (been there), but that is NOT normal.
  20. I kind of want to slap Ellen. She’s being really annoying. Not because she has an eating disorder but because her over-the-top brooding angst and smug superiority is just pissing me off.
  21. Also I’ve never seen anyone so smug and superior on day #1 of treatment. On day #1 of one of my treatment stays I was having panic attacks left and right. This is so unrealistic.
  22. For a movie that’s supposed to be about recovery and not food, there are sure a lot of food scenes in this movie….
  23. People can’t just leave the table in the middle of mealtime. Why is there no supervision for these clients??
  24. The black girl is just sitting at the table eating peanut butter. Not exactly normal eating, but she is also sitting there looking like she wants to stab everyone in the room. Same, girl, same.
  25. All they talk about is getting each other laxatives, purging, weight, and people being fat. What a waste of allocated resources. Who the fuck would pay for this IRL??
  26. KR shows up at Ellen’s bedroom at night to make a house call. What is even happening right now? What psychiatrist-turned-internist-turned makes a night house call just cuz???? My psychiatrist sees me for 15 minutes every 3 months. This is sketchy AF.
  27. This facility is everyone just feeding off of each other’s disorders. “Unconventional” is one way of putting it. Another way is super fucked up, disordered, or a facility that needs to be shut down. They are legit giving each other tips, triggering each other, and calling Emma Stone fat. How is there nobody calling them on this?
  28. KR is now a family therapist. And he’s a HORRIBLE family therapist. Like seriously awful.
  29. THERE IS SO MUCH WRONG WITH THIS FAMILY THERAPY SESSION. I literally can’t.
  30. KR lets Ellen’s family talk over each other while Ellen is sitting there looking like a romantic, tragic ghost *I take my 415th eye roll of the movie.*
  31. Kelly, the sister, is the only normal person in this entire movie besides the black girl. Actress who plays Kelly, props for showing actual emotion and having a 3D character.
  32. No one says “rexy” for anorexic. Right?? Please let’s not start saying that. I can’t take it.
  33. Ellen uses family therapy as an excuse not to eat and everyone exchanges a knowing glance. The undertone being that people with ED’s have messed up families. Playing on stereotypes again….
  34. Question: Is anyone getting medically monitored in this place? I’ve seen no blood draws, no IV’s, and these clients are acting out like crazy.
  35. Trying to scare people into eating to avoid dying is a huge part of this movie, and that just doesn’t work.
  36. The whole scene with Lucas kinda sexually trying to get Ellen to eat a chocolate bar is weirding me out. It sounds like chocolate is getting them to semi-orgasm. Has anyone who created this movie ever seen someone with an eating disorder try to eat????? It’s not like that. It may involve tears or panic attacks but certainly no orgasmic expressions of how good food tastes.
  37. Lucas is trying to force Ellen to eat, which I guess is good because no staff is ever there, and no one else seems to care she’s not eating.
  38. KR just says, “We’re never doing family therapy again. That was a shit show.” I saw that family therapy session and tbh, I think part of the shit-show nature of the family therapy has to do with the fact that KR is an AWFUL family therapist. AWFUL.
  39. KR literally just told Ellen her name seems old fashioned and that she should change it. Um WHAT??!!?? What psychiatrist/ internist/ family therapist tells a client to change her name????
  40. Ellen is Eli now. Just… whatever.
  41. Eli and Lucas pretend to have cancer and be in hospice to get free alcohol. In the meantime, Lucas tells the waitress she is chewing and spitting because of her chemo. I don’t even know what to say here… Is this supposed to be this coming of age moment that they’re out in the community and free and shit? This is a really sick way of doing that.
  42. A client mentioned her mother took her to a Holocaust museum to feel guilty about starving. That’s what you got out of seeing the Holocaust museum??
  43. KR is taking the clients to a waterfall in the dark, and they all start dancing in it. It becomes some artsy music video of dancing in a waterfall being alive. What is happening right now….
  44. Also why would a psychiatrist/ internist/ family therapist/ individual therapist would taking a bunch of teens to a waterfall in the dark alone….
  45. Is this guy still getting billed $200/ hour for dancing in a waterfall?
  46. Asking for a friend.
  47. This waterfall scene is weird as hell and I have no idea how this has to do with anything. Is the indication that waterfalls and knowing you’re alive heals eating disorders? Because that’s just not true. At all.
  48. Eli decides to eat a chocolate bar in the most eating disordered way ever by cutting it into small pieces and eating one small piece. People are giving her props though?
  49. Lucas: “Did somebody touch you as a kid or something?” That’s a great way to bring up past trauma.
  50. Lucas and Eli can’t be making out right now.
  51. Wait they’re making out right now.
  52. Are you fucking kidding me??
  53. Who falls in love in eating disorder treatment? I’m sorry, but I know a lot of people with ED’s, and that’s not really an option usually. HIGHLY unrealistic. Also Lucas is possibly in love with Eli after they’ve known each other for what, 2 days??
  54. I will say, the scene about the miscarriage is sad. Followed by the ridiculous comment by another unsupervised client, “Can you push a baby out by throwing up too hard?” Face palm.
  55. Eli keeps getting weighed in this dramatic way, and the staff is letting her see her weight. When does that ever happen in treatment? Treatment weight is almost always done facing away. I still don’t look at my weight years after my last treatment stay- it’s not something I need to know.
  56. Eli amping up her empathy about Megan’s miscarriage: “That baby was never going to make it.” Eli, stfu. For the record, at least Megan has eaten more than one bite of chocolate this entire movie.
  57. KR is now Eli’s individual therapist as well- so we have 4 disciplines going on here. Regardless of this alone being professionally irresponsible, Eli starts asking about KR’s life like all healthy therapy relationships start… and KR answers. KR says he is practically married to his work. Eli tells him, “Sounds like you’re avoiding intimacy doctor.” I just can’t right now. I think I said that earlier but I really can’t now.
  58. KR is saying some bullshit about how there is no point of life and Eli knows what to do and “stop waiting for life to be easy.” KR is the kind of therapist who gets training by watching Dr. Phil one time. He is also the kind of therapist who nobody ever sees because glib sayings and boundary-less, unethical therapy doesn’t happen in the real world.
  59. Eli runs away from treatment, ditching her friend Lucas, who says he needs her and just professed his love for her last night. To be fair, I’d run away from that treatment center too, but for different reasons.
  60. KR, being the super ethical and great doctor he is, let’s Eli run off saying, “For Eli the bottom is critical.” Tbh, for many the bottom is death. But guess he’s cool with her taking that chance?
  61. Eli ends up staying with her mom, who thinks she should feed Eli with a bottle and rock and cradle her because Eli’s mom had postpartum depression when she was born, and Eli missed out??
  62. This is hilarious, her mom is crazy.
  63. But wait, hold on, Eli wants to be fed with the bottle. The mom pulls out the baby bottle, full of rice milk.
  64. Holy shit this is happening.
  65. The camera fades out as Eli is in her mom’s arms being fed by a bottle.
  66. I feel like I’m on drugs. What is happening??
  67. Eli walks in the moonlight and starts a trippy dream sequence that I don’t understand. I guess the point of this is that Eli finally realizes she’s dying because she sees herself below the tree with all her bones sticking out. I understand this is supposed to be a formative scene in the movie, but all I can’t take it seriously. This movie is so strange. It lacks substance, depth, any semblance of professional respect, and Eli just got fed with a baby bottle. No, I’m not over that.
  68. Also the “baby feeding” thing NEVER happens. Okay, there was the Peggy Claude-Pierre book that terrified me as a freshman in college, but nobody does that anymore (I hope).
  69. What is with this movie and bones?? I know, I know you’re skinny!! I know, it’s called, “To The Bone.” I don’t know how the movie producers can realize that not everyone with anorexia has visible bones! In fact, most don’t. The constant protruding bone imagery is not only inaccurate but triggering and frustrating.
  70. Then all of a sudden Eli wakes up from the moon/ tree sequence. Eli proceeds to hug everyone in her family, and she goes back to treatment… I guess ready to get better suddenly?
  71. Wait, so last night you got fed by your mom in a baby bottle, passed out while hiking, and had a trippy dream sequence and got healed??
  72. Please don’t tell me the movie ended.
  73. The movie ended.
  74. Are you kidding me?
  75. What did I just watch for the last hour and a half?
  76. Dear God, I hope nobody thinks having an eating disorder is anything like that, or that treatment is anything like that.
  77. This movie has gotten a lot of positive press through reviews and feedback from Sundance. WHYYYYYYY??????
  78. *screams into the abyss*
  79. Breathe. It’s okay. You’re okay. People are hopefully going to realize that this is not what the normative eating disorder experience is like. Even though there are some attributes of truth, “To The Bone” has so much gross inaccuracy, as well as triggering imagery and trite, unrealistic therapeutic discourse.
  80. This is so sad. Guys, we really need to make a good movie about eating disorders. 

