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

 

 

 

On Gaining Weight

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Weight gain.

Even the words can be uncomfortable.

In a society that shuns women gaining weight for almost any reason, talking about gaining weight is understandably awkward. However, for people in eating disorder recovery, weight gain (recovery reframe, courtesy of my dietitian: weight “restoration”) is often a natural, healthy part of the process… and yet, rarely do people talk about it.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about weight gain restoration.

I have had to gain weight at many points in my life… the consequence of relapsing in and out of anorexia for years. The most excruciating times have been in residential treatment, when I was expected to gain 2-3 pounds per week.

In the purpose of being real, my experience of weight gain has been less than wonderful. In treatment, I spent a lot of time in oversized sweaters, laying stomach-down on couches, and trying not to gag over my thrice daily supplements. The whole process was physically uncomfortable, not to mention that psychologically, it felt like a death. I was starting to look “normal,” and I didn’t know how I felt about that.

From what I can tell, my experience of restoring weight is not unique. Someone with anorexia gaining weight is the equivalent of someone afraid of heights who has to use the Empire State building elevators every day for work, or someone with a spider phobia working in a spider-infested cubicle.

It sucks.

My main point is this: Weight gain restoration is horribly sucky but it is an absolutely crucial reality of anorexia recovery. For the rest of the post, I’m going to unpack that.

Why it is sucky:

  1. It is physically difficult for someone with anorexia to gain weight. *Disclaimer: I am not a scientist or dietitian, but I’ve seen dietitians for years, so here’s what I’ve gathered from that. If you want information from a real science writer I’ll link to Carrie Arnold’s blog here.* When someone has been engaging in eating disorder behavior, the person’s metabolism is low and body goes into “starvation mode,” as it tries to conserve nutrients and body weight.  Weight gain is difficult because the body temporarily goes into a hyper-metabolic state, meaning: It can take a LOT of calories for a person who has anorexia to gain weight for a period of time. This hypermetabolism doesn’t last forever (it goes away after 3-6 months), but while it is in effect, the weight gain process is all the more difficult.
  2. Misinformation people give that scares the shit out of you even though what they’re saying is factually unfounded. I can’t even begin to tell you how many inaccurate, triggering things I’ve heard over the years like, “Wow, I could just eat a hamburger and gain 5 pounds.” Or, “I gained a pound yesterday.” Or, “That dessert went straight to my hips.” Or worse, “I just look at a slice of cake and gain weight!” The reality is that gaining weight isn’t so straightforward. Around 3500 calories equals a pound. So unless someone is eating an additional 3500 calories per day, gaining a pound from one day is highly unlikely (and note: that’s 3500 calories on TOP of what a person normally eats). Not even to mention, bodies can fluctuate about 5 pounds per day anyway, depending on the time of the month (for women) and fluid intake. If the scale is “up,” it is much more likely the effect of water, rather than a nighttime snack of cookies.
  3. The appearance comments are awful. It is hard for people not to notice if you’ve gained a fair amount of weight. I have heard my share of annoying, triggering comments over the years. Recently, someone came up to me and said, “You’ve put meat on your bones.” Um… ok? How is a person even supposed to respond to that? “Thank you…?” “I like ice cream…?” I mean… what? Even the, “You look healthy,” comment can send me into a tizzy. It’s better not to say anything. I know if I’ve gained weight. I don’t need to hear about how you feel about it. I wish I could say I can brush off the appearance comments with ease like the feminist, anti-fat-shaming woman I am, but I can’t. They affect me. As I said earlier, gaining weight already feels like a death.

Why it is crucial:

  1. I would argue that physical recovery is the most important first step to recovery from anorexia. Without that, a) the person’s life is at stake, b) the person’s bodily organs, such as the brain, heart, and other vital organs are not getting replenished, and c) the eating disorder is still serving some purpose and therapy is ineffective. I have spent years trying to half-ass recovery, or doing pretend recovery, while I really wasn’t willing to do the work, including braving the uncomfortable feelings of weight gain. Anorexia recovery often requires weight gain. If someone is underweight and that person’s dietitian says weight gain is necessary, it’s not just something optional. For me, the real work of excavating my life didn’t even begin until I was weight restored.

I get it. For people with anorexia, gaining weight sucks. There are a million things I would rather do than gain a bunch of weight. Weight gain is sandwiched (pun partially intended) somewhere between running, which I hate, and waking up early, which I also hate.

