I became a Christian when I was 13. Shortly afterwards I developed anorexia. Surprising? Well, yes and no. Eating disorders (EDs) affect everyone: young and old, male and female. But they’re especially attractive to ‘good’ girls and boys. These young people won’t go off the rails in spectacular fashion – but they might break down quietly instead. They’re in our churches and our youth groups – maybe even yours.
More than ‘fat’
EDs are about much more than feeling ‘fat’ or aspiring to size-zero perfection. They’re about communicating dangerous feelings: writing with my body what I can’t say with my mouth. They’re about getting rid of frightening emotions: anxiety, sadness, anger, despair. They’re a way of comforting – and also punishing – myself. EDs are about trying to take back control when everything else is chaos: hormones, relationships, life. They’re an attempt to make myself invisible and they’re a desperate cry for help.
For the sufferer, an ED is a solution rather than a problem. It might look like I’m pursuing death but in fact I’m trying to live. Food is how I deal with pain. By restricting it, I feel in control. By overeating I’m self-soothing. By getting rid of it (‘purging’), I’m flushing away the scary feelings that threaten to tear me apart…
A spiritual issue
Even when I was at my weakest, my greatest need was for the gospel. I needed to know that Jesus came for the sick and that it was ok to make mistakes and be weak. I needed to know that Jesus was big enough to handle all my feelings, even the scary ones like anger and fear. I needed to know that other people struggled and were broken. I needed to face the consequences of my decisions and to say sorry – and most of all, I needed grace.
It’s easy to think that only experts can help but EDs are spiritual problems as well as medical ones. The Church has a vital role to play in ministering to the body and to the heart. This is not easy: EDs are threatening and hard to understand. But, while I knew about grace in my head, it was when others came alongside me that I believed it was true. So, as a youth worker, how can you spot the warning signs? And how can you help?
Read the rest (from this month’s Youthwork) here