I was all set to write a fun, breezy little post about one of my favorite things in the universe—wine—when the Great Hive Mind informed me that this is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Thanks, Facebook. Now I feel guilty writing about wine.
Because I don’t do things I feel guilty about—or, at least, I try not to do them—the wine post is on hold. Instead, I’m going to share a few thoughts about how I walked away from anorexia for good 14 years ago.
For those of you not familiar with the disease, the prognosis for those battling eating disorders isn’t exactly rosy. While most people who struggle with anorexia get somewhat better, few get all better. The majority spend their lives waffling on the edge of a relapse. Many fall right off that edge.
But me? You couldn’t drag me back to that edge with a thousand horses. I like cheese too much. And bacon.
I also like myself too much. And my friends and family and every other person on the planet who doesn’t deserve to deal with the horror that is Emily When She’s Not Eating. In my case, Christian charity pretty much forbids a relapse.
That’s not to say I’m not a normal woman living in the 21st century. Air-brushed babes can totally get me down. Skinny jeans can’t go away fast enough. But, regardless of how I occasionally feel about my body, I’m not going to starve myself in pursuit of some unrealistic ideal. At 39, I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to stop feeding myself. Life it too full to spend one minute of it going down that rabbit hole.
So, what made my recovery possible? Lots of things, from my desire to be a mother (although that hasn’t quite worked out) to an increasingly full and fun life. Five things, however, stand out above the rest.
1. I accepted that I wasn’t perfect.
Much of my struggle with anorexia was rooted in my frustration with myself. I was frustrated with my faults, frustrated with my weaknesses, frustrated that I didn’t look, think, or act the way I wanted to look, think, and act. I was curvy, not lithe; smart, not sexy; way, way too sensitive, and full up with opinions that spilled forth from my lips with a life all their own.
Some of that frustration was wrongheaded (Note: There is nothing wrong with being curvy and smart). But not all of it was off the mark. I did speak my opinions too freely and with insufficient charity. I was too sensitive and self-centered. My temper was not one of my greater virtues. In short, I was not perfect.
Shocker, right? But that bothered me in all the wrong ways when I was 19. I couldn’t stand my imperfections, and I wanted them gone immediately. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t keep those opinions from popping out of my mouth.
I could, however, keep from popping things into my mouth. By not eating, I could punish myself for not being perfect. I also hoped that maybe people wouldn’t mind the opinions so much if they were coming out of a size 2 body.
Believe it or not, that didn’t work out so well. If Emily Eating had 100 opinions she needed to keep to herself, Emily Not Eating had 1,000.
As the years passed, however, I grew in wisdom and maturity. I learned more about Original Sin and concupiscence. I realized that nobody was perfect, that everyone falls short, and I stopped expecting more of myself than other mere mortals.
That’s not to say I bought into the “You’re Okay Just the Way You Are” nonsense that my (not even remotely helpful) counselor spouted. I was not (and am not) “okay.” I’m a sinner, not a saint. I’ve got work to do. I just recognized that I’m an ordinary member of the human race and the work I have to do can’t be done overnight. I need time. I need grace. So do we all. And that is “okay.”
2. I made new friends.
I had wonderful friends in college. I loved them dearly. But, with precious few exceptions, they struggled with food just like I did. At my university, eating disorders and disordered eating ran rampant.
After I graduated, however, and my social circle expanded, I started meeting women who wouldn’t touch rice cakes if you paid them. I’ll never forget the moment I saw my roommate Jessica eat four cookies and not express a word of guilt. It was a revelation.
That’s why, when people ask me how they can help a loved one struggling with anorexia, my first answer is: Have a healthy attitude towards food yourself.
That’s really it. Don’t complain about your weight. Don’t go on crazy diets. Don’t beat yourself up over eating cheesecake. Just make wise choices about what you put in your body, enjoy the heck out of good food, and embrace the size you’re supposed to be, not the size the media tells you to be.
Trust me, it really does help them.
3. I ate cheese.
For years, my breakfast consisted of a small Lender’s Bagel topped with one piece of melted fat-free cheese. Yes, I shudder to think of it now too. But eat it and little else long enough, and you’ll also start to think fat-free cheese is Kraft’s answer to triple cream brie.
Shortly after my 25th birthday, however, I went to Wales to visit a friend. There, her blessed mother fed us cheese—real, honest to goodness Stilton cheese. It was creamy. It was rich. It was glorious! I realized almost instantly what an idiot I’d been. There was this wonderful, delicious world of cheese out there, and I was eating rubber!