But withholding the necessary weight for proper bodily functioning is a form of self-abuse.

Again, gaining weight in recovery from an eating disorder is not optional. It’s not fun, but it’s also not optional. Partial recovery is not real recovery.

So my recovery warriors:

You are more than a number on the scale. You are more than bodily discomfort or a slice of cake. I know that getting to your goal weight is far from easy, and neither is the road to anorexia recovery.

I am saying this as much to you as I am to myself, because I have been going through my own weight gain — dammit, I mean restoration– process, and I’m not letting myself off the hook either.

Nothing wrong with a Body by Boost!

Drops of Jupiter

It happens every year, as the seasonal sunshine wafts into my consciousness, and I remember….

Did you make it to the Milky Way to see the lights all faded, and that heaven is overrated?

I am almost 13 years old, and my after school regimen is set in stone. I walk home every day from my nearby middle school, make myself Easy Mac, and watch TRL (Total Request Live) on MTV with Carson Daly. I get my cheese fix, eyes glued to the music videos blasting on the screen. I remember my favorite song from that time period being “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. I listen to it over and over, and tears would roll down my face.

I do not understand why I cry, or why the emptiness inside throbs around my heart strings. My days are slow and boring, and my weekends are lonely. While other students plan end-of-school pool parties and spring sleepovers, I think about why some things are so beautiful and why others are so sad, and why there is a void in my soul, and I cry.

Tell me, did you fall for a shooting star–
One without a permanent scar?

My liposuction-obsessed nutrition teacher has a new assignment for our 7th grade class: record your food intake for a full day, and we will receive print out how our eating matches with how we should be eating. I am terrified for this day, just as I was terrified for a public weighing in gym class just a year earlier.

This is my chance, I tell myself. I want to show that I don’t have to eat Easy Mac every day, that I can forgo all snacks for sucking hard candy. Just for this day. I still remember that day, and the discipline it took to do what would later become second-nature: restriction.

The print out of my nutritional intake comes back, and it is affirmed that I had not eaten enough for the day. My reaction to this finding: relief. A deep sigh of relief that for one day I could control my pre-puberty hunger pangs. I am proud of myself, and I feel productive, much more productive than I have felt getting A’s in school. For the first time, maybe ever, I feel worthy.

The restriction doesn’t stick, because my body is growing rapidly, and I let myself honor my healthy appetite, but I will always remember this day.

And tell me, did Venus blow your mind?
Was it everything you wanted to find? 

I decide in the spring to go on a “diet.” Or more practically, I want to eat less at parties. I start trying to manipulate my food intake, and it blows up in my face. I restrict only to consume large amounts of sweets at parties anyway because I am so hungry from restricting. I grow increasingly frustrated at myself. I don’t want to be that person who gorges herself at get-togethers with friends. I start using the word fat in my deprecating self-talk. I want to be in control. I don’t want to get “fat” and get made fun of for my weight like other girls in my grade. I devote all my time and energy into making my “diet” work. I become obsessed with controlling my food intake. It doesn’t happen right away, but I am meandering, puttering around a black hole, and eventually, I fall into it.

The diet doesn’t stick.

Anorexia does.

And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?

I fall hard and fast. Within only a month, a clusterfuck of genes and environment have culminated in the worst way– my genetic predisposition, personality characteristics, life stressors, and environmental/ social/ spiritual issues brew the perfect storm for anorexia’s sneaky suction cup into my life.

I know nothing about anorexia, but I am addicted to whatever it is that is happening to me. My life feels more manageable and safe. My inner loneliness is traded for obsessing about cookbooks and trying to force other people to eat. Emotional pain is replaced with constant fatigue, to the point that I wonder if I have contracted mono.

I no longer worry about parties or friends or being a failure. I am too tired, so I don’t give a shit about anything. All that matters is the scale, my weight, and my food intake.

I no longer cry. I no longer feel.

I like it.

It will change my life. It will ruin my life. It will almost kill me. But right now, in my 13-year-old starvation “high,” I like this.


Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken?
Your best friend always sticking up for you even when I know you’re wrong
Can you imagine no first dance, freeze dried romance, five-hour phone conversation?
The best soy latte that you ever had and me

Fourteen years have passed since that season of my life, but those years have been filled with suffering and scars to show for the wear and tear. My body is weaker and has accumulated some permanent damage.