To The Bone: Proceed With Caution

My fascination with eating disorder movies developed suddenly one day years ago, when I had a free afternoon and access to YouTube. For example, Growing Pains actress and anorexia survivor Tracey Gold played someone named Nancy in a Lifetime movie that is one of the most cinematically horrendous things I’ve seen.

Did these stories perpetuate my already severe eating disorder symptoms by including numbers, behavior details, and images of thinness? Yes, probably. However, I watched movie after movie, memoir followed by documentary, for another separate reason: I wanted to feel understood.

In the isolated pain of anorexia, I had shut out all my friends. I had stopped going to treatment appointments. Cold and alone in a prison that became unmanageable, I wanted someone to take my hand. I wanted someone to tell me, “I get it.” I wanted to connect with stories that made me feel safe and validated.

So, I turned to YouTube.

These films did not “heal” me. They did not constitute treatment. However, years later, these narratives stick with me. Nowadays, I am not seeking “tips” or numbers; I seek understanding.

I want eating disorders to be understood.

So many films have broached the difficult subjects of schizophrenia, addiction, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. But eating disorders? People are primarily directed to Lifetime movies and documentaries so corny, outdated, and ridiculous they can barely be taken seriously.

Cue my excitement when I learned about To The Bone months ago. Perhaps this would be a good movie about eating disorders. My high hopes were based on the fact that lead actress Lily Collins and director Marti Noxon struggled with eating disorders in the past. In addition, Project HEAL, a recovery organization I respect very much, provided consultation during filming and has endorsed the movie.

The conversation began to shift when the trailer premiered last week. Controversy spread across the opinion spectrum. Many eating disorder sufferers are infuriated (understandably) that the already small lead actress lost weight for the movie, as well as the trailer’s triggering images of empty plates and protruding collarbones. Project HEAL founder Liana Rosenman released this statement:

It’s a challenge to make a truthful movie about eating disorders that sheds light on their severity and complexity — capturing the patient and family experience of this real mental disorder — without glamorizing the disease ‘To the Bone’ tows this line beautifully. While the movie has the possibility to be triggering to some, I strongly believe that it will make a huge difference of raising public awareness of this silenced disorder.

In this post, I will be giving a layered critique of To The Bone by highlighting some key issues at play.

While I have not watched the movie, both the trailer and my understanding of the social and psychological factors of eating disorders will equip me to preemptively raise some questions and critique aspects of the upcoming film.

The Power of Eating Disorder Narrative (For Good and Bad)

Let me preface what I am about to say by noting that I will be watching To The Bone when it premiers.

I believe in the power of narrative.

When harnessed for good, the power of story can bring peace, hope, and understanding to the weary. Eating disorders are complex, misunderstood illnesses that have not captured adequately in film. Dozens of movies embrace plot lines surrounding alcohol and drug addiction, but eating disorder themes are often swept under the rug.

Historically, movies that cover eating disorders are truly awful.

