21 September 2017

Anorexia – When Being Good is the Problem?

What makes someone just stop eating? How do we make sense of a mental illness that turns loved ones into strangers and the dining table into a battle-ground? Can the church make a genuine difference to those struggling with eating disorders and if so, how?

These are some of the questions that Emma Scrivener addresses in her book, A New Name. Emma grew up in Belfast, but now lives with her husband Glen in south east England. As a teenager and then again as an adult, she suffered from life-threatening anorexia. Although she sought and received professional medical help, it was her faith and her experience of loving church community that finally changed her life. In this extract, she talks about how the disorder began and what has helped her to move forward.

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Where does anorexia come from – and what is it? There are, I suspect, a thousand answers. It’s bullying, Barbie and biology. It’s sickness and it’s sin. It’s death and God and the universe. It’s ‘us’ and it’s ‘them’. It’s global media and the kitchen table. It’s the Western world and it’s the human heart.

In my case, it was a thirteen-year-old with a particular type of personality. Perfectionistic. Obsessive. Insecure. Bright. Intense. ‘Nice’.

I’ve always been one of life’s ‘good’ girls. Someone who kept the rules, ticked the right boxes and respected authority. Someone who craved acceptance – from grown-ups, peers, small children and even animals. ‘Nice’ was my brand: pastel-coloured, vanilla-flavoured and inoffensive. Nice girls are prefects – or, like me, deputy head girl. We have the grades for the top job, but not quite the charisma.

Everyone knows young people like this. The ‘perfect’ child, the earnest student. Stalwart of the Bible study, always ready with the ‘right’ answers (Jesus is usually a safe bet). The ones who can be relied upon to stay the course, toe the line and return their library books well within the deadlines. Who never give anyone any trouble. But maybe this is part of the problem. Troublemakers tend to get the most attention. Good girls soldier on and seem stable, but their pristine exteriors can mask all kinds of issues. Left unnoticed, these may bubble away for years. Yet the eruption, when it comes, can be spectacular.

As someone who depends upon order, ‘going off the rails’ is not an option. You’re much too scared to take risks or make any mess. When even an unmade bed feels threatening, sex and drugs hold little appeal. You’re not seeking the bad stuff ‘out there’. You fear the bad stuff ‘in here’ – underneath your skin.

When the good girl hits adolescence, she won’t ‘break out’. But she might well break down. An eating disorder offers a neat and quiet way of doing exactly this.

Feelings and food 

As my body began to change, for the first time I started thinking about the relationship between what I ate and who

I was: I thought about the child that I had left behind and the woman I was becoming. Frightened of the future, but locked out of the past.

I thought about my body. Post-puberty, it stopped being my own. Now it was something separate, alien and even threatening. It no longer did what it was told. Physically and emotionally, it overflowed.

I thought about no longer fitting into my old clothes. And not fitting in – at school, at church or at home.

I thought about my stomach, curved instead of concave. The bits that should have stuck out but didn’t, and the bits that stuck out but should have stayed hidden. I thought about my ideals. The women in the stories that I loved: pale and consumptive, feminine and frail. The heroic saints, fasting in godly isolation, far removed from the chaotic desires of body and world. I thought about the older girls at school, exotic and aloof, always in a crowd. Always on a diet.

I thought about my hungers. The ways I ought to have been different and the ways that I already was. About being invisible and unseen, but also too intense. About my appetites and the suspicion that they could never be met. The fear that, physically and emotionally, I was ‘too much’.

I searched food labels for answers, like a fortune-teller scouring tea leaves. Seeking a name for what I was feeling and a reason for what was wrong. I memorised the breakdown of each item until I didn’t need to look. And in the packaging I found something else. A label for my ugliness and my mess. A name for all that had changed and gone wrong in my life.

‘Fat.’

I decided I was fat.

That’s how my anorexia began. But what felt like a choice, soon became a tyranny instead.

The descent

raAnorexia you see, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often slow, insidious and imperceptible. However, once started, it’s a juggernaut, gaining its own relentless momentum.

One of my friends has a black Labrador, and we used to take him for walks in the park. Sometimes we’d throw the ball and he would run down the hill after it. He’d start off at a gentle pace but, as the incline grew steeper, he would be forced to gather speed. Bewildered, he was unable to stop, no matter how hard he tried. He would overshoot the ball and come crashing to a standstill, usually aided by a tree. We would bandage him up, but next week he would do the same thing again.

Eating disorders can be similar. You start with an achievable aim in mind. Maybe to ‘just lose a few pounds’. Or ‘fit into that skirt, in time for the wedding’. You set off at a gentle canter. But as the goal approaches, you gather speed. You’re racing past the initial target, but at first it doesn’t matter. The big day passes and you’re high on compliments. The skirt’s too big, but you can’t stop now – your adrenalin is pumping and you’re moving faster and faster. The world starts to become a bit of a blur. You’re lost in the chase.

By the time you spot the tree ahead, it’s already too late. People around you shout warnings, but they’re too far off and you can’t really hear them. What started as a game has become something darker, and you can’t stop, even if you want to. Your body is a rocket, propelling itself forwards. If you will crash is no longer in question. It’s whether or not you’ll get back up.

Twice in my life, anorexia has almost killed me. On the first occasion, I was a teenager. I was referred to a mental health centre and treatment began: but it focused purely on regaining weight. This is vital, but anorexia is an issue of the heart as well as the body. Whilst on the outside I looked better, on the inside, I was just as confused. Ten years later, I had an enormous relapse. This time however, I was an adult. No-one could tell me what to do and no-one could force me to eat. I came close to death.

So what changed?

The Real Jesus

Six years ago my granny died and I was too sick to make it to the funeral. That evening, I realised I had come to the end of myself. I was a 27 year Sunday school teacher, the wife of a church minister in training, a Bible college student…and I was slowly but surely starving myself to death. I was too tired to keep fighting God. In desperation, I opened my Bible and cried out to Him. ‘If you’re there’ I said, ‘take what’s left.’

There was no bolt of lightning. No fireworks or smoke. But in the pages of Scripture, I encountered Jesus. Not as the rule-maker or far-off God I had imagined. The God of Revelation – a lion, but also a lamb. The Lord of the universe: bigger, more beautiful and more intense than my hungers. The suffering servant: loving, gentle and broken for me.

A God who accepted me as I was, but refused to leave me that way. Who saw behind the masks but loved me nonetheless. A God more beautiful even than anorexia.

Don’t get me wrong: recovery is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I understood the gospel, it became a possibility. In Jesus, I could be myself. Finally, I could start to live. Emma Scrivener now speaks and writes about her experiences at www. emmascrivener.net. Her book A New Name is published by IVP.

WORDS Emma Scrivener