The worst thing I hear people say to me is that they wish they had my “self-control” in regards to eating. They have no idea what they are saying. Yes, my eating disorder resulted in weight loss. But at the expense of what?

I didn’t have late nights spent with friends in high school. The day of my high school graduation ceremony, in fact, I was too hazy to remember anything except for my internal debate about eating a snack. The month before I graduated from college, I was medically withdrawn and sent to treatment. Hours and hours and days and days and years and over a decade were lost of my life.

I didn’t have meaningful teenage memories. No 5 hour phone conversations with crushes. No staying out late. No eating out. Nothing fun was able to penetrate my stone wall of isolation and anorexia. For that I mourn.

And now you’re lonely looking for yourself out there.

Even now, chills run up and down my spine hearing the song “Drops of Jupiter.” I am haunted by the memory of a 13-year-old girl, barely a teenager, whose aching, throbbing soul wanted purpose and meaning and also macaroni and cheese. I am haunted about why what started as a cursory diet became a self-sustaining monster.

Looking back, I see the warning signs of anorexia in neon colors. It feels as though I am near train tracks, watching a train approaching as fast as lightning. I shout out to my sad 13-year-old-self standing in the tracks, “Get out, you have to dodge this train, whatever you do, move off those tracks.”

My aching, throbbing soul longs for answers and meaning for the long, lonely journey that has robbed me of vitality and life in the last 14 years. And yet, such answers elude me, so I must find meaning in the questions. As a perfectionist and control freak, this is unacceptable. I hate the questions, and yet I must live in them.

I can’t remember what it is like to eat without thinking about what I am eating. It is hard not to mentally tally calories when I spent over a decade memorizing the calories of every single food product ever invented.

I hope that someday my default response to stress will be to pull out a good book or do some deep breathing rather than the instantaneous craving to starve. I hope that someday I can eat a cookie without my mind analyzing the fact that I’ve eaten a cookie.

I want to know who I am. I want to get to know the existentially empty, angsty, anxious, insecure 13-year-old that is inside of me.

I don’t want to be a lonely wanderer.

Despite all the wounds and scars from a journey I never wanted to have, I can’t change what has been. Anorexia has been my past, and its after effects still impact me today. And yet, out of the tattered ruins of brokenness, I have to believe that out of ashes something beautiful will arise.

The 44-Pound Woman Story

FYI I will NOT be posting any thinspo images in this article, this is Rachael in a healthier place (my assumption)

It’s all over the media. It is trending on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Go Fund Me: Rachael Farrokh, only 37 years old, made a social media plea to help her get treatment for anorexia, and her video went viral.

The media followed soon after, printing article after article with names like, 44 Pound Woman Dying of Anorexia Seeks Desperate Help. The world responded to this viral video and the subsequent news coverage, and Rachael’s Go Fund Me page raised over $120,000.

I am glad that  as a result of this, she is going to get help at Denver ACUTE, an eating disorder treatment center in Denver that helps with medical stabilization. I believe that Rachael Farrokh deserves and does desperately need treatment.

As an honest caveat to what will follow, I do not know extensive details on this story, so I cannot say I know much about this woman’s case. I have not watched her Youtube video plea, nor will I. I will not look at the ultra-thin pictures that pop up on my Facebook.

However, I will say this: the media coverage on this story has highly disturbed me.

In my opinion, the media coverage of Rachael Farrokh’s struggle for treatment does a disservice to all of us in:

1. Inaccurately portraying the reality of most eating disorders

2. Perpetuating the glamorization of anorexia and the exploitation of extremely sick individuals

3. Failing to address the systemic issues at play

****

1. I want to take a step back.

Around 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder in their lives. Currently, there are four major types of eating disorders (per the DSM-V): anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and otherwise specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).

One of the changes to anorexia in the new DSM is the removal of the criteria that people with the disorder must be 15% under their ideal body weight, because that is sometimes not the case. In fact, people with restrictive eating patterns or anorexia can appear of “normal” weights to others. 

Further, the most common eating disorder is NOT anorexia, it is binge eating disorder. Around 1-5% of people have this disorder, and it is associated with recurrent episodes of binge eating. Most people with this disorder, as well as bulimia, are of normal weight.

The point I’m making is this: people with life-threatening, treatment-meriting eating disorders do NOT necessarily have to be underweight to warrant immediate treatment.

