In crafting the first part of my narrative, I am unsure whether to make it a story about anorexia specifically. While anorexia is a disorder that controlled most of my teenage years and may have left me with permanent health problems, I choose to see it as symptomatic of the complexities of teenage anxiety, the desire for order, and the needs of the soul that make it difficult to be a vulnerable human living inside a body. As such, I believe that talking about mental health in a way that focuses on specific diagnoses and labels can be misleading. I am no doctor or any kind of mental health expert and certainly cannot speak for the experience of others. My aim here is to be a storyteller. And if I can only leave you with one moral to this story, it is this.
Believing that 125 pounds was “heavy,” obsessively guarding my eating patterns to the point of lying to be parents and health professionals about my habits, and becoming dangerously underweight was never about an obsession with my image.
Never at any point did I let this disorder take over my life because I thought that being thin made me more beautiful or better than other people. Though I had vanities similar to any teenager, I never harbored narcissism that led me to pursue these self-destructive habits. Even when the disorder was at its worst, I truly believed that I wasn’t doing anything a normal health-conscious person wouldn’t do.
I believe it is essential to stress this point as much as possible because it is so common to treat eating disorders as, at worst, moral failings, and, at best, an inability to rationally comprehend basic principles of nutrition. I remember reading blogs for Christian women by Christian women (I won’t name them specifically) that addressed eating disorders with statements like, “Jesus didn’t die for your self-image,” and they claimed to be there to help women find freedom from “sinful obsession with the body.” Thankfully, my parents didn’t endorse messages like this, but I know others who weren’t so lucky and were deeply hurt by these alienating messages.
Like so many other disorders, my anorexia happened because my brain was responding to other stressful circumstances in my life with a natural mechanism for defense and self-preservation. The disorder occurred when this mechanism spun out of control and caused me to externalize inner stress by harming my body. When my anorexia was “caught,” well-meaning friends and family tried tirelessly to convince me that I was already beautiful and scared me with facts on the dangers of starving and malnutrition. All to no avail.
Many Christians are trained to think of psychology as the enemy of Faith. While there is a historically valid reason for this attitude, the last several decades have opened the door for a rich and wonderful conversation between the Church and mental health professionals. So often members of the church treat those with eating disorders, and other kinds of disorders, as individuals who are prideful, stubborn, or selfish.
When we suffer from ailments of the mind or body, Christ suffers with us. Christ came to be with us in our joys and sorrows, and in our health and sickness. If anyone is telling you to repent of your eating disorder, it’s okay to find distance and to seek out voices that will show your acceptance and honor you as a whole person. We live in a culture of alienation — and that goes for both Christian and non-Christian circles. But if we in the Church can be open to understanding psychological needs and not estranging the soul from the functioning of the brain and body, maybe it can open the door for caring and compassion.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience by writing a guest post, doing an interview with one of us, or joining the team as a regular contributor. 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.