I cannot say that more emphatically.

The level of cinematic creativity and diversity can be represented by me describing one scene that is inevitably in all these movies: Brooding teenage girl staring at the mirror with a bra on feeling like she is fat.

Is that the best we can do?

Elementary school-aged children have body image issues, dorm bathrooms have clogged drains from vomit, and the American diet industry is worth billions, but let’s look at a white, upper-class girl looking in the mirror with disdain?

American film is better than that. Eating disorder research is farther along than that.

It’s treacherous territory making a movie about an eating disorder. To accurately depict the hell and pain of these clusters of symptoms, while promoting recovery versus the pro ana/ mia communities, is like tiptoeing on a cliff.

“Honest” depictions of eating disorders such as Wasted and Thin have done much harm in inadvertently exacerbating a pro-eating disorder mindset. Included in these films are details that have served as “how to” tips for those who are very much embedded in an eating disorder mindset.

What can be most triggering for eating disorder sufferers in film is mention of numbers, images of grotesquely thin people, and vivid descriptions of ED behaviors.

This brings us to To The Bone.

To The Bone is advertised to be a movie that doesn’t “hold back,” in terms of showing a woman out of control in her life, with a sunken face and empty plate. Lily Collins is emaciated in the movie, a role for which she lost weight from her already small frame, despite having an eating disorder history.

I have no doubt that the movie will promote full recovery for Collins’ character, nor do I doubt the film’s intentions. I also believe it will be a great conversation-starter for the general public surrounding the secrecy of eating disorders.

However, the trailer is disturbing. 

Upbeat music and triggering imagery are paired with colorful sayings like, “I am in control,” and, “I am strong.” There is a scene of a friend joking that Collins has “calorie Asperger’s.” Snap shots of group therapy and psychiatrist Keanu Reeves indicate that the movie will have a “happy ending.” The treatment center is led by a cool, hot, “unconventional” doctor (Keanu Reeves) who takes the residents to a waterfall, I guess. Sunken faced Collins asked a fellow sufferer, “How do you just eat?” The boy replies, “I’m not going to lie. I’m really f%&#ing hungry.” Cue the upbeat music and bold colors.

Let’s start with the obvious emotional disconnect between the cheerleader music that could as easily introduce Bring It On, paired with disturbing words, phrases, and images. It’s obvious the movie is trying to promote an upbeat, “pro recovery” vibe in the weirdest way.

I’m also fixated on the hot doctor thing. There is nothing realistic about a doctor somehow going on treatment outings with clients. Sorry, been to treatment, and they have mental health techs do that kind of stuff. Usually people are lucky if they see psychiatrists once every 90 days. They’re billed at way too high of a rate to take treatment residents to waterfalls. In real life, that treatment center would cost at least $100,000 per month.

I get that the upbeat attitude of the trailer intends to foreshadow a happy ending, but it doesn’t fit. There is nothing sexy or upbeat about an emaciated girl with a protruding spine in a doctor’s office, or having “calorie Asperger’s,” whatever that means. How do any of these movie clips warrant the musical equivalent of high fives and bubble gum?

This trailer had me shaking my head as a once-enthusiast of this movie. I will still be watching To The Bone, but my concerns about this narrative are seismic, especially after the trailer. If this movie opens up the conversation about eating disorders and helps sufferers feel understood, I will celebrate. At the same time, this trailer depicts the sad reality of the lack of eating disorder education to the larger public and highlights persisting stereotypes.

Oh Look, Another Young, Upper Class White Girl With Anorexia

It’s a tale that is unfortunately the plot line of almost every eating disorder movie. A white, cisgender, upper-class, long-haired, intelligent, already-thin girl who needs control develops an eating disorder. She has issues with her family, probably. At the end, she gets better or dies.

To The Bone uses these same demographics with the main character.

Groundbreaking.

The reality is that eating disorders affect those in any ethnic group, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, age, and geographic location. Moreover, the rates of eating disorders are rising in other key demographic areas: males (especially gay males), younger children, and middle aged women.

Director Marti Noxon defended this story choice, “It’s important to remember EDs is unique and To The Bone is just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told in the US at this very moment.”

Noxon is correct in that millions of ED stories could be told, but this is the one being told in the film. This cinematic choice has broad implications. Many who watch this movie might not be familiar with eating disorders, so the choice to feature a thin, white, young female will shape the way others view what an eating disorder looks like.

The problem with a white, emaciated woman of privilege being the heroine of this movie is two-fold:

  1. It does not represent the reality of eating disorders, nor does it accurately portray the significant crossover between disorders across a lifetime (e.g. shift from bulimia to anorexia to binge eating back to anorexia). I’m not going to lie, Lily Collin’s emaciated frame and overdone sunken-eye makeup makes me roll my eyes. Many people with eating disorders are not underweight. It certainly doesn’t represent the physical “norm” of someone with an eating disorder.
  2. These demographic choices of the main character highlight existing stigma. Sadly, Lily Collins’ emaciated frame will draw in viewers. I wonder what would happen if Lily Collins had gained 50 pounds for the role rather than losing weight, or if the heroine of the film was another beautiful, but overweight, actress, such as Melissa McCarthy or Queen Latifah. What about James Corden? I don’t think a film like this would be popular. Starving is the most culturally sanctioned eating disorder behavior. Do I think a story needs to be told of someone who binges and is obese as a result, for instance? Absolutely!! But it won’t be, for a long time, anyway. I’m not surprised that the dominant narrative of this movie plays into societal fascination with anorexia and the cultural thinness ideal.  I have been disgusted by interviews discussing Collins’ weight loss. “How Did an Already Thin Girl with an Anorexia History Lose More Weight to Play Someone with Anorexia?” might be a popular headline, but it’s nonsensical for those in recovery.

The problem with this one story fitting the predominant cultural narrative is that it makes us more likely to miss someone who doesn’t fit the physical “type” of Lily Collins but is displaying eating disorder behaviors. We are more likely to overlook an older female who is always in the gym or a young male who sneaks off to his car and comes back hours later smelling of food and vomit.