You do not have to be 44 pounds to have an eating disorder… or 54, or 104, or 154, or 204.

Eating disorders are life-threatening and should be treated seriously at their earliest signs and symptoms. Purging can be life-threatening at ANY weight. Binge eating disorder and restrictive eating can be life threatening-too. People with eating disorders are usually required to get medical supervision because electrolyte levels, potassium, hormones, etc. must be monitored, thus reaffirming the point that regardless of the diagnosis eating disorders are serious.

This woman is not the norm of people with an eating disorder. Some or most of the time, eating disorders are not visible to the outside eye. At my “sickest” (binging, overexercising, restricting, whatever) people have been completely unable to tell that I was close to breaking down.

I worry about this media coverage. I know the way my brain used to think. I wanted to lose x pounds or get to x weight to feel like I was “worthy” of treatment. For people with eating disorders, this viral story can be triggering and harmful.

2. In a Communication class, I learned this point: “The media is the message.” I want to look at the message that comes through the articles.

In the news articles I saw, I viewed many pictures of Rachael looking severely emaciated and vulnerable, and media articles used words like “desperate” and “shockingly thin.” I’m glad that donations poured in, but why did this story become so popular in the first place?

The media has a strange, glamor-tinted fascination with anorexia. The more severe the story, the more people are interested. In a country full of “obesity epidemic” lingo and sayings like, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” culture is fascinated with people who maybe “went too far” by developing severe anorexia. They receive our sympathy points, and we read the articles. Oh yes, we read those articles about Rachael Farrokh. We saw the pictures, the many pictures.

The pictures that accompanied many of these articles (and the Youtube clip) are nothing short of what Kelsey Osgood coined, eating disorder porn. These images aren’t healthy to anyone. They are triggering to ED sufferers, exploitative of a woman who is clearly dying or is at extreme medical risk, and they falsely portrays what an eating disorder is like in most cases.

Rachael Farrokh is sick. Her body and mind are deprived of nourishment they need to survive. And in the midst of that the media is fascinated with how she looks, and these constant pictures seem exploitative, as if she is being show off in some theater of the grotesque and public pity.

Anorexia and other eating disorders are not sexy or glamorous, as media messages might indicate.

They are severe psychosocial disorders, and those suffering from them need treatment, rather than being exploited by their pictures being blown up on the internet.

3. Even as I write this, I think that deep down, this whole story is a farce to the real story. The real story is this: Stories like this should not be happening in the first place.

Why can’t all people with eating disorders receive affordable eating disorder treatment?

Why does there need to be a Go Fund Me page not only for Rachael but for anyone with an eating disorder?

Well, that’s an easy answer: because the American health care system is not conducive to helping people get eating disorder treatment. 

ED sufferers have a high mortality and relapse rate, and insurance companies (in my experience historically) do not like to cover full, comprehensive treatment for treating the disorder.

A few years ago, I was at a point in my life in which I was looking at doing IOP (intensive outpatient) treatment. My insurance company denied my claim for services, even though I was out of control and in desperate need for help. I flat-out asked this question: “If I weighed 5 pounds less, would you authorize me to go to treatment?” Whoever I was talking to at the ever wonderful Blue Cross didn’t directly answer that question but did say this, “You might have a better case.”

You might have a better case.

As if I have to plead the right to receive eating disorder services, that my insurance company is all but telling me: Lose 5 pounds and you can get the help that you need.

How fucked up is that.

As I’ve said in this blog post several times, eating disorders are severe, and weight is often not a good indicator of how much someone needs or “deserves” treatment.

Everyone deserves treatment. NO ONE deserves to go through the living hell of an eating disorder. While we heard about Rachael’s extreme story in the news, there are countless people who are unable to afford treatment and are dying as a result.

The American health care system needs to understand ALL eating disorders for what they are and be able to offer treatment for those who need it.

***

In sum, the media has done a disservice to others with eating disorders. The articles full of glamour-tinted images of someone dying of anorexia do not accurately describe the experience of most people with eating disorders. In addition, no articles I’ve read mention the systemic injustices having to do with lack of insurance coverage for eating disorder treatment.

I have nothing against Rachael Farrokh. I hope she recovers fully and goes on to live a full, meaningful life. But the media, society, and we as individuals need to think critically about this story and how we understand anorexia and eating disorders in general.