But You Hope

hope

*This is a poem I wrote several years ago as a theological and emotional reaction to Holy Week, pain and resurrection, and the tension of the now-and-not-yet Kingdom of God.

That moment of agony when you realize
that nothing in the world

no amount of numbing
or screaming
or hiding
can make it feel okay again.

you are left with a void,
an absence of what should be
and nothing can be done about it.

you are left there, dying
holding onto the faint hope of a Being much greater than yourself
that is able to make these dead, broken, dry bones come back to life again

you do not know, but you hope that God can cling onto you
when you are not able to cling onto anything at all

you do not know, but you hope.

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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.

Dark Night of the Soul

Fall 2009.

Darkness cloaked my soul. It had been that way for some time, but nothing like this. It was as if an impenetrable wall was separating me from the land of the living: the land of happiness, impending college graduation, and apple picking on crisp fall days.

An aura of despondence haunted my every footstep. I was descending deep into anorexia, spiraling faster and faster and out of control.

It is hard to put such depression and pain into words. I couldn’t feel God’s presence, even when I opened my Bible or prayed late at night. Church was repetitious. Prayers were mindless. There was nothing but a painful, vacant void of what had been.

Maybe I wasn’t spending enough time with God. Not enough devotionals. Not enough prayer. Not enough something, certainly, because why else would God be so silent?

I was convinced that my school’s annual silent retreat would change things. Like a good fireside chat with a friend, a weekend on Lake Michigan with Jesus would restore my relationship with the Almighty and lift the heavy cloud that was weighing me down, so I hoped.

30 hours of silence does wonders to people. Sometimes Jesus comes at hour 5. Sometimes Jesus comes after a period of prayer and fasting.

Sometimes Jesus does not come at all.

I marked the hours by sleeping and pacing up and down the Lake Michigan beach. That fall weekend was so cold, I remember that. My emaciated arms were shivering at the temperature of the current.

God.

Silence.

GOD.

Silence.

God, where are you?

Silence.

The lake water crashed against the shore.

I felt nothing.

I shivered my way back to the cabin, still expectant, waiting. But no Bible verses popped into my mind. No signs magically appeared. I was empty and spent. My body was weak, but I had enough strength to feel betrayed and abandoned by God.

For the first (and only) time in my life, I felt cosmically alone.

It is a horrible feeling, to feel utterly isolated, abandoned not only by your friends and family who are oblivious to your struggle, but abandoned by God; to feel his deafening silence; to feel so dark and tired that nothing matters anymore.

I realized, fully, at that moment: I need help. 

Five years later, I still remember that silent retreat on Lake Michigan. I remember the emptiness, the terror, and the aching thoughts:

Maybe God is not with me anymore. Maybe he has left. Maybe… he was never with me at all.

My heart still aches at times, left with whisper of ghosts that are still unaddressed. However, that dark night of the soul has long passed. God answered my repetitious prayers that meant nothing in my heart. God felt my tears and answered my cries. In time, I once again felt his presence.

I expected that God would have me memorize psalms or strike me with an insightful theological revelation. Penance or Bible memorization, perhaps. But that’s not how things happened.

God came to me in the things I feared– warmth, love, nourishment, and food. The things that terrified me were what stitched me up into a living, breathing human being once again. God could not penetrate my hardened, cold, aching heart as it was. It wasn’t until it was warmed and breathed into with love that Jesus could enter.

In my depression and darkness at the silent retreat years ago, I was convinced that God had left me. It is so ironic that while I was praying so fervently for God to come, the answer had been there all along, in the dining room.

God had been there, asking me to eat breakfast. God was as close as a muffin and peanut butter, or granola and yogurt. He was there the whole time, in my time of anguish, and I missed him.

Of course, I wouldn’t conceive of eating those things at the time. The log in my own eye was causing me to stumble into everything in my path, but I was blind to anorexia’s death grip over my life.

I did not know what I know now: I cannot experience anything– including love– if I am not nourished. I cannot be empty and pure, as much as my eating disorder tells me to be, because cutting myself off to life cuts me off to God, and that is a terrifying fate.

I do not experience God’s love all the time. In fact, it is still a daily struggle.

However, I have found that I can feel God’s presence much more if I have eaten breakfast.

Soon after this, God intervened in my beautiful, chaotic mess of a story and showed me:

No, you cannot subsist on coffee and vegetables alone and expect to have your body function normally.

No, I will not let you shrivel up and disappear.

No, you cannot worship anorexia over me. 

Yes, you must accept love.

Yes, you must eat cake. 

Yes, you must laugh.

Yes, I love you. 

It is so much easier to see things in retrospect. In my story, my period of darkness was followed by an experience of tremendous growth, hope, and love.

When I was going through deep depression, I did not know what was to come. All I saw was hopelessness and despair.

The answers did not come to me right away.

Sometimes they never do, not in this life.

God did not give up on me.

God has not given up on our world.

Dark nights of the soul pass away. I cling onto the promise that darkness will never be the final word.

Perhaps things don’t make sense now, but I believe with all my heart that someday they will.