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Jesus and my anorexia

by
15 January 2021

For Florence Gildea, an eating disorder led to a distorted view of God

Alamy; graphic by Genaro Santos

‘You think I measure you with this?’ Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Pierre Mignard (1681)

‘You think I measure you with this?’ Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Pierre Mignard (1681)

IT HAS been ten years since I was given two weeks to live.

I was a 17-year-old who, within a year, had gone from eating family-size chocolate bars to dividing a single square into four, wrapping one quarter in tin foil and saving it for a mid-morning snack. Now I found myself on a therapist’s sofa, being told that my organs were in the process of shutting down.

I imagine that she wanted her warning to sound like a sudden barrage of exclamation points slapping my face one way and then the next, a bang-bang-bang on the caps-lock button. But if anything, it felt like congratulations.

Anorexia is a rapacious form of fundamentalism, always shifting the goalposts in its demand for more. No matter how many calories I shaved off my daily intake, and no matter how many I burned, the voice that it had spawned inside my head sneered the same judgement call: “blight, burden, embarrassment”.

So, to hear that I really was losing weight, and at break-neck speed, meant that inner voice, which continually lambasted me for my monstrosity, might be silenced for an hour or two.

That doomsday prognosis raised just one concern: slap-bang in the middle of that two-week countdown was my interview for Cambridge University. It had been my dream to go there ever since junior school — one that had made me the odd one out for years, long before carrying around an inflatable rubber-ring cushion to stop the plastic chairs bruising my skeletal thighs did so.

It was an ambition for which I had hungered for so long that I figured that I could temporarily avoid losing more weight so that I wasn’t hospitalised before my big day.

When I opened the letter from the admissions office a month later, my sentence was stayed again. To take up my place the following October, I needed to stabilise the number on the scales. So, I dutifully saw my therapist every week, and obediently rose to the challenges that she set me: “Use more than one squirt of one-calorie cooking spray; have a whole tin of soup; stop spitting out food into napkins.”

Each one felt Himalayan, and I relied heavily on getting praise for each and every mouthful to resist the flow of self-hatred which greeted my “reckless indulgence”.

Internally, very little had changed: I might have modified my behaviour, but on no account did I want to put on weight. I wanted to be normal; I was terrified of actually looking it. So, I went through the motions just enough to placate my therapist, until another envelope landed on the doormat eight months later.

 

AS A present for my 18th birthday, a family friend had sent me a book about the meaning of grace. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe in God before then; I just hadn’t even bothered to consider it.

That had been back when it made sense to play it safe, before I had been thrown on to an infernal treadmill on which I kept having to run faster and faster, steeper and steeper, to hold back the torrent of self-shaming.

Now, the message that there was nothing that I could do to make God love me more or less was my life ring. I didn’t wait to do much digging — I just grabbed on.

I wish that this had precipitated a miraculous overnight healing, but it didn’t — and both my physical and spiritual health still carry the scars of a decade-long recovery. Given anorexia as my Velcro, certain ideas about God stuck straightaway, while others just fell to the floor.

It wasn’t long after I had clutched on to grace with head-first gusto that it slipped through my fingers. It just felt too good to be true. No such thing as a free lunch, right? Especially when you’re a veteran calorie-counter. I theoretically believed in God’s mercy, but I never dared lean the weight of my day-to-day life into it. I feared that doctrine was just a clever PR move.

Power and control, in contrast, were the lingua franca of my eating disorder. Talk of God’s sovereignty and judgement travelled smoothly down neural pathways well-trodden by anorexia.

The illness had inclined me to think in black-and-white terms: a handful of ingredients were classified as safe, but the rest were “unclean”, bound to contaminate me in my pursuit of shrunken, bony purity.

So, I imagined a God who took glee in rules and tests. Accustomed to serving something with impossible standards, I thought that God, too, was finding every opportunity to trip me up, to prove that I was an impostor jumping on a bandwagon for “the elect”. Every decision — whether it was what film to watch or what job to apply for — would have eternal consequences.

I once again found safety in the extremes. More time doing, reading, talking about, listening to, liking, following, consuming, and regurgitating anything labelled Christian was bound to put me in God’s good books, I presumed. That prefix felt like an automatic seal of God’s approval. I was sure that it would make me holy by association.

Whether I shaped my lifestyle around being a model Christian or just model-thin, I was ultimately trying to make myself lovable. I was, in both pursuits, putting that very goal out of reach — because no one living in fear of condemnation, no one who daily showers themselves in shame, can let their guard down enough to be truly known.

It was a longing to be accepted for who I was, together with a weariness at maintaining a façade that, I hoped, would impress other Christians as well as God, which made me spiritually restless.

My first port of call was par for the course for a perfectionist bookworm: I immersed myself in books of theology and treatises on Christian living until, with so many arguing against each other, I was left even more confused and sceptical.

Recovery wasn’t to come by downloading more information; nor by marrying positive thinking with the gospel. Whenever I encountered messages in songs, memes, and merchandise that assured me God thought I was the bees’ knees, the rush of relief was momentary.

Passages that suggested that God was wrathful, exclusionary, warmongering, and fastidious about rules sprang to mind. As long as the nature of God was communicated to me only in words, it could be drowned out by the voice of anorexia, the devil’s advocate par excellence.

I couldn’t trust God that could love me until the walls built from my fear of rejection started to come down. That meant that recovery had to be relational. It had to involve my feeling exposed and, instead of being overwhelmed with shame, meeting acceptance instead.

 

THERE were times when I tried to push my Christian friends away on the asumption that, if they really knew who I was, they would undoubtedly judge me. To my mind, that meant that God would be doing so, too. I had two strategies: to shut them out, or shock and awe.

I would rehearse questions that, I thought, were the ones that they wanted to hear, or I would find excuses not to reply to their messages or meet face-to-face.

Taking the second approach, I would overshare, be purposefully provocative, and allow the most sceptical and hostile voice that I normally directed at myself to take the mic.

But when they didn’t give up, when they weren’t put off by the depth of my insecurities or the stridency of my fears, and they were brave enough to speak about their own, they jolted my beliefs about my inherent unlovability. Through them, I began to glimpse how God might actually see me.

Their love humbled me out of the belief that I was uniquely broken and beyond the reach of grace. It was only when they told me how they saw God at work in me that I mustered the courage to believe that maybe, just maybe, God really had drawn closer than breathing, and would always stay that near.

In my more narrow-minded faith, I had looked down on these Christians from other traditions as inferior, sneered at their liberalness, and feared their drawing me down a slippery slope to secularism.

But my us-and-them mentality, which was rooted in the anxiety that I belonged in the second category, buckled when I saw the way they embodied Christ’s Spirit. When I had been walking on a tightrope, Christians who had been shaped by contemplative, sacramental, Celtic, and Ignatian spirituality showed me the phenomenal expanse of holy ground.

Both recovery from anorexia and a distorted view of God have been an on-going tug of war, and 2020 has certainly added muscle-power to the side that hungers after certainty and control.

I may well always rely on the vision of those around me to see what my fear would otherwise cloud — whether that is to remind me what a healthy diet looks like, to point me back to Christ on the cross as the ultimate revelation of God, or to affirm my inherent value.

But that dependence, I am sure, is by design: the way in which God will wean me off my assumption that safety is found in isolation and self-protection, and will show me how love does what control never can: cast out fear.

 

Florence Gildea’s book Lessons I Have Unlearned: Because life doesn’t look like it did in the pictures will be published by John Hunt in June.

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