Content warning: Anorexia nervosa and disordered eating.
[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.]
My twin sister and I developed anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder, just before eleventh grade. We didn’t plan it. Yet when I realized that I felt weak and light-headed, and that my parents now observed our untouched plates with anxious apprehension, I was not surprised. I was happy. I was thrilled that I had finally lost weight. As my fingers traced the ridges of my ribcage or the hollows in my wrists and ankles, the sensation seemed nearly euphoric.
When I first told my family I planned to lose weight, this decision had nothing to do with my health or my physical ability. I was simply sick of loathing the girl I saw in the mirror. I was tired of feeling ugly, fat, and undesirable. I wanted someone to want me— and I wanted to want myself. Yes, of course God loves me, I lied; I know that, and I’m grateful. But that truth didn’t seem to matter anymore.
I would find myself trembling beneath the bathroom sink, hunched in the fetal position with knees tucked under my torso. As my mind raced over the list of things I’d eaten, I didn’t understand how my mom could simply sit there and watch me eat. “You should’ve stopped me,” I screamed at her in anger. “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t let me eat like a pig. You’re just trying to make me fat!” I believed that I was the only person who could help me; no one else understood or sympathized with my desire to starve. I couldn’t even take communion on Sundays. I was terrified of the calories in the bread and the wine.
I couldn’t even take communion on Sundays. I was terrified of the calories in the bread and the wine.
Whenever my family attended church, we conjured up our brightest smiles. There were many mornings when my father and my younger sister would walk inside as the sermon began, claiming that the rest of us were simply running late due to our hair, makeup, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. In reality, my mom sat in the church parking lot with my twin sister and me, desperately begging us to eat breakfast, or forcing us to forget about what we’d already eaten. Sometimes she lost her temper. When that happened, my sister and I would stare at her in stony silence.
“You’re so selfish,” my mom would shout, the sedan physically shaking with the weight of her voice. “You girls should be ashamed of yourselves. People are starving— and they’re dying! And then you go and do this— after everything your father and I have done for you.”
Although I attempted to feign indifference, those words cut me deeply. I was happy as an anorexic; I truly believed that. Yet there was another part of me I couldn’t explain. I didn’t want to have to calculate endless calories after eating. I didn’t want to force myself to run until my knees and ankles ached. I didn’t want any of this anymore, yet I felt certain that I would die without it.
When my mother tried to seek counselling from the church elders, their advice was no less hurtful. “You’ve committed a secret sin,” one woman told her. “Both you and your husband. God sees your sin and he’s punishing you. That’s why he afflicts your daughters with mental illness.” “If only you’d fast and pray,” another man ironically declared. “Then your girls would be healed.” He didn’t know that my parents had already tried praying and fasting—and, of course, we were still sick.
Once my parents stopped attending our home church, they tried to seek professional help from a local psychologist. She talked enthusiastically about self-love, self-worth, and self-empowerment, but her words rang hollow in my mind. I hated myself for hurting my family; I hated my body and my obsession with food. When I searched for love, worth, and empowerment within myself, I found nothing but spite, imperfection, and apathy. Each time I swore to recover from anorexia nervosa, I failed. I felt like the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (…) As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (7:15-18).
One night as I lay in bed, tossing and turning (perpetual hunger makes it impossible to sleep), I heard the sound of a dog crying. But we didn’t have a dog. When I stumbled downstairs in confusion, the curtains were drawn and the lights were dimmed. I walked into the kitchen to find my mother curled over the kitchen table. She was bawling.
