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Hidden suffering

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Living with a secret eating disorder

The screaming was so loud it was deafening.
My heart ached as the unceasing pleas cried out.
I looked around the room – the old lady two pews
in front of me, the young child colouring a picture,
the man standing before us in the sanctuary.
Could they hear it? Could they see my pain?
The screaming was always there.
Please help me!

I distinctly remember the first time I forced myself to vomit. I was in high school. I had no idea that with one choice, in one instant of time, I had stuck my toe in quicksand and would never be able to get out.

“Never” is a strong word, I know, but it reflects my reality at this moment. It’s a reality created after nine years of suffering with no one to help me.

I pause for a moment. Feeling empty. Feeling relieved. Feeling exhausted. Standing up too quickly makes the world begin to fade away. Instinctively my hand reaches out, using the wall to keep me upright. Pause again. Start to count: 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . I don’t know why I count, exactly. It doesn’t help me regain sight or consciousness. Maybe this way, on some level, I know I’m still here. . . . 7 . . . 8 . . . The world starts coming back into view. Flush.

Check my hair. Check my makeup. Straighten out my clothes. I exit the bathroom.

I do not look starved. I eat when it’s socially necessary or when I can’t control myself. I also force myself to vomit almost daily. I don’t eat when I manage to be “strong enough” to skip meals.

Everyone’s experience with an eating disorder is different. You don’t have to be severely underweight to be severely sick. Each eating-disordered person is unique in their journey of suffering.

We all have our battles. Many of us fight them silently, alone, because we have become good at hiding everything. I have become so good at wearing my mask that even my closest friends, family, and those in my church have no idea what lies behind it.

During the period of my most intense suffering, I encountered several very “spiritual” men and women. I felt myself growing bitter against them. If they were so close to God, they should be able to see that I need their help. They should be able to see through my hurt and my pain.

I came to the conclusion that the responsibility of caring for those who are suffering lies with both the church and the individual.

Who has responsibility?

As much as I long for it, I can’t expect those around me to read my mind. Though we have become good at hiding the darkest parts of our lives, it is our responsibility to share those hurts and shameful battles with the church. And not just when they are finished, but while they are happening.

I have often thought that I will help other people only when I can say “I had an eating disorder and this was my experience,” instead of “I have an eating disorder and this is what I am dealing with today.” Things feel safer in the past. When a struggle is in the past, we can keep appearances intact: “This was me, but look at me now. I’m not that person anymore. I’m clean, crisp, and pressed, just as I’m expected to be.”

Along with individual responsibility, however, comes the church’s responsibility to care for its members. Have we created a church climate where people are free to share their experiences? Do we take time to intentionally ask people about their lives? Even with my mask, I find it very hard to lie if someone sits me down and asks how I am really doing.

No hiding

One of my favourite quotes is from Anna Westin, who took her own life in 2000 as a result of an eating disorder:

There will never be a moment in which you are not you. Some may try to hide their existence away, pretending they are someone they’re not, but who is this act for? You know the ultimate truth, there is no hiding from yourself. The difficulty of it lies in our society’s ability to create perfect illusions.

Why do we feel the need to “show” well? I “show well” but I do not feel well. I have the ability to create a strong exterior, but have not yet figured out how to hide from myself. Both God and I can always see who I really am and how I live. So who am I hiding for?

Writing this article for the MB Herald may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I sit here with tears flowing, hardly able to make out the letters on the computer screen. I’ve started over again for the billionth time.

How do I say what I feel? How do I say it in a constructive way that serves the church? How do I manage to write even five sentences without the voices in my head telling me it’s not good enough? I’m not good enough. What was I thinking when I said I would do this?

I was thinking this: I want others to know that they are not alone in their suffering. We are a family, God’s children. We cannot hide from ourselves. We cannot hide from God. So let’s stop hiding from each other.

Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain on our stained glass masquerade

—from “Stained Glass Masquerade” by Casting Crowns

—Name withheld

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