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'I can still be loved even with wounds'

Hope Virgo suffered abuse at 13 and battled anorexia for years. Here she shares how she learned to push aside the need to be "perfect" before God

At the start of June 2019 I found myself sitting on the platform at Highbury and Islington. It was a Saturday and I had just arrived back from three days in Berlin with my dad and older sister. While away I had tried so hard to hold myself together, but it hadn’t been easy. It had taken all my energy to put on a brave face. I sat there at the station, tears streaming down my face, staring at the floor. A few people stopped to ask if I was OK. A sharp “I’m fine” said with conviction meant they left me alone. One man sat next to me and began to tell me about his faith. It was interesting and distracted me.

Even after that conversation I didn’t really know what I wanted, other than to either be happy or not feel anything. I couldn’t face feeling this empty and alone anymore. I had a job I loved, family, friends...but there was still something missing; something not quite right. Something pulled me back to church the following week. I am not sure what, but I longed for something more.

As I sat there in church I looked at people’s faces. Analysing them, they had this sense of peace I could only dream of. After persuasion from my godmother I did also agree to do Alpha. I figured I might as well see if this God thing works.

A confusing past

As Alpha began, I felt the need to reflect on my life with God. Growing up I had always believed in something, I was so sure about a God existing although I had no idea how to have a relationship with him. I did things that I thought would earn me his love and rewards; very rarely feeling anything. Christian festivals or youth group weekends away turned into opportunities to spot the hot boys. I normally hooked up with a few and then felt guilty about it afterwards.

My whole relationship with God and the Church had been a confusing mess. It all stemmed back to abuse that I faced in church when I was 13 years old. Abuse that left me so broken and scared. I was constantly angry with the Church, angry with God and resenting everyone around me who tried to interfere.

At the time when I was 13, I didn’t realise I was so angry. Instead I wanted to find my own coping mechanisms; to find a way to switch off all those things I was feeling. The hurt, the pain, the dysfunction of everyday life. Rather than talk about it, I found my own way. This magical coping mechanism with new my best friend, Anorexia. She did so much for me, controlling my every move but it didn’t matter because she made me feel amazing. Anorexia was everything I needed to get me through day to day and I loved it. Throughout my illness I carried on going to church but was unable to really engage with anything there. I would use it as a chance to skip meals, and be out more.

It was all going swimmingly, or so I thought. All up until aged 17 and with a failing heart and yellowing skin I was admitted to a mental health hospital. I didn’t get it. Why was everyone trying to take away this one thing in my life that made me feel so good? The one thing that I felt was my solution to everything?

People would visit and pray for me. All the while, I was praying for the pain to just go but felt nothing from God. He never had given me what I needed. It seemed to me that he had watched me fall and crumble. That he had watched me suffer at the hands of an abuser. This so-called God; how could he possibly claim to love everyone? That was where faith had stopped for me.

Facing my brokenness

Eleven years ago I walked out of a church and vowed never to go back. I tried church three times at university but once again felt judged, and like no one understood.

Little did I know that eleven years later I would be stood in the entrance to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), sweating on a hot summer’s Sunday evening. I looked through the door, debating what to do. Eventually I crept in, hiding in the back row of church so no one would talk to me; so I could keep myself separate.

Then Alpha began. I had no idea what to expect, so my guard was up. I spent the first few weeks resorting back to my old teenage self (that version of me where I so often used to get stuck, trapped in my 13-year-old self that was formed by the abuse).

I knew something was stopping me making a commitment to God but I couldn’t work out what. Perhaps the idea of giving up control? Trust? The guilt I felt? The fact that I couldn’t let go of my past? I felt God had punished me over the summer, and over parts my life because of what had happened to me as a child.

Over the next few weeks things were strange to say the least. So much happened: from reconnecting with old friends, crossing paths with Christians and people telling me what they knew God wanted me to know. More often than not what was said really did hit a nerve. To top it off, I decided to go on the Alpha weekend, which terrified me. In the week leading up to it I still wasn’t sure if I could hack the weekend. I was nervous about it, and scared of what would happen. Would I feel anything? What can of worms would be opened?

Saturday afternoon’s session was all about being filled with the Holy Spirit. Sitting there and listening was interesting. I reflected back on all the times at the Soul Survivor and New Wine festivals when this had happened. I had seen people healed, or witnessed them feeling the power of God, but I couldn’t feel anything. This time I wanted to but was too afraid. They offered to pray for me and I said no. I sat there hating everything, feeling tense and angry with everyone. I was angry at my abuser; angry at God. Someone had said to me that very morning that God doesn’t want us to carry our baggage around with us, but he takes it for us. We can leave things in the past, but for some reason I couldn’t do that. Instead I felt so trapped. If kept thinking if he loved me surely he would take it away.

I sat there watching people around me, and then about twelve people said they had words from God for people. One of them said: “You may have been rejected a lot in the past, but God won’t reject you. He loves you.” At this point it all got too much and I left. One of the women caught up with me and we talked and cried together. She understood the wounds, the scars and my brokenness.

Leaving the past in the past

That evening during conversation I realised that I didn’t have to have all my questions answered before I made a decision about what I believe. I understood that I can learn along the way. That night I got in to bed and I prayed to God, asking him to help.

The next morning I felt able to sing along during the service. There were two songs (‘Who you say I am’ and one about God loving us) I hadn’t been able to sing in church before, but now I actually felt like I believed them. I understood that God had been with me through my illness and throughout my life. At the time I had felt so far from God but looking back he had held me on those nights in hospital. Stopped me dying and welcomed me back. I wondered how long these feelings would last but was relieved at the sense of peace.

I had been reminded on Saturday night that I can still be loved, even with wounds. And I needed that. I had been so set on being completely perfect for God and myself that I had lost sight of want a relationship was.

After the talk there was another prayer time. This time I felt able to ask for prayer (for the first time since I left church eleven years ago). I explained that I was thinking of doing the whole God thing but wasn’t entirely sure.

Straight after I was prayed for, people went forward to share. One lady talked about her bulimia, how she had lived with it but then God had healed her. She read verses from Isaiah and said she believed that God can set others free.

I knew I had to talk to her. We talked, prayed, I got angry with God and we prayed some more and then I gave my life to Jesus. I had images of myself with my abuser coming in to my head with a figured standing in between us as he approached me. That figure was protecting me from everything around me.

I never thought I would get to 30 years old and I am now just six months away. I have come from being so broken to feeling OK again.

When I walked back into church after so long I never thought it would be any different that I would never feel God. I knew he existed and loved others but I never felt he loved me. Now I know he does. Despite all my failings, he is there and he cares. The past is in the past.

I left that weekend understanding that I don’t know everything; there is so much to learn. I feel a mixture of fear and excitement about my future with God. But I know now that I am ready for this. This isn’t just my parents having a relationship with God or someone telling me what to believe or me feeling guilty so I believe. This is the real deal.

Since giving my life to Jesus I am so at peace. Something has clicked. The anger that I felt for so long has disappeared. I have had so many recovery wins; from eating food on a long-haul flight to not feeling highly emotional when I weighed myself. For the first time I am excited about my future!

Always there

But looking back was God there all along?

At the time I hadn’t felt anything. All those evenings when I had cried out to God, those evenings when my brain tormented me... The three times I had come close to ending my life and something had stopped me. Someone had perfectly intervened so I hadn’t been able to. Maybe that was God.

God was there holding me tightly those evenings when I was in hospital; he was there when my heart nearly stopped; he was crying as he looked on as I worked out in my room; he was staring in the mirror at me trying to reassure me when I didn’t feel able to look at myself in the face. God was there holding my hand as I got on the tube and burst in to tears, there giving me the strength to put one foot in front of the other when I felt like the world was caving in. He was there when I gave my first media interview and when I stood on a stage sharing my story. He was there on Boxing Day in 2016 when I ran across Wandsworth Common shouting at myself because what was running through my brain was unbearable. He has been there all along...holding me; being there through it all.

Looking back he had been there through it all. I can’t sit here and tell you I kept my faith throughout, as I was so far from it for most of life, but what I can tell you is that coming back to it was the best decision ever.

I know it isn’t going to always be plain sailing, but I know with God by my side I will always be OK.

Hope Virgo is the author of Stand Tall Little Girl and a multi-award-winning mental health campaigner and public speaker. Find out more at hopevirgo.com 

To sign her campaign #CurbTheCount to stop calories being displayed on menus, visit: https://www.change.org/p/boris-johnson-stop-calories-being-displayed-on-menus

This was first published in an earlier edition of Woman Alive. Our recent September issue focuses on image and our perception of beauty. Click here to buy a copy.

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