Moreover, those who don’t fit the mold To The Bone sets forth might feel even more shame. These are things I’ve heard or said dozens of times:

“Someone like me shouldn’t have an eating disorder.”

“I don’t look like I have an eating disorder.”

“My insurance company denied me treatment because my symptoms weren’t severe enough. I think if I lose weight they’d pay for it.”

“What if my church/ friend group/ school/ ethnic community found out I have an eating disorder? I’ll disappoint everyone.”

I am not knocking stories of women in privilege. In fact, my story is in some respects that story– white, small girl in a seemingly normal, upper-middle class environment with straight A’s develops anorexia. I had access to health care, even when my insurance refused to authorize treatment. This is not to say that I fit the standard mold entirely. There is no “normal” eating disorder story. People are dimensional, complex beings. Those of any religion, race, cultural group, age, and sexual orientation can develop an eating disorder.

My concern is that To The Bone will fall into a category of story of a woman in privilege, stifling and silencing other narratives. To the third grader chewing gum instead of eating popcorn with her friends as an attempt to reduce “baby fat,” to the male model who drinks and smokes to avoid daytime meals, and to the middle-aged housewife who finds herself needing inpatient treatment, I say this: Your story is valid. Just because To The Bone features an unrealistic, seriously emaciated young actress doesn’t mean your pain is less valid.

Eating disorders are eating disorders. They don’t discriminate.

The Mundane Reality of Eating Disorder Recovery

Keanu Reeves apparently plays an “unconventional psychiatrist” in the movie and seems both hot and cool. I worry that these unconventional methods will serve as the vehicle of healing in the movie. As if meeting a cool doctor and coming to a profound understanding of the “why” of symptoms leads to recovery.

For years, I expected when I found out the “why,” perhaps through lots and lots of digging during therapy, I would stop my eating disorder. Maybe would no longer be necessary. I was trying to find the elusive “it,” which often doesn’t come. 

I never found out why I have an eating disorder.

Does it matter, at the end of the day? To really, truly know why I developed an eating disorder, I would have to dissect my brain with the science of 200 years from now and look at every single circumstance in my first 13 years of life. I would have to look at my family history, get data from my mom’s pregnancy and my prenatal care, etc. It is impossible to know exactly why. 

I did not find recovery from talking about my family background for years or going to restaurants with my therapist in treatment. Yes, I have done these things, and to an extent, they helped, but they never got me “there,” to the elusive “it.” 

The reality of eating disorder recovery is a secret, but I’m going to tell you it anyway:

It is boring.

There, I said it. Eating disorder recovery is choosing to sneak a mid-day snack between meetings because my stomach is grumbling. It is paying the damn $100 every few weeks to check in with my dietitian. It is filling my medication on time. It is grocery shopping on Sunday night because I am tired.

It is ongoing, and it is not fun. Well, sometimes recovery is fun. Eating ice cream on a warm night is a fun part of recovery. Most parts are not fun. I hate having to wake up, knowing that the extent to which I restrict will guide my body’s well-worn path of switching to starvation mode. I hate forcing myself to eat lunch when my stomach is in turn due to anxiety, knowing that I have to eat anyway.

Boring is not Hollywood. Boring will not gain ratings. And so, I assume To The Bone will be filled with exaggerated moments of truth and insight, as well as dramatic sensational images and numbers. Showing a protruding spine is extreme, so it’s better for ratings. Getting weighed when you’re bloated and haven’t taken a shit in 2 weeks is gross and not sexy, so it will not be included.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of having a hot, cool psychiatrist taking us to waterfalls in treatment.

Real eating disorder recovery is boring and regular. It isn’t sexy or worthy of a red-carpet Netflix debut, but it is so worth it. 

Proceed with Caution

As I said before, I will be watching To The Bone on July 14th. I hope my concerns will be unfounded and that others will benefit greatly from this film. I hope I’m not going to be on the couch eating sour candy rolling my eyes because of unrealistic “aha” moments, too many protruding spines, and calorie-counting.

I know the film will open up conversation about what eating disorders are like.

I just hope it opens up good, informed conversation, conversation that heals rather than shames and stigmatizes.

Why You Shouldn’t Call My Eating Disorder A Sin

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My relationship between my faith and eating disorder has been complicated, at best. I said the “Jesus Prayer” at a Christian camp the summer I became anorexic. I proceeded for years in pseudo recovery or full on relapse, all the while left with the question, “Where is God in this?

In the midst of probably my worst relapse, I happened to be interning at a church and was at the height of my cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I was doing daily “quiet times” and working at a church to further the Kingdom of God, and on the other, I was getting more and more out of control with my anorexia. I knew that what I was doing was “wrong,” but I couldn’t seem to stop. There was no praying this relapse away.

At a worship night, I had to leave the room and went outside to cry. I felt so alone and distant from God, and worse yet, I felt like it was my fault. Wasn’t I the one actively choosing to disappear for hours a day to engage in eating disorder behaviors? Wasn’t I the one lying about my obsessive walks saying they were “for worship?” Wasn’t I the one who “wasn’t hungry” at 11 PM after a church event? My supervisor at the time asked me the obvious question, given my emaciated appearance, “Do you have an eating disorder?”

“No, I’m just naturally thin,” I answered in the most innocent Christian church-intern way.

“I thought so,” she smiled. We smiled. Crisis averted.

Even when going to a Christian recovery conference later that summer, I refused to disclose the truth: I had an eating disorder. Nowadays, I’m an open book with that kind of thing, but back then, I felt like it would be a failure to admit that I was struggling with an eating disorder. The entire summer internship I didn’t tell a single person the truth about what was happening for me.

Meanwhile in private… all summer I was coming to the realization of how out of control my eating disorder was getting… again. I was still lying to family, friends, coworkers, and classmates about HOW out of control, but I did at least start seeing a therapist near the church where I worked.

