The Role of Faith in Recovery: A Personal Journey
Theodicy. The word flashed across my mind as I sat motionless among my fellow clients at my first eating disorder treatment center. Three years prior, I had written my final college essay on this term, seeking to answer the universal question, “Where is God in suffering?”
My thoughts actively searched for the “why” of my situation—why did God allow an eating disorder to take control over my life, and where was He in it? The answer, I would learn, would not be revealed until much later on.
I was born and raised in a Christian home, attended a small, private school, and was actively involved in the local church. When I graduated high school, I went on to earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from two, private institutions, both of which held similar values and religious viewpoints to the environment I was raised in. My relationship with God grew stronger over the years as I learned more about His character, sovereignty, and love for me.
As someone who studied and memorized the Scriptures every morning, I felt that nothing could break the solid bond of my relationship with God; because I was faithful to Him, I took comfort in believing He, too, would be faithful to me. Spiritually, I felt confident and secure that I could face any trials and hardships life had in store. That is, until everything changed.
I was formally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in May of 2018 at 22-years-old. I had suffered unknowingly with my eating disorder and its medical complications for over six years before an expert identified what countless other physicians missed. Within a week of my diagnosis, I was booked on a flight to an eating disorder treatment facility 1500 miles from home.
During my first week of treatment, I began to feel the full weight of both physical and spiritual isolation. “Shouldn’t I have been prepared for this?” I asked myself as I endured the mocking of my faith among fellow clients. “God isn’t real.” “Your God can’t save you here.” “You actually believe in that stuff?” The comments seemed to pierce my spirit as I battled internally over their hostile words.
With only a Bible to counter the accusations people were making about my relationship with God, I began to grow weary. My Scripture readings each day grew stale, my hope for the future began to dwindle, and God seemed to be suddenly and painfully absent. With no clients or staff sharing my beliefs, I felt utterly alone for the first time in my life.
When I prayed, I heard nothing but silence reverberating from day to day — a puzzling and devastating response amidst the war I was fighting to heal my mind and body. I begged and pleaded for God to take away my eating disorder; for Him to show me His plan for me; for Him to heal the other clients I was living with at the time; and yet, I felt only the cold silence of an inaudible Voice. Over time, I slowly began to question everything I once believed about God.
While I struggled with my faith, my eating disorder aggressively fed on my isolation from God, family, friends, and clients in the treatment house. As my loneliness increased, so did my desire to maintain my eating disorder as my “one true source of comfort and security.” My anorexia was slyly robbing me of the spiritual part of my life, but the emptiness I felt in my soul demanded that I cling to my disorder; for without it, I feared there would be nothing.
When I returned home after two months of residential treatment, I felt a newfound bitterness toward both the church and my community. As I progressed in my therapy and began to deal with past trauma, I couldn’t seem to find the parallel between suffering and God’s goodness, or pain and God’s love; as a result, my wall of anger separating me from God began to expand. “Where is He?” I wondered to myself at night as I tossed and turned on my tear-soaked pillow. Out of pride, I refused to admit that I had felt abandoned and betrayed by God, and instead, attempted to “heal” myself through my own methods.
I began to isolate more from people amid my eating disorder’s steady presence. I stopped going to church, cancelled on friends, and avoided any conversation about faith. My thought patterns shifted from eternal-based hope to temporary-based fixes. Though I had regular, weekly appointments with my treatment team, I gradually lost faith in both God and myself as I fell deeper into both the pit of depression and the mire of my eating disorder.
Despite my best efforts to avoid the subject, I continued to feel an undeniable, gaping hole where my faith once filled; I began to understand that without faith and a relationship with God, there was no deeper “why” to life or greater sense of purpose — an aspect I desperately needed to continue in the process of recovery.
I also recognized the obvious signs that my eating disorder was increasing its hold on my life. Not only was I isolating from family and friends, but also from my relationship with God. My negative self-talk and poor view of myself that was encouraged by my eating disorder was stripping me of my ability to fully connect with my faith. In essence, anorexia had taken precedence over God — something I never imagined could happen.
My eating disorder had destroyed two areas of my life: the health of my mind/body, and the health of my faith/soul. After neglecting both of these areas for so long, I recognized they needed intentional nurturing to truly heal. So, as I worked to mend my mind and body through outpatient treatment, I simultaneously needed the same level of commitment to soul care.
When words were difficult to utter, I began to write prayers in the form of poetry; when Scripture reading seemed impossible to take on, I began to observe the beauty of His creation around me; when I watched various aspects of my eating disorder disappear from my life, I clung to the hope that God would provide new things in their place. Gradually, my faith grew to a much deeper and personal level, developing from a dying faith to a living faith.
My therapist once shared with me, “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” Faith, in many ways, is vital to the recovery process. Recovery requires faith in the unknown—a terrifying and daunting leap toward an unclear future. Recovery, for me, demanded faith in my treatment team, faith in the process, and faith in a Higher Power to see me through to the other side.
Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It is through this verse that I find hope and solitude in knowing God has a plan, especially as I continue to grieve both the loss of my eating disorder and the years it stole from me.
Admittedly, I still struggle to cling to the beliefs I hold as truth when recovery is difficult, life grows lonely, or God’s presence isn’t felt. I have taken more than two years to realize that God never abandoned me: I simply couldn’t feel Him because my eating disorder had taken His place. However, I believe God works just as purposefully in the shadows as He does in the spotlight, meaning that those years I spent quietly hoping He was there with me in the pit were not spent in vain. Quiet faithfulness, especially in the face of adversity, is a necessary step to becoming my best self.
Eventually, I came to realize I was exposed to such suffering and sadness in treatment because God was pruning and repositioning my heart for my calling into the field of counseling. Though I originally blamed God and held resentment against Him for the hurt I experienced that summer, this painful experience had led to and built a greater sense of trust in His faithfulness moving forward. Faith, therefore, was pivotal to the unveiling of my life’s mission.
The question then, when discussing the role of God in suffering, is not why did this experience happen, but what will come of it?
God heard me when
I called His name.
I begged He come,
and so, He came