I’m at a conference, and it’s lunch break. I’m sitting at a table, headphones on, hoping I don’t see anyone that might ask me to go to lunch. This might be obvious to people walking by. But what is less apparent is what is going on inside my mind. I’m berating myself for what I consumed yesterday, mentally trying to calculate calories. I just worked up the nerve to throw out the wrapper from my protein bar so I can stop obsessing over the label. It’s the little victories, right?
I’m torn between two states: one, the fuller-figured, fertile self; the other, the thin, delicately-boned self. Some days I think I want to be the former, but the moment the scale reflects gain, I hate myself entirely. All I can feel is the way my stomach thickens and folds. The panic that I won’t be able to stop gaining weight—no matter what I eat—seizes me. And I zealously fear a day my metabolism might stop working altogether.
This is my every day. This is not a phase. This is a mental illness.
If you hear someone say they had an eating disorder, I’m inclined to believe that one, they’re lying (passing, to be more polite), or two, that they had a temporary phase of disordered eating that was triggered by an event. I am no longer in treatment or restricting my calorie intact in extreme ways, but I still have an eating disorder. There are good days and bad days, progress and relapse, and it’s far from stable. It’s a vicious cycle of I eat, I loathe, I eat, I loathe, I eat, I loathe—sometimes with more eating; sometimes with more loathing. It all depends on the day or even sometimes the hour.
I can’t tell you when I first developed an eating disorder, or if it was simply something encoded in my body since birth. I can tell you that having an intense type-A personality, as well as high-functioning depression and anxiety, does make me more prone to having an eating disorder. Being someone that has high-functioning depression and anxiety means that I thrive when I am doing, and it’s hard for me to simply be. So, in 2006 when I injured my knee and was bedridden for a year, ED became my bedfellow. Monitoring what I ate was my only means of control during that time, and I started to like the thin, sickly look I was cultivating. It became a project. And I needed a project, so, so badly.
As my knee healed, I became more ill in other ways. And trips to the physical therapist became replaced by trips to nutritionists and therapists. I was now occupied with project anorexia recovery. But, what no one told me is that there is no recovery—not in the sense that I could return to a “normal” life pre-ED. Instead, I could learn how to manage it, with varying degrees of success. What I also didn’t come to know until much later was that my mental illness is not a sin or a choice; it’s simply my reality.
My experience as a Christian woman with a mental illness (or illnesses, to be more exact), has not been an easy one. Eating disorders are not something that people like to talk about. It’s uncomfortable, to put it mildly. Even in liberal college courses devoted to disability studies, eating disorders are rarely—if ever—discussed. In a disability studies-themed composition course I taught last year, I brought up the film To the Bone (2017), and—although many had seen it—the majority of my students shrugged, not sure how to broach the topic. Disturbing and awkward were some of the responses I received. Unlike autism or disassociative identity disorder, illnesses like anorexia or OCD, and even clinical anxiety and/or depression, tend to be joked about, treated in a dismissive manner. This means that—among other things—for those that actually experience these illnesses, it is hard to be taken seriously.
Even for myself, I find it much easier to acknowledge that I have anxiety and depression rather than an eating disorder. It’s simpler for people to understand, as most people have experienced at least a mild case of either/both during their lifetime. However, that being said, it wasn’t until last year that I felt comfortable even claiming my disability. After years of passing, I made the decision to not only go back on medication—no longer viewing it as a weakness—but also to come out to my family and friends.
I have never had the same experience with my eating disorder (or, I suppose, that is, until now). I have anorexia nervosa. It is something that people have assumed about me (“odd” eating habits/bouts of thinness) or heard about through hushed church gossip. But, it’s nothing that people want to ask me about directly. It just makes for juicy rumors. And if there is anything that “good-natured” church people love—from my experience anyway—it’s gossip. I hate this, but it’s what I’ve unfortunately found to be true.
In high-school, I had a friend’s sister who was bulimic and her Christian parents refused to acknowledge it, yet they asked for some of my self-help books to borrow, delivered discreetly in a brown paper bag, of course (I wish I was kidding). They were hopeful that they could “cure” her before anyone might find out. Perhaps this is because mental illness is so often deemed either the result of sin or a personal failing/the parents’ fault. Sadly, things haven’t changed much in the decade since. When my younger sister went through treatment this past year for anorexia, my mom found the church to be woefully absent and in serious denial about their situation.
I hope one day to be a part of a church community that is different.
Similarly, with anxiety and depression, I have found no comfort in my current church body. One pastor stated in a sermon that he only believes in situational depression and, in so many words, other people just needed to “get over it.” Likewise, if you mention you have anxiety, you are simply given a bunch of Bible verses. These conditions are seen not only as sinful but also as able to be cured quickly—with just the right amount of devotion and prayer. I am a sinner saved by the grace of God, and I have a chemical imbalance. This does not make me a lesser-Christian, any more than a Christian having cancer might be.
This lack of understanding results from ignorance, plain and simple—both the perpetuation of misinformed joking and the silence surrounding the variety of mental illnesses that exist. My ever-patient husband has begun researching my conditions, so he can understand me better, to perceive my reactions as more than excuses or choices. I have also begun to track (and avoid if possible) certain things that trigger my mental illnesses: evening plans, impromptu/spontaneous events, schedule changes, events where a meal is involved, events without an end time, holidays—to name a few. And sharing these things with Michael, and those with whom I feel I can trust, has improved my mental state remarkably: I no longer have to stress about coming up with a reason I can’t attend. I’m not flaky by choice. And it’s incredibly difficult for people to “forgive” this, and even more so for them to empathize.
As such, it’s no wonder that people often write off the mainstream Christian church as fake and unwelcome. To be honest, Christ is the only thing that keeps me going. As someone with depression and constant existential dread, living is exhausting, and I’d prefer to be dead. I’m not suicidal, but that is only because of the grace of God. Without Him, I would be nothing. I would see no point in living. And it breaks me to think of how many people are like me out there who do not have the peace that comes with knowing Jesus. He keeps me grounded.
Ultimately, I believe that if more people—especially those from the Christian community—are willing to be open and honest about their experiences with mental illness, that positive change can occur, that we can move past the stigma. That we can be incredible witnesses for God’s love and acceptance. That we can grow the church. I have to believe that. I’m so tired of being alone.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.