Anorexia: The good girl’s drug
Emma Scrivener looked like the perfect Christian. She had a successful ministry and a loving family, but she was gripped by an addiction that almost destroyed her. She shares her story and explains why the disease affects so many women and girls in our churches
When we read about anorexia, it’s often attributed to one simple cause – the media say, or size-zero models. However, in my case, I’ve never looked in the mirror and seen a ‘fat person’. It was never about ‘looking better’ – in some ways, I wanted to look worse.
There are many reasons why someone develops an eating disorder. Culture, environment, physiology, life experiences and even geography may play a part. Another of these is personality type. The type I call ‘good girl’.
There are, of course, sufferers who won’t fit this description. Similarly, most good girls will not develop anorexia. However, aspects of their personalities make them more vulnerable to it than others. Good girls are often people pleasers and perfectionists. They are bright, sensitive and hard-working, and many of them are in our churches. They tend to see the world in black and white, and are used to excelling in different fields. Despite this, they have low self-esteem and struggle to make sense of who they are. As a result, they seek approval and build their identity on the reflections of other people.
Good girls like me are terrified of rejection – yet we long for relationship. We believe that to have any value, we must meet certain standards. We must be ‘good’. This means that negative emotions such as anger or sadness are seen as ‘bad’ and unacceptable. Many people deal with these by talking with others. But the good girl believes that if she opens up she’ll be exposed and rejected. Instead she retreats inwards. She copes by repressing her feelings and redoubling her efforts to gain approval. Yet, despite her striving, ‘good’ is never ‘good enough’.
Anorexia means ‘loss of appetite’, but the opposite is true. Good girls are starving – and not just for food. We long to know where we fit: for acceptance, approval, identity and to feel special. These hungers feel threatening and overwhelming, so we deny our needs – both emotional and physical.
As a geeky 13-year-old, I felt messy and out of control: like red wine on a white carpet. Internally and externally my world was changing: school, hormones, body shape, friends. I gave these fears a name: ‘fat’. I concluded that the problem was me: I was ‘too much’. I needed to disappear, to turn back the tide of adolescence and to shut down my desires. Though I’d never heard of the name, I’d stumbled across a solution: anorexia.
Traditional routes of rebellion, such as alcohol or drugs, hold little appeal for good girls. My ‘high’ came from reshaping myself, from succeeding where others had failed and from killing the desires I found so threatening. Thinness made me feel clean, pure and immensely powerful. Yet the more in control I felt, the more enslaved I became. As I shrank physically, I shrank emotionally too: pulling away from relationships and anything that challenged my new identity. I achieved my initial goals – but they were no longer enough.
The Bible tells us: “There’s a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12). And this is exactly right. You see, anorexia is a physical and emotional disorder – but it’s a spiritual one too. It’s about trying to make life work outside of Christ. It’s about being ‘good’; recreating yourself and taking absolute control. It’s a religion where you are god and you have to save yourself.
As a teenager, I tackled anorexia purely as a physical disorder. Meal regimes were established, sanctions imposed, and though the dinner table became a battleground, I eventually regained weight. This was a vital first step – but not the whole picture. I looked better on the outside, but the emotional and spiritual issues were still there. The way in which I ‘recovered’ sowed the seeds for a relapse 10 years later.
Good girls don’t need to be told to try harder or to exercise more self-control. Nor do we need better systems for channelling our drives. Like everyone else, we need the Gospel. We need to hear that we’re broken and messed up – but that’s OK. We need to see that we don’t have the answers – but Jesus does.
Seven years ago, anorexia brought me very close to death. Too sick to go to my beloved grandmother’s funeral, I turned in desperation to the Bible and read: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah … has triumphed” (Revelation 5:5). My fingers gripped the page as I prepared to meet this lion: a glorious, roaring conqueror. But that’s not how the passage continues. Verse 6 says this: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne.”
Reading those words, I felt that I was meeting Jesus for the first time. Instead of the far-off slave master I had imagined, I encountered someone completely different. Strong and powerful; but also broken and loving. The Lord of the universe – yet one who understood what it was to be weak.
Here was a Lamb who met me in my brokenness. A Lion who vanquished all my foes. A God who turned his face towards me and said: “You are mine. I’ve bought you and that’s enough.”
“That’s enough.” What did this mean? Enough fighting and striving, and hiding and running. Enough starving. Not a question. Not a request. An unalterable fact.
This was the Gospel that finally brought me to my knees. I expected God’s anger, but I was floored by his grace. Jesus loved me as I was, but he wouldn’t leave me that way. He called me to a life so much bigger and more beautiful than any addiction. He gave me purpose and identity. Here at last was someone who could satisfy all of my longings, and all of my hungers. Before him, I could hand over control and not be destroyed. He was enough and he wanted me.
Confessing our sins in the presence of love – this is what changes us. Not our performance, not our resolutions and not our gifts. It’s grace that transforms. And as minsters of such grace, this is where the church community can make all the difference.
Recovery is possible, but it’s not easy and I don’t think you can do it alone. So, if you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, please seek help. Medical support is vital, so start by visiting your GP or contacting one of the organisations listed in the information panel. But don’t make the mistake of thinking only experts are needed. In my own experience, what encouraged me most was a community of believers who prayed for me, stood with me in the mess and offered me grace. Simple Christian love can make all the difference.
• Emma Scrivener was born in Belfast, but now lives with her husband in the south-east of England. She suffered from life-threatening anorexia, both as a child and as an adult and now writes and speaks about her experiences. Her book, A New Name is published by IVP and can be ordered via her blog: www.emmascrivener.net.
- In the UK, one in 100 women aged between 15 and 30 has anorexia. It is most common in young women, but it also affects men, older people and children as young as five.
- Sufferers restrict their food intake as a way of coping with life. They will often have a distorted perception of their body shape and an intense fear of becoming fat (although they will typically weigh 15% or more below the expected weight for their height, sex and age).
- As the disorder progresses, chemical changes affect the sufferer’s brain and distort their thinking. This is known as the ‘whirlpool effect’ and it helps explain why it is so difficult to tackle and treat.
- It’s estimated that 40% will recover completely, whilst 30% continue to experience anorexia long-term. However, around 5% of anorexia cases are fatal, making it the most deadly mental illness.
For more information on anorexia, go to:
www.anad.org (an excellent resource from the US)
www.b-eat.co.uk (UK eating disorders website, secular) They offer a helpline: 0845 634 1414 and a specific youth helpline: 0845 634 7650
www.helenawilkinson.co.uk (A Christian who has written extensively on the subject and offers help for sufferers and carers)
www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk ABC (Anorexia and Bulimia Care)
Rehab 4 Addiction offers a free helpline dedicated to helping those suffering from drug, alcohol and mental health issues. Rehab 4 Addiction was founded in 2011 by people who overcame drug and alcohol addiction themselves. You can contact Rehab 4 Addiction on (UK) 0800 140 4690.