Growing up I was always a ‘good girl’. My brother still jokes that he got the looks, my sister got the brains and I got the morals. Who’s the one you’d most like to take to a party, eh?
Well ‘good girl’ worked for me. I was bright, sensitive and a perfectionist. I hated letting people down – and it was really important to me that when I did things I did them ‘right’. All or nothing might have been my motto.
I felt like I was plain looking, but I was good at some things so that maybe made up for it. I loved reading and writing and some teachers told me I had “a gift”at English. I instantly latched onto this as something that made me special. That approval made me feel worthwhile – and from the earliest age I would work through the night, writing and rewriting.
My family are very close. We didn’t have a lot of outside contacts and it was pretty strict, but loving. They weren’t Christians and there were no issues of weight in the family. But food and mealtimes were always a big focus.
I look back to my childhood as an idyllic time. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but that’s the way it’s always seemed.
When I hit 13 a number of issues came up.
First, I became a Christian. This was, and is, incredibly significant to me. I’m sure I’ll write more about this. But as I look back I realise that this was a Christianity that talked about ‘God’ but not Jesus. It talked about sin and rules and not much about grace. And the idea of hell probably scared me into the kingdom.
It also made me scared for my loved ones. I instantly took on full responsibility for my family’s salvation.
My family were understanding, but suddenly things had changed. This was maybe the first time I was different from my family.
About the same time my body stopped behaving, with curves spilling out where before there were reassuring hollows. I was safe and comfortable with my family and a few close friends. But suddenly boys and sex and relationships were on the agenda. Now, books I knew. Floods, wars, Second comings. But boys?
For a young Christian girl in the early 90s life seemed incredibly dangerous. This was about the same time as people were becoming aware of AIDS and the TV was full of scary advertisements I didn’t really understand. At school, you were either a virgin or a slapper – and it was hard to know which was worse. Youth group was full of veiled warnings about the dangers of teen pregnancies and letting your body get out of control. It was the beginning of a very confused relationship with my body.
And it was the start of a different relationship with my family. My parents had been my best friends – but now there were things I just couldn’t explain to them. The securities I’d had as a child now seemed to be strangling me as an adolescent. We started falling out. Every teenager falls out with their parents. But it really tore me apart. Half of me wanted to leave my whole life behind, half of me never wanted to grow up.
On top of this, I had moved to a girls school which was very achievement focused. Out of my pretty friends I was the brainy one. But suddenly brains didn’t count any more. It was a totally new social scene – boys and parties and what you wore and how you looked and whether or not your legs were smooth. It felt like a new language everyone else knew, but I couldn’t speak. So I stuck with the language I knew best – I worked hard. And as you can probably guess I was bullied.
Aged 13, my whole family moved house and had to stay with my grandmother for 3 months. There wasn’t a lot of space, right at a time when life seemed so chaotic. It felt like there was too much of me, I was a mess and I wanted to get clean.
Something in me snapped. I thought, ‘I’m out of control, I’m taking it back! I don’t know who I am. What I do know is, this person isn’t working. I’m going to make a new one.’
It seemed to me like there were very few ways I could express myself in life. Food became it. I started obsessing with it. Hiding it. Cutting down. ‘Safe’ foods got whittled down one by one. Until I wasn’t eating anything.
Suddenly the dinner table had become a battle ground. And the good girl had become a rebel.
But I didn’t care. All these stresses made me feel messy and all over the place, like a spill. Like red wine spilt all over the table. I hated that. By starving myself I felt I was cleaning up the mess. I was going to have a stainless steel exterior. Clean and clinical and shiny and hard.
I got a big natural high from starving myself. I wasn’t at the mercy of my feelings anymore – I was in charge. And instead of having lots of worries I couldn’t manage, life became very simple.
The bible says, “There’s a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) The thing is, it feels like life. It feels magnificent.
And it works. Kind of.
All your hungers are being silenced. Because you don’t want all these conflicting desires out there. You kill those desires and you kill them and you kill them until it’s only about food. And you don’t have to worry about whether you have to go to school or grow up or enter the world.
It shuts you down and it cuts you off. Now everything’s about secrecy. At meal times you shove food down your sleeves or you spit it out into cups. You hide your lunch. You hide your body under big baggy clothes. And you spiral down into deeper and deeper secrecy.