As a lover of Russian literature, that night reminds me of Tolstoy’s words in Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth: “Vanity is a feeling quite incompatible with true sorrow, and yet that feeling is so firmly grafted into man’s nature that even the deepest sorrow rarely banishes it.” My self-absorption, my preoccupation with my weight and appearance, was incompatible with the pain and pity that I felt for myself and family. As I witnessed my mother’s suffering, I silently cursed my hard-heartedness. Audrey, you’re the worst daughter; you’re a terrible sister. You’re selfish and stupid. You can’t even eat. How dare you claim to be a Christian! In a flash of memory, I recalled that my youth pastor had once described vanity as a sin. I now wondered whether God would punish me in hell for my eating disorder. I awkwardly hugged my mom with one arm, trying to think of words that might comfort her. There was nothing to say. When she grabbed my hand and pulled me close, I was convinced that this wave of self-reproach would suffocate me completely.
In those few minutes that we spent wordlessly huddled together, I wondered: how could my mom still love me? I had done nothing to deserve her love. On the contrary, all I had ever done was hurt her. I recalled all of the nights I had hurled insults at her, ridiculing her food, her advice, and her appearance. When she had forced me to eat a dish that I perceived as “fattening” or “unhealthy” (a dish that she had spent hours preparing, hoping to tempt me to eat), I had told her that I hated her. Now I couldn’t help but compare her love to the love of Christ—the love that he had demonstrated for me, a sinner, by dying on the cross.
Nevertheless, despite the unconditional nature of my mother’s love, she could not save me from either my sin or my mental illness. Mental health challenges are not sin; my sin was my vanity: my desire to be desired by the world around me. That was not a part of God’s original plan for my life. However, as Tolstoy observes, when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, that vanity became “firmly grafted” into my nature. My sorrow for myself and for my mother were therefore insufficient saviours. Nothing natural, nothing inherent within me, could save me from myself. When God lovingly broke my mother and I that night, he reminded us that although therapy, medication, and family are all good and important blessings, none of these things apart from him would suffice. My mom and I had both sought to gain control over my compulsive eating restrictions, but we could not defeat my “old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9). We were both helpless, and we needed to commit recovery to God entirely.
Despite the unconditional nature of my mother’s love, she could not save me from either my sin or my mental illness.
I will not lie and claim that recovery was easy. On the contrary, I’m grateful that God didn’t make any aspect of recovery straightforward for me. He walked with me through the numerous therapy sessions, breakdowns, and relapses that I experienced for the next six years. Yet as I learned to cling to him instead of pride, selfishness, or despair, I could leave behind the mistakes in my past, trusting that “his mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).
By his grace, he slowly but surely repaired my relationship with my mother. As we began to pray together for healing from my eating disorder, I recognized that she was neither my jailer nor my doctor. Her purpose in life was not merely to force-feed me things I didn’t want to eat. As strange as this may sound, my mother is my sister in Christ, and we are both made in his image. Whenever I felt tempted to lash out at her, God would remind me that I am called to love and respect others—especially when that “other” is my mom. This didn’t make my emotions any less real or difficult, but it did help me to replace my anger and frustration with his patience, mercy, and consideration.
Most importantly, God addressed the underlying root of my struggles: my need for validation. My favourite Bible verse is still Jeremiah 2:33, when God asks his people, “Why do you beautify your way to seek love?” (NKJV). Whenever I read those words, I feel a rush of pity for the girl I once was. God loves me, and he loves you, regardless of our appearance, weight, or relationship status. Whether you’re experiencing mental health issues or have yet to deal with these kinds of experiences, we are all sinners, because “there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). He sees the wickedness within our hearts, and he loves us anyways. No makeup or weight loss would conceal that from him. Thanks to God’s endless mercy, I am now transformed and covered by Jesus’ blood, which “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
God loves me, and he loves you, regardless of our appearance, weight, or relationship status.
Although I still catch myself wishing I were skinnier, prettier, smarter, or more [insert any other comparative adjective here], his Word reminds me that these insecurities have no claim on my identity. I exist to give God glory—not myself, for “to seek one’s own glory is not glory” (Proverbs 25:27). Instead of devoting all my energies towards self-beautification, I can direct my gifts and strengths to sharing his beauty with the world.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.