I specifically chose this therapist because I knew she was a Christian, and I thought she could help me. I told her all about how hypocritical I felt, working at a church with a rampant eating disorder. She showed me nothing but love.

In tears, I asked her one day, fearing the response, “Do you think an eating disorder is a sin?”

She didn’t wait two seconds to answer. “I think that’s like saying, ‘Is diabetes a sin?’ ”

She wasn’t judging me.

That was probably the most meaningful minute of therapy in my entire life. Even though I didn’t totally believe her at the time, I remember so much shame lifting when she responded in the way that she did.

Years and two master’s degrees later, I would echo my former therapist’s sentiment that an eating disorder is many things, but sin is not on my list.

And yet…

I recently found out that a church I attended while living in California presented a video testimony about someone recovered (“delivered”) from an eating disorder. Notable in this video testimony is the girl talking about this sin in her life, and she discussed it being “selfish.” She also said that ultimately, the Gospel “marinating in her heart” (these are her literal words, pun probably unintended) “cured” her.

Fifteen years after being first diagnosed with an eating disorder, I have to say, at first I was livid. However, after cooling down, I realized that this “testimony” touches on a few larger issues. I will break them into the categories of: 1) Theological and 2) Societal.

Theology Basics

  1. What does sin mean?

Christians throw the term “sin” into a lot of conversations, but it can mean different things to different people. So here’s what sin means to me (my background is Episcopalian –> turned semi-fundamentalist–> turned Reformed –> turned ?? Protestant with Reformed influences). Sin is anything that is the absence of the shalom, the absolute peace and perfection, of God. As a result of the fall, sin is everywhere in society. People individually sin, there is corporate sin, and there is systemic evil in play in all brokenness of the world. War, earthquakes, climate change, and disease are just examples of how pervasive the brokenness of our world is. HOWEVER, just because something or someone is broken does not mean it is God’s desire for the world. In the Garden of Eden, God laid out a perfect image of what heaven will be like– all humans, in perfect communion with each other, the environment, and God. Regarding personal sin, all humans sin, or fall short of God’s standard. There is no way of earning God’s love by doing good, but we also can’t become unlovable by doing something bad.

2. What does the Bible say about mental illness?

The answer to that is easy: it doesn’t say anything. In 2000 BC or 100 AD, no one was taking Prozac or checking into rehab. The DSM was thousands of years from being created. Mental illness as we understand it now simply wasn’t discussed in Jesus’ time. There are definitely stories in the Bible, that reading them now, I’m kind of like, “Yeah that sounds like schizophrenia.” But the treatment du jour was either leaving the person to die in restraints or conducting straight up doing exorcisms. There are some crazy demon-exorcism stories in the New Testament. However, nothing was mentioned about “mental illness” because that is a societal construct, and relatively recent one, at that.

3. How has the church historically addressed eating disorders?

Again, eating disorders weren’t recognized in their current form until the last few decades. If you look back at The Middle Ages, there are a few saints canonized for their starvation, most notably St. Catherine of Siena, who straight up starved herself to death (sorry Catholics, fasted to death). If you’re interested in the history of starvation/ fasting and faith, there are a few great books on it, such as this one. Now: I am not condoning canonizing anyone for starving, but there was a time in church history when the mainstream church saw excessive fasting as an ideal. Just putting things in perspective.

In conclusion: When I heard on this video testimony that an eating disorder was this girl’s “sin struggle” I was leery. We all define sin differently, and mental illness is not mentioned at all in the Bible, so that’s some hermaneutical gymnastics to come to the conclusion that a culturally defined term, a “sin struggle” could be something that the Bible does not touch on. In my opinion, it comes down to what is seen as personal sin, which I will now address from a wider, societal perspective.

Societal Factors

  1. The myth of an eating disorder as a “choice”

I make a lot of choices in my day: some good, some bad. I chose to have a donut for breakfast. I chose to buy my dog a pet ewok costume on Amazon (sorry not sorry).

A long time ago, I chose to go on a diet. I was 13 and a normal weight and didn’t need to, but I felt like my eating was getting out of control. The diet spiraled quickly, and in a matter of a month, I had full blown anorexia.

While I chose to go on a diet, I did NOT choose to get an eating disorder.

There is a HUGE difference.

As a social worker, I work with people who have severe and persistent mental illness, like schizophrenia. Many people narrate their struggles similarly: they were in college, off to a promising future, when fate got in the way. They perhaps started hearing voices or seeing things that weren’t there and had a psychotic break. They got “sick.”

I have yet to hear anyone call schizophrenia a sin. It is 50% heritable– meaning that if one identical twin has schizophrenia, there is a 50% chance that the other twin will have schizophrenia as well. Schizophrenia is perceived as a genetic issue, an organic chemical imbalance or brain disorder.

BUT… anorexia nervosa is ALSO 50% heritable... meaning there are highly genetic factors associated with this disorder. It is as genetically influenced as schizophrenia.

The brain is still a mystery to us, but we know that genetics, personality, and life circumstances, such as trauma or abuse, are associated with eating disorders. Problematic genetics might be associated with the brokenness of this world, but could it be attributed to a personal choice? I don’t think so.

I think what this reflects is a stigma against eating disorders. I’ve wrote many posts about media glorification of anorexia in particular. I’ve been told that I have so much “willpower” to make myself starve. What people don’t get is that a full blown, diagnosable eating disorder is not sexy, nor is it stoppable without considerable force.

When I was interning at the church in college, I was on what I know now is my “path of no return.” I can control my eating disorder with  up until a certain point, and then, it becomes a monster functioning on its own. Past the “point of no return,” I need residential treatment. It’s almost as if my neuronal pathways have gotten out of whack, and they need extreme treatment to get pointed back to normalcy. That’s not “personal sin” in my book. That is someone struggling with something that is out of his or her hands.

