I remember when the realisation first dawned. It was several years ago…I was on tour with my Bible college Chorale over Spring Break and as a treat, I had inter-library-loaned several fiction books to read over the break. One of them was Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce. I don’t remember how I first heard of it (maybe Amazon mentioned it in relation to another excellent book from the same publisher, My Hands Came Away Red by Lisa McKay), but I’m very glad I did. It’s a Christian novel about a girl who struggles with anorexia…a subject not many Christian writers would take on (or even do justice to, in my opinion). But Bethany Pierce did an amazing job…the book is very raw and very real, something that’s not surprising when you find out that she struggled with an eating disorder as well.
For me, reading Feeling for Bones was very sobering as I could relate to many of the main character’s thoughts and feelings and the realisation hit me that I had struggled with anorexia as well. That may sound silly to a lot of people…that I could deal with something like that and not know it. But for me, that was because it never progressed to the physical level that it does for most girls. Though I tried, I never could deprive myself of food…both because my parents would never let me and due to having an incredibly high metabolism in my teen years, I would faint if I went without food for a number of hours. I had just thought of myself as a health freak in my younger teen years, one who was obsessed about her weight (even though I literally looked like a stick!). But as I read this book, I realised that during that time in my life (early teens), I had definitely had the mind of an anorexic.
Contrary to what many people think, anorexia (anorexia nervosa) is essentially a mental illness. The person’s mind distorts their body image from what it truly is. I would look at my stick-thin body in the mirror and think that I was fat…I was delusional. But until I read Feeling for Bones, I didn’t realise that was anorexia…I thought I was just concerned about how I looked. But it was more than just concern.
Granted, putting a label on something doesn’t change it much, but for me it made me realise that the thoughts and mindset that I struggled with then were more than just the average teenage girl’s focus with how she looked. And it would explain why those same thoughts occasionally would come back to plague me now.
And as I was thinking about this more, I realised eating disorders and other such mental illnesses (such as depression, etc.) have in essence almost become taboo subjects among Christians. We’re recognise that Christians can struggle with illnesses like diabetes and cancer, but eating disorders and depression are viewed as ailments that the person brings upon themselves and therefore no “good” Christian should struggle with them. Granted, each person does have to take the responsibility of taking their thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) and work on renewing and transforming their mind (Romans 12:2). But doing that doesn’t “fix” those illnesses any more than taking insulin immediately “fixes” diabetes. It still is a daily struggle and one that Christians shouldn’t be afraid to confront.
A couple months after my realisation, I heard a song by Superchic[k], entitled “Courage”. It also is about a girl who struggles with an eating disorder and the first time I read the words and heard it, I almost cried. The chorus is very honest:
”I need you to know
I’m not through the night
Some days I’m still fighting to walk towards the light
I need you to know
That we’ll be okay
Together we can make it through another day”
It was not surprising to find out that that song was also written out of the real-life experience of dealing with anorexia. It’s real in recognising that an eating disorder (or any mental illness) is not just something that you “get over”. It takes a long time…for many people, it’s something that they struggle with for the rest of their lives. “Some days I’m still fighting to walk towards the light.” And that doesn’t mean that they’re “back-sliding” or sinning because of it…it’s an illness, the same as diabetes. Christians need to know that…and they need to be willing to step up and walk with their brothers and sisters who are dealing with these things. The bridge to the song “Courage” says:
“You should know you’re not on your own
These secrets are walls that keep us alone
I don’t know when but I know now
Together we’ll make it through somehow
Together we’ll make it through somehow”
It has been said that Christians are the only tribe of people who shoot their wounded and that is so true. Of anyone, why would we leave those who are hurting alone? Why do we snub them and look down on them because they struggle with something we don’t understand? Christians make a point to minister to and be with those who are dealing with physical illnesses, why should it be any different for those who are dealing with mental illnesses?
I mentioned earlier that the anorexic thoughts of my teenage years still occasionally plague me now. It’s true though they don’t control me nearly as much as they used to. I’ll still have the random day where I look at myself and think I’m fat when I know I’m not…and sometimes those thoughts can keep barraging you even if you know they’re not true. In regards to this, I’m in a much better place than years ago, but having been further away has given me empathy for those who are still “fighting to walk towards the light”. They need us to walk with them.