I had an eating disorder, and it is time to share that story
CONTENT WARNING: The following content mentions eating disorder symptoms and may be triggering for some individuals — please read with caution.
I had an eating disorder. I was in my early twenties and thought I had won the lottery when I figured out that there was a way of taking back my bad eating decisions. Binging and purging was, for a time, almost a religious experience — I could mess up, and I could be made new — and I was a faithful acoloyte. In the grand scheme of things, this destructive behaviour didn’t last long, but the destructive thoughts consumed me for years. From the time that I was a very young child until well into my twenties, I obsessed relentlessly about the food I ate and the guilt that I felt in that food keeping me from having the body I thought I should have.
This is desperately hard to admit now. It doesn’t fit with the person I like others to think that I am: someone who has my life together, who is accomplished and grounded. I haven’t historically done well with pity. I fear disappointing those I care about. I look at the incredible blessings of my life, my loving and supportive family, my many opportunities, my faith and friendships, and I don’t see how I even had the right to be sick like this. There was no reason for me to be broken.
I am about to publish my first book, and next week I have my first speaking engagement in Austin, Texas to promote my book. My book shares this part of my story with whatever world out there wants to know about it. I haven’t even spoken about this with some of my closest family and friends, and now I’m going to be speaking about this in Austin, Vancouver, the Sorrento Centre, and beyond. I have hardly shared this with anyone; now I am sharing it with everyone. Dear and thoughtful people keep asking me with bright smiles if I am excited about my upcoming book launch, and I am. But I am also terrified and exposed. My book isn’t about my eating disorder, my book is about joyful eating. But I talk about my own eating disorder because it is a significant part of why I believe any of what I am writing matters, not just for me, but for us. I have skin in this game. My book doesn’t dispense advice from any high horse. I wrote every word governed by the hope that something in my own experience could be received as a raw and real invitation to know God’s healing and to step out into a new possibility for how we can be.
I have been very occasionally practising telling this story over the past year, ever since the thrilling news came that my book was actually going to be published. It takes a lot of energy to tell, and I can’t be sure of what sort of reaction I am going to get in response, so I have only offered it when it feels right to do so. The response has, already, been eye opening. The glazed and guarded look that sometimes emerges on a listener’s face tells me that stigma around mental illness is still alive and well. I can almost see the re-evaluation of me taking place as this piece of information about me is processed.
There are others who listen, ask, receive, relate and thank. Who get that this is hard to say and affirm that saying it nonetheless matters.
Both kinds of response are, in their own way, a gift. The fact that these are hard things to hear and respond to confirms my suspicion that they are addressing something that really is profoundly broken in us. Dissatisfaction with our bodies and obsession and guilt permeating our relationship with food, these are pervasive experiences far outside the bounds of diagnosed eating disorders.
And when someone is able to gently receive and tend to my fragile little story, then that is an unexpected blessing.
At our Wednesday night Bible study this week, we reflected on a sermon offered by a parishioner, the illuminating Cheryl Bergie. She had taken us for a deep dive into Peter’s threefold questioning by Jesus, post-Resurrection, at the end of John’s Gospel. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times. Three times, Peter answers, “you know that I love you.” For each statement of love, Jesus commissions Jesus. Peter is to feed the lambs, tend the sheep, and feed the sheep. Cheryl offered a poignant reflection on what it might mean to be a sheep: we are people who want to follow Jesus. We want to follow Jesus, and yet, none of us has things all figured out, and each one of us continues to need the gentle care of God. As the flock of sheep, we are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of also being that gentle care for one another. Although Peter is commissioned on behalf of the entire church that he will go on to lead and serve, here at this juncture, what he is receiving from the hands of Jesus is tenderness and healing. It’s not just that we have to stay close to this story of commissioning, that we are to go out into the world tending and feeding in Jesus’ name. It’s that we most especially have to stay close to this story of love. And I have to know that I, too, need.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once defined the church as the ones who haven’t had the nerve to walk away. “We are the people who have not had the nerve to say in the face of Jesus, ‘Alright, I’m healthy, I’m not hungry. I’ve finished, I’ve done.” Admitting to an eating disorder, to being sick in a way that is not always considered sympathetically, is jarring and disorienting for me and for the self-image I work so hard to keep together.
And yet, Cheryl’s words this week, and our unfolding conversation, reminded me of the three reasons why I put my story in ink in the first place. First, even as a priest of the church, even as someone seen in a certain way (and invested in being seen in a certain way), I am, of course, only really here with anything to offer because I never have actually had it all together, and deep down inside I always know that. Second, I minister each and every day in the midst of the most ordinary people doing this most extraordinary thing: they are living out this threefold commission of feeding and tending. They know what it is to be a blessing to others, they know what it is to receive blessing in return, and most of them, at one time or another, come to that brick wall of their own fear and need and vulnerability and the flock steps in and cares for them. And right now I’m at my own brick wall. While I know that not everyone will know how to respond to what I’m sharing, I do know that I am part of a community that takes its duty of care and its ability to love as holy and important. Third, I am sharing my story because ultimately it’s one of hope and healing. There is always the possibility that hope and healing can be contagious, that something of what one of us experiences and receives and names can become an invitation to another to also let air and light into old wounds.
I know what it is for Jesus to love me into healing. I have seen the Body of Christ embrace that commission of care. Risky or not, that has to be a story worth sharing.