This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I'm pleased to have a guest post from Karen Hyckenberg on the relationship between Christianity and eating disorders.
In the excellent article Going Outside the Camp, James Coffield challenges on how we can respond appropriately to mental illness. "We need humble curiosity when dealing with those afflicted with mental illness." He ends with this:
The church must be a place of hope and refuge for these individuals, not a place of shame and stigma. These individuals tend to feel alone and unwanted. Let our churches become places that offer hope. Often individuals indicate that church is a place where they hide their addictions and struggles, yet it must become a place of repentance and growth. Disorders should not be celebrated, yet people suffering from mental illness can and should be encouraged, accepted, challenged, and loved within the body of Christ.
It's my hope that you will read this piece with humble curiosity. I know I have a lot to learn.
Here is Karen's article:
When I look back on my continuing journey of recovery from an eating disorder, it is extremely intertwined with Christianity. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, God was very much a part of my life. I loved God so much and all I wanted was to feel His love in return, to live a life with purpose, and rest in the freedom of His forgiveness and love. Often times, I lacked the sense and security in all three.
The thinner and sicker I got, my love for God did not waiver, but my desire to live another day feeling constantly cold, having a mind that would never quiet from the harsh voices of black and white thinking, perfectionism, self-hate and calories, lack of energy to nurture relationships or to be nurtured by them, made me want to die. Every day that I became more trapped in the snares and seductiveness of restricting, the more questions I had as to where God and my faith was in all of this. I remember asking my spiritual mentor if having an eating disorder was a sin. She responded, “No, not the eating disorder in and of itself, but many of the behaviours that go along with it are.” She was right. I had to lie constantly. But it was never something I chose. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Hey, I want to put myself through mental, emotional, spiritual and physical hell.” I kept coming back to my relationship with God, or at least what I had been taught about Him. Was it due to a lack of faith as to why I was struggling to put food into my body? Did I just need to pray more? Had I sinned in the past for which I was being punished for? Did Satan have a hold somewhere in my life that I had not repented about?
I did not understand why I, a Christian, was struggling with such a life threatening illness. I somehow adapted the common notion that is implied in Christianity, that if I love God, live accordingly to His Word, turn my away from the sin of the world, that I would be taken care of. That I would be able to love myself as God loved me. That could not be farther from my reality.
I could not help but think back to what was wrong with my faith. How could I not come back to this when I knew people had strong opinions against the use of medication for such mental health issues such as depression. I knew of people struggling with cancer who were told to not undergo chemo and to just trust God. Or that God never intended His creation to suffer and be sick, so as a result of sin, (I’m sin?) it was so. The thing was, I did believe in God. I did love Him so much. I did want to obey Him and every day tried as hard as I could. The sicker I got, the less control and strength I had to fight back against the lies the eating disorder was telling me. People who once praised me for my weight loss in the beginning were now telling me how sick I looked. That I had taken it too far. It was never my faith that was a question when I was losing weight. But now, it seemed that my spiritual character and integrity was under attack.
I struggle with the oversimplification and misunderstanding around mental health issues, such as anorexia, that lies within parts of the Christian community. Although faith can be a strong pillar and tool in recovery, its lack of strength was not the cause for why I struggled. In some cases, religiosity can even foster unhealthy thinking patterns that add to the struggle. The constant classification of things being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This idea that perfection, with enough faith, is attainable. That the more spiritual you seemed, the more you must be able to like yourself…
There seems to be such a double standard between physical and mental health issues. You would never blame a diabetic’s lack of faith for having issues with glucose levels. You would never doubt their sense of trust and devotion to God for having to take insulin. Why is it so different for issues inside the mind. Genetically, there is a pattern of depression as well as unhealthy relationships with food within my family. Is it a spiritual generational hold in my family? Or is it a chemical imbalance mixed in with unhealthy societal messages, even within the Christian community, about food and weight. Can I say that my struggle with anorexia had nothing to do with faith? No. But it was not my faith in God that was struggling. It was my faith and belief that I'm worthwhile, beautiful, and lovely. I knew and believed God felt that way about me, and it would take much time, therapy, questioning and soul searching for me to finally believe it.
By: Karen Hyckenberg
I'm so grateful to Karen for writing this post.