In current mental health legislature, the goal is to have insurance cover mental and physical health care EQUALLY because they are EQUAL issues. Just because we understand diabetes better than we understand anorexia doesn’t mean one should be covered and one shouldn’t. Similarly, I think people have equal “blame” for mental and physical health issues. Just like my previous therapist said to me so many years ago, I am not to blame that I have an eating disorder, similar to how a person with diabetes isn’t blamed for being diabetic.

2. Language and shame

To my last, and most important point: language. The words we use matter. They can speak truth into our lives or they can hurt. Brutal criticism can be memorable for a lifetime. When I saw that a church that I once loved and attended was calling a disorder that I’ve struggled with being “selfish” and a “sin,” it cut me to the core in so many ways. It activates my anger but also my shame. As I’ve discussed, I spent over a decade in an eating disorder, many of those years filled with shame. Shame for my struggle, shame for the way I’ve looked, shame for being who I am. The LAST thing I wanted in times of struggle is being called out as a selfish sinner. I already believed that.

As the church, we should come to those with eating disorders and all other mental health issues with open hands, stigma-free language, and loads of LOVE and GRACE. We should come with open hearts and ears rather than shaking fingers and shaming language.

One reason I didn’t start a blog until almost 2013 is because I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t professional enough, I wasn’t together enough, and I certainly wasn’t healed enough. This article convinced me: No I didn’t have to have it together. There is beauty in the journey of healing rather than only the destination.

There is beauty in the trenches, the gunk, the mess.

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The Good News of Jesus Christ is this:

Sin reigns over this land. There is no part of the world that is untouched by its grip.

But God.

Diseases of all kind, physical and mental, reap havoc on unsuspecting people.

But God.

Christians are busy yelling on street corners about repentance while the homeless person begs for food down at the street light.

But God.

God intervened on this mess of a world, and we know the end of the story. I went to a movie today with the special needs girl I nanny for, and during a difficult part of the movie, she whispered to me, “What happens at the end?” I saw the movie before so I knew, “Everything is going to be alright.”

At the end, shalom will be restored on the new heaven and new earth. No one will ever have an eating disorder, nor will people who had eating disorders be called out for their “selfish sin.” There will be a new order of things, and that new order is love.

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Until then, and I’m going to be completely real with you: we need to chill the fuck out.

I believe that God delivers people from struggles but not always and not completely, this side of heaven. And frankly, those of us in the trenches don’t want to hear the words “what you’re doing is selfish and sinful.”

Let’s play nice and veer on the side of love and inclusion.

I will not tolerate churches preaching about mental illness being sin. I just won’t. It’s really not cool.

I find that many Christians don’t know a lot about mental illness. It is so stigmatized- as if Christians don’t struggle from it like the rest of the general population. Um, well, we do. We might as well talk about it and be REAL.

So please, churches, Christians, don’t call my eating disorder a sin. 

Or do and I’ll have to write another blog post about it.

Whatever.

Your choice.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part II: Beach Evangelism and Rob Bell

Humility

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My anorexia and faith had long been intertwined, but as time went on, there was no choice for me but to fall on my knees… in a more palpable way than saying the “Jesus prayer” years earlier. After nearly 5 years of suffering from anorexia, my life had crumbled before me. A vacant, hollow shell was getting good grades and applying for college, and I ended up in residential treatment for my eating disorder and OCD shortly after graduation.

My first two days at treatment were excruciating. Without my eating disorder behaviors, I felt like I was being stripped down to nothing. Who was I? Where would I turn? The existential angst that had always plagued me came at me with a vengeance. I felt like I was internally bleeding, and I needed something– a tourniquet.

In my soul searching, I stumbled across Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

I wept. 

I imagined Jesus saying, “Are you downcast and hopeless? I will give you hope. Are you exhausted and riddled with addiction? I will give you peace.”

I craved the Jesus of Matthew 11:28-30. I imagined snuggling into God’s arms of love, grace, forgiveness, and rest. This was no longer the distant, aloof God of my childhood. This was a bruised, human God, with outstretched hands, giving me a chance at life… which I would never get with my eating disorder.

For the first time ever, it felt like my heart had found its home.

When I think back on this summer, I think of sweet attunement with the Lord and a huge amount of growth. I was hungry (pun partially intended) for any Christian book I could get my hands on– the Bible, devotionals, Christian inspirational books. An angel from a local Wisconsin church would transport me and some other patients to church weekly. At church, we would watch Nooma videos, Rob Bell’s mini-sermon videos that were so popular at the time. I met with the hospital chaplain often, and I asked her why God gave me an eating disorder. She replied that my sickness was akin to her own hypoglycemia. The rural Wisconsin church and this chaplain showed me grace and compassion that stayed with me.

I left treatment with a new mandate, not a zealous, argumentative quest, but a desire to live for God– whatever that meant. I was never going to be the same.

Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of college, my mind’s focus was no longer on the college experience of football, drinking, and joining a sorority: I wanted to honor God in every way, and that started with church. I got involved in a fairly conservative evangelical church, and by the end of my freshman year, I was on a certain conservative evangelical trajectory.

On a church level, this trajectory encompassed quiet times (i.e. extended prayer times) and beach evangelism– oh yes, I did beach evangelism. I felt dirty approaching random people on the street simultaneously trying to be friendly while attempting to convert them, but I did it. That was what my church was telling me to do. 

My first boyfriend and I even “courted” instead of dated, in the style of the once-popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the implications of which included saving kissing for marriage. (Note: Don’t read that book. Don’t kiss dating goodbye).

And yet… more and more, there were reverberations in my mind that something was amiss. One of the people that catapulted my paradigm shift was Rob Bell (the picture below was taken of Rob and I at one of his tours).