At that point, I began wondering what else I’d been missing. So, I started testing the waters, sampling a hamburger here, a piece of carrot cake there. And it was good. It was so good. The more my taste buds remembered what good food tasted like, the less I cared about being a size two. My priorities changed, and I was all the happier for it.
4. I developed a sacramental worldview.
This was a big one. Bigger than cheese even. You see, behind every eating disorder is a wrong vision of the world. The anorexic looks at the body and doesn’t see a precious, beautiful gift. She doesn’t see the living image of God. Instead she sees a hunk of matter, a piece of flesh whose worth is determined by its size and that needs to be controlled, punished, or both.
The same goes for food. Anorexics don’t look at food and think, “There’s a sign of God’s love for me, a perpetual symbol of the total self-gift he is from all eternity and the gift he becomes at every Mass in the Eucharist.” No, the anorexic looks at food and sees a problem. She sees the enemy. She sees something that has to be controlled before it controls her. In the presence of food, she feels fear, loathing, revulsion. Not gratitude. Not amazement. Not wonder.
Sometimes, anorexics don’t eat because they don’t believe they deserve to eat. Sometimes, anorexics don’t eat because their life is in chaos and food feels like the one thing they can control. Sometimes, anorexics don’t eat because they want to make themselves disappear. Sometimes, it’s all three.
But always, always, always, it’s because they don’t see creation rightly. They don’t see themselves rightly. They don’t see food rightly. They don’t see a world where everything—food and the body included—are occasions for grace, natural sacramentals that proclaim the glory of God and invite us to love God more.
Because anorexics don’t see creation rightly, because they don’t see reality rightly, they can’t act in accord with it. They can’t act sanely.
The truth is, most of the world is crazy right now. Few people see reality rightly. It’s just that some people’s crazy manifests in an inability to feed themselves. Others manifests in wanting to marry their father. Or finding meaning in the size of their investment accounts. Or liking Kanye West’s music.
For me, the real turning point in my recovery was realizing that my body, not just my soul, imaged God. I finally saw it as the gift that it was, a gift that made so much possible. And when I saw that, I stopped wanting to punish it and control it. Instead, I started wanting to care for it.
The same goes for food. When I realized that the most intimate communion I had with God was that I ate him—when I realized that the Almighty, All-powerful, All-knowing God of the universe became food for me in the Eucharist—I stopped abusing food. I stopped seeing it as the enemy, and started seeing it as a perpetual sign of God’s love for me. And I wasn’t about to say No to that love. I needed it too much.
My recovery from anorexia was, in many ways, a logical one. Which is how I tend to operate. As long as I’m drinking coffee, I’m a woman whose thoughts, more than her emotions, guide her actions. Now, when I’m not drinking coffee, all bets are off, but most of the time, with me, “See the good” means “Do the good.”
I saw the good of my body, I saw the good of food, I saw the good of cheese, and I started acting in accord with those goods. When I figured out that starving myself was a fantastically awful way of controlling my world and that I was abusing two of the greatest gifts God had given me, I did an about face right quick.
But my ability to do so was a grace. My whole recovery was a grace. It was a gift from God that I can never repay. And no, I don’t know why I got that gift and not the gift of being able to keep my opinions to myself. God has his reasons, I suppose. All I did was show up.
I did, however, show up. As soon as I realized what the Eucharist was, I got my rear end over to nearest Catholic Church each and every day. I prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I received the Blessed Sacrament. I read about the Blessed Sacrament. I did my bit, placing myself before Christ again and again, expecting he would take care of all the lingering bits of my struggle as I sat in his presence.
And he did. He showed me what the books couldn’t and healed what logic didn’t. He did a great work in me. And he wants to do the same for each and every man or woman still living in the mental prison of an eating disorder.
God always wants more for us than we want for ourselves. He wants wholeness. He wants joy. He wants us to be his children, feasting for all eternity at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
And again, all we have to do is show up.
**Addendum: It’s important to note that even after I stopped “eating like an anorexic” it took me several years to figure out what “eating like a normal person” meant for me–to learn what types of food and what amounts of food I needed. I had to be patient with myself in that process, just as I had to in every area of life. Someday, when the deadlines aren’t looming quite so grimly, I’ll write about that process too.
A few books that might prove helpful if you or someone you love struggles with an eating disorder or disordered eating.
- These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body (by me)
- Weightless (by Kate Wicker)
- Bulimia: Hunger for Freedom (by Katie Gesto)
- The Secret Language of Eating Disorders (by Peggy Claude-Pierre)