It all starts so small. But it turns into this all-consuming monster. You couldn’t stop if you wanted to. But the point is that you don’t. From being the good girl who meets everybody’s expectations you become this creature who will kill anybody or anything that stands in your way.
And as it goes on, because it’s so closely connected to identity, if anyone threatens that area it feels like they’re threatening your very life. And in one sense they are! And God or your parents or your friends or teachers or youth leaders can go to hell.
The whole thing is a mass of contradictions:
You feel out of control in the world, yet you’re controlling everyone else. You feel in control of your eating, yet you’re enslaved. You don’t know what’s going on. The very problems you’re trying to address are all made worse. So you become the very creature you’re trying to escape.
You’ve got this glorious awful secret that’s bigger than you. You want people to help you, but you feel like you’ll die if they do.
On one hand you’re screaming out and writing over your body what you can’t say with words. On the other hand you’re trying to cover it up.
You were never any trouble to anyone – now you’re a terrorist and your body’s the grenade that blows your family apart.
If you listen to the media about eating disorders they will point the finger at size zero models and celebrity diets. I can’t speak for others, but those things had nothing to do with my experience. I have never looked in the mirror and seen a fat person. I have never wanted to be a super-model. I have never thought that I looked better anorexic. I knew I looked worse. I wanted to look worse. I wanted to destroy myself and to do it my way.
I can’t really explain how I got out of this downward spiral. I did know Jesus and I knew He was with me. Looking back I can see Him at work.
People sometimes ask: Why didn’t people around you just stop you? But you have to remember it happens over a long period of time and you become an expert in secrecy. Actually the person who noticed it first in me was the girl who’d been bullying me at school: “You’ve lost an awful lot of weight”
One day I just told my mum that I should probably go to a doctor. We went and he said ‘It’s just a fad that all teenagers go through, don’t worry about it.’
6 months later I was at the point of collapse. Mum and dad went to the doctor who said ‘In another week you’d be dead.’ Because I’d gone semi-voluntarily and because I was a minor I was referred to a treatment centre.
From there it was a hellish few years. There were huge conflicts with my family. I put them all under enormous pressure. And, unfortunately for my sister and brother, all the attention was on me.
At the time I had some counselling. But we never got to the bottom of anything. It just seemed like if I put the weight back on, everything would be fine. So that’s what I did.
But things weren’t fine. I was a healthier weight but all the drives were still there. They just came out in new ways. I had big struggles with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and self-harm. And of course I threw myself back into study with a vengeance.
From the outside it looked like I’d recovered. I was back to being a good girl again. I was a healthy 18 year old and I’d just won a place at a top university. In the glossy magazines, this is where the story would have ended. But actually the way I’d recovered sowed the seeds for a relapse 10 years later.
Actually every fear I had going into anorexia had been confirmed. Because now it’s obvious that it is all about the weight. Now it’s obvious that I am disgusting and people can’t handle my mess. Now it’s obvious that I do need to bury my feelings down deep and never let them out. Now it’s obvious I just have to perform and people will accept me.
Recovery is vital. But the way you recover is just as important.
Fast forward 8 years and what does a bright, driven, good Christian girl do? I throw myself into full-time church work. I married another full-time Christian minister and we determined to become ministry dynamos.
I was seen as someone who would go far in the evangelical world. I moved in the right circles and knew the right people.
We both worked for an incredibly busy church, and I didn’t need much encouragement to work myself into the ground. When my husband started training to be a vicar at bible college, I studied with him full time. And while I said I was “part-time” at the church I was working all the hours God sent.
Towards the end of bible college we were faced with moving again and I felt exhausted by the prospect of re-inventing myself yet again – this time as an all-knitting, all-baking, vicar’s wife. Before long, the old eating patterns started up again. I started running. For hours. My weight plummeted.
I realised I was in trouble so I went to the GP and got a referral to specialist help. Unfortunately the waiting lists were huge and the doctors kept telling me I needed to lose more weight to qualify for help!
We cast the net very wide to find Christian counsellors. Very few even got back to us. Qualified counsellors told us that my problems were too big for them to handle. The only thing they suggested was to turn to the NHS. The NHS kept telling me I’d have to lose more weight if they were going to help.
So I did. And this time I lost more weight than ever before. Looking back I think only the Lord preserved me from a heart attack or organ failure.