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First it started with watching his Nooma videos while at treatment, and then I religiously started following his church’s podcast. I read Rob’s books and even handled marketing for his Sex God tour. Rob was the “spiritual mentor” who I met all of two times but changed the way I saw God. He was also perhaps my transitional object, my bridge to an adult worldview. Rob was the first one I heard say, over and over in sermons, “God is the God of the oppressed.” He talked about Jesus’ Third Way, one that does not incorporate violence or keeping the status quo. Rob was authentic and mobilized his listeners to go out and be the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth. He preached social justice and Jesus’ subversive message. Rob talked about difficult subjects, like Leviticus and violence in the Old Testament.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I read the book The Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne. A Mennonite and pacifist, Claiborne clinched my belief that God is the God of the hurting, vulnerable, and oppressed. In his book, Claiborne talks about going to Iraq to sit with Iraqi civilians following America’s Iraq invasion. Claiborne wrote,

“We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.”

Reading this book, it was clear that I was having a faith identity crisis. I started to wonder if my version of Christianity was inclusive of the fact that EVERY life is precious, even the lives of our enemies. In the upside-down Kingdom of God, God was calling the church to something so different than beach evangelism and Bible thumping. He was calling the church to be with the sick and hurting; to provide holistic care that involved theology but also catering to physical needs; to go to the ends of the earth, not just to save souls but to turn the entire world upside down.

Did I know what that looked like? Absolutely not. On the contrary, I barely knew anyone of different socioeconomic classes, races, or sexual orientations. I didn’t know what God was calling me to do.

One thing I did know is that I was no longer at “home” with traditional conservative evangelicalism. I couldn’t live in an insulated church that didn’t have room for these ideas. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I still attended evangelical churches, and I even voted for John McCain in 2008.

As I inched nearer to college graduation, I wondered about my vocation. I switched professionals tracks from psychology, my first love, to ministry. My thought process was this: I loved theology. I loved helping people. How best serve God besides go into full-time ministry? Here’s where my “crazy liberal ideas” started: I wanted to be a minister or pastor. Not just a youth director or secretary, as most conservative evangelical churches utilize women. I wanted to be a legit, ordained minister. At my Christian college, I was on the “pre-seminary” track because my school affirmed women going into ministry (go Calvin!). I even took a summer internship at a church to “discern my calling” (i.e. think about whether or not to go to seminary).

I was learning a lot, but I was torn about grad school. At my summer internship, I had a revelation: there is much value in psychology for the church. I saw a church riddled with wounds and mental health issues, and here I was with a gift to understand and help people with these issues.

At school, I learned in psychology and theology classes that all that is good is God’s. I believe at the core of my being that psychology is good and useful. It is much needed in the church, and I love it. If God is involved in the restoration of ALL things, that means I could both be devoted to God’s work AND choose a full-time profession besides ministry. In the end, I decided to graduate school in psychology. In full disclosure, I went to Fuller Seminary partly because they have a clinical psychology program that incorporates theology classes and partly because that is Rob Bell’s alma mater.

I went to Fuller with no expectations but also searching for something . I wanted a broader knowledge of psychology and theology, but also a deeper relationship with an infinitely beautiful God whose love has no bounds.

In my nomadic way, I picked up and moved to southern California, with no idea what I was in for.

Becoming a Liberal Christian Part I: High Church and Militant Evangelicalism

The Early Years

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Prior to my birth, my mom (a staunch Episcopalian) and my dad (a lapsed Jew) met with a Rabbi to discuss my religious upbringing. His advice was, “Pick one, and don’t make the child go to two Sunday schools.” They laughed. It was a joke between them for most of my childhood that also reflected a certain religious ambivalence, as if religion was like, “Do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”

Even though I’m 100% sure my mom would never have raised me Jewish anyway because she was the only one with firm religious beliefs, my parents went through the trouble of giving me a Jewish baby naming AND traditional infant baptism.

Needless to say, I grew up going to the Episcopal church where my grandparents have been members since 1950.

I was always fascinated with God. At age 3 or 4, I told my mom that when I grew up, I wanted to be a “storyteller for God.” One time I was praying so fervently in church, I lied that I saw Jesus on the huge crucifix in the sanctuary. I don’t know why I felt the need to make that up. Part of me wanted so badly to see Jesus, in flesh and blood.

I was an dedicated Sunday School student with good attendance. If the task at hand was to memorize the Lord’s Prayer or Nicene Creed, I did it. Most of my memories of Sunday school involve discussing church holidays or memorizing prayers. I sang in the church choir (shocking for those of you who know me now) and played bells. I sang and memorized things about God, but I didn’t really “get” God. God seemed distant and aloof, communicating to people using “thee” and “thou.”

My “Conversion” Moment

People in the world of evangelicalism will often tell you that there is a “moment” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Some celebrate “spiritual birthdays.” One of my previous churches did an Easter campaign, in which you would hold a sign up of your “date” of salvation and post it to social media.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, but when I was 13, I went to an evangelical summer camp. At this time, I was knee-deep in anorexia and equally deep in denial. In my starved state, I remember people were jumping up and down to worship songs I didn’t like, and all I wanted was to sleep. One thing they did that I do remember, however, is “share the Gospel.” In evangelical Christian terms, this means a basic summary of this message: In all of his perfection, God loved us and we rebelled. All of us, no matter how moral, are sinners, and God is our enemy. However, we are in luck. Jesus paid the ultimate price for all of humanity, and all you have to do is accept Jesus’ gift, and you will be saved. 

I heard this message for the first time, and everything made sense to me. The mosaic pieces I had gotten from my Episcopal upbringing and this new wording of what Jesus did came together for me. I looked up in the stars that spanned the sky night and said, “I’m in.” And so began my “Christian journey” (again, not really sure now if it was a “new” journey or rather repackaging  of what I learned growing up).

Militant Evangelicalism

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With my new found life quest, preaching Jesus to the ends of the earth, I began Jesus’ work. And by Jesus’ work I mean my 13-year-old understanding of Jesus’ work, which meant theological arguments with my Jewish family members and getting them passive aggressive Christmas gifts, such as a book on apologetics… which I now understand was not Jesus’ mandate at all. Hostile conversations with my agnostic grandpa about why he should believe in Jesus RIGHT NOW are hardly effective or Christlike.

I became a nightmarish Sunday School student. I admonished our priest because he didn’t talk about “relevant” topics in the Bible such as abortion (he noted that abortion is not actually specifically mentioned in the Bible despite what my Teen Study Bible told me). I argued with my high school Bible Study leader. I would bring up my superior knowledge at every turn, such as my certainty that, “God has a reason for everything.” She disagreed with me, saying that things like disease and war are not in God’s will, although he allows them. I was pompous and arrogant. I thought I knew everything because I checked out a bunch of books on Creationism from the library and read my Teen Study Bible.

One of my camp counselors told me, “Think about the end of time, when you’re taking a staircase up to heaven, and you see people walking down the other way to hell because you didn’t tell them about Jesus. That’s why you need to spread the Good News!” I never wanted that to happen. I would cry at the very thought of half my family descending to hell on my watch. So I would argue with anyone who didn’t know the Lord, partly to alleviate my own anxiety and guilt about hell.

My method wasn’t great. I am lucky nobody slapped me, because I definitely deserved it. That’s why I call these years my “militant evangelical years.” I had good intentions, maybe, but then again, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Stay tuned! There is more to the story.

A Letter To My Former Therapist

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Dear J,

The three years we worked together were the best and worst of my life. I knew at the beginning– in my bones, I knew— that you were it. You were my ticket out of misery and into living a full, rich life. My first thought about you was, Wow, this woman seems like the reincarnation of Carl Rogers. Your empathy was unprecedented.

I didn’t have a solid enough sense of self at the time, but I could feel that you believed in me. When I doubted myself, when I slipped back into old patterns, whatever happened, you were there. You treated me like I was a worthy, capable, real human being.

Sometimes, I could believe that. Other times, I relied on your strength, and you believed that for both of us.

You cared about my feelings– no — you loved them. You acknowledged whatever I was feeling and took it seriously. I was stunned by how much you cared about me. Maybe even by how much you loved me (in the most platonic of ways).

In your eyes, I was a capable, intelligent therapist, prone to struggles, yes, but worthy of love. You trusted me not only as a human but as a professional.

Words cannot describe how you changed my life for the better. You helped patch my ragamuffin, broken self into a mosaic of messy parts. The mosaic was in the making.

But then again, words cannot describe how you changed my life for the worse.

In a whirlwind, what became a healthy, therapeutic relationship led to your emotional unraveling and at the end, a break up via email, with no closure.

To say that the end of our relationship destroyed me is cliche but true. My life, just like yours, unraveled at the seams, and everything was turned upside down.

You, the person who believed in me, who laughed and cried with me, who I would send my most personal writing, who was my rock, disappeared into thin air. In a moment, you were gone.

Just as I was starting to trust you and the walls were down, you left me without defenses. I was raw, cold, crying, emotional, and numb all at the same time.

I developed a disgust for therapy. I left graduate school. I moved back home to be closer to family. I changed my life completely because I didn’t believe in people anymore, and I didn’t believe in myself.

Almost 3 years later, the scars are still there, and sometimes, they bleed. I cannot trust my new therapist of almost 2 years. She reminds me so much of you, it’s scary. I see you in her sometimes, in her mannerisms and words, and I quiver. I don’t know if I can let anyone into my heart again. Not after you. 

“I wish I could do something to make it safer for you to open up,” my new therapist tells me.

“People always leave, just when you count on them,” I respond.

This has become our therapeutic struggle. I can’t trust, and I think about abandonment constantly. Would I get hurt now if my new therapist leaves? What about now? I can’t hurt again like I did with you. My sense of self can’t sustain another loss of that magnitude.

I think about you less and less over the years. I don’t cry every time I go into Ann Arbor anymore, nor do I listen on replay to Sia’s “Titanium,” a song I remember playing at the time of our relationship’s demise.

I still grapple with this: What happens with all the memories, the loving, painful, bitter, scattered memories?

I have tried locking them all in a box, and it never works. The moments we spent together spill over, sometimes through tear-streaked eyes, and sometimes with a smile.

I’m not back to normal following this experience. I have occasional flashbacks of you, and I remember every moment from when our relationship turned sour. I remember the angry emails we sent back and forth. I remember where I was when you broke up with me.

Then, I remember your face and how you used to laugh at my weird humor. I remember your expressive eyes, and your frown. I remember how you advocated for me. I remember the good things sometimes, and I don’t want to forget those. You were a huge part of my life and my story, and I can’t only hate you and have that be the end.

You weren’t just the “bad object,” you were the “good object” too. 

And yet, what you did and how you ended things caused me so many abandonment issues and trauma, I have needed years of therapy for years of therapy.

The sad thing is, nobody talks about the death of a therapeutic relationship. Nobody talks about a loving, trusting therapeutic alliance gone south.

If I was grieving the loss of a best friend or family member, it would be socially acceptable to feel grief. With a therapist, not so much. Does one ever hear, “Hey, I am a wreck, my therapist broke up with me today”?

Psychotherapy can be wonderful, yes. It can be healing and transformative and beautiful. 

… but it can also hurt. It can cause trauma and pain. It can sting, hurt, and wound on a gut-level. Nobody talks about the latter. 

But you know what, J, I am coming out of the closet. I want to say goodbye to you, but I also want to publicly acknowledge my grief. For years, I was quiet about the matter. No longer.

I am left, almost 3 years later, with no answers, ambiguity, and lots of pain. For a long time I thought it was me. Something I didn’t do. Maybe, despite all odds, you could come back to me if I did x or y.

Now I am learning that it was never about me.

It was about you.

It was your baggage and emotional issues that ended our relationship, and it wasn’t my fault. We will likely never meet again. On a good day, I can be okay with that.

So goodbye, J. You were a great therapist… one of the best. You started me on a path to healing that I hope I’ll one day finish. But I won’t finish that journey with you.

Sincerely,

Charlotte