Let me tell you, anorexia is not glamorous. It’s hair falling out; nails turning black; internal organs shutting down; fine, silver hair growing all over your face and body; chest pains; shivering cold all the time; constant hunger, exhaustion and hyperactivity. It’s collapsing on the way to the bathroom and crapping yourself, unable to get up.
Of course I covered this up as best I could. And throughout this time I was having regular check-ups at an eating disorders unit (who were operating an odd kind of incentive scheme – ‘we can’t help you until you lose more’!).
Alcoholics talk about rock bottom. That’s where I was at this point. It seemed like nothing and no-one could help. My heart was an iron fist, in a skeleton, shaking at God and the world.
Here I’d love to tell you that I figured it all out and devised the perfect recovery programme. But I didn’t. All I can say is that the Lord stepped into my life. And if He could soften my iron resolve and rescue me, then He can do the same with anyone.
The Real Jesus
Around this time my granny died and I was too sick to make it to the funeral. That night, I had a sense of being completely at the end of myself and just seeing things very clearly. I was too tired to keep fighting God. But I felt a real sense of His overwhelming love. I felt like He really cared for me.
As I sat there I had two Scriptures in mind. One was from Revelation 1:14 which talks about Jesus like this:
“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”
I’ve always had the feeling that I’m too intense for everyone else. I’m too passionate, I say things fiercely and with conviction. Well here was someone more intense than me. I’d met my match in Jesus and I could rest in His intensity.
The second Scripture was from Revelation 5: –
“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne.”
Here is Jesus as the Lamb slain for us. He’s been broken and He understands what it is to feel so weak. He’s Lord of the universe – and yet He makes Himself nothing.
It’s this incredible combination – Christ is more intense than me, but He’s also softer and more loving than I’d ever dared imagine. This was what gripped me.
And I felt the Lord saying to me ‘You’re mine. That’s enough.’ It was a sense of the Lord saying ‘I love you as you are but I won’t leave you that way.’
For the first time I really understood that I was completely loved independently of anything that I could do. I could get off the hamster wheel and just rest in His love.
This might sound strange but it was this experience of His love that really made me feel sorry about my sins. There’s a verse in Romans chapter 2 that says “God’s kindness leads you to repentance.” That’s what happened to me.
His kindness made me face my anorexia as a sin, as well as a sickness. And His kindness made me say sorry. Sorry to God, and then later, to my husband, my family and my community.
Now when I admit to being a sinner, this isn’t the same as the self-hatred that was so much a part of my anorexia. Most of my life I’ve thought of myself as wretched and condemned! This is different. This was Jesus the Lamb convicting me. This was sin revealed by the power and grace of Jesus, not just self-hatred. It was something to be broken over and to weep over. This true repentance was vital. (See more posts on this topic, here and here).
Once I faced my sin in the right way – then there was a solution. I could repent and there could be forgiveness. This is different to the world’s model which says it’s just a sickness. But if it’s sickness not sin then you’re simply a victim, and you’ll always be a victim. So it’s a wonderful thing to admit sin and to give it to Jesus – that’s why He died in the first place.
This was the real Jesus. And meeting Him was life-changing. I felt as though I’d been fighting and fighting (like Jacob in Genesis 32). But finally He’d won. And it was His grace that had overwhelmed me.
The next day I started eating. In one sense it was as simple as that. But in another, it has been anything but a smooth road. You don’t just bounce back from nearly killing yourself. Just like Jacob, I’m going to have to walk with a limp.
My digestive system has been irreversibly damaged which has lead to many other physical complications. I’ve been off work with it for a couple of years now and my daily bathroom routine is… well, you don’t want to know!
If you’re reading this and you’re currently on the downward slide, don’t just think, ‘It’s no big deal, I’ll put the weight on later.’ In all likelihood you are doing life-long, irreversible damage. I’m not trying to scare you. It’s just a fact.
Other things that have helped have been getting into proper Christian community and the unconditional love and support of my husband. It hasn’t been professional help or experts in the field that’s made the difference (though I’m sure they can help). For me it’s been fellow believers who haven’t been afraid to enter into the mess and to speak grace and truth to me.
I’m not a professional but I think the Lord has taught me some things about these issues that could help others. I’d be happy to chat to you over email or perhaps to interact with you on the blog. It’s my prayer that this website will be one way that the Lord takes the stupid mistakes I’ve made and turns them to good. That’s the kind of thing He loves to do!
“Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle. Let them give thanks to the LORD for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for men, for He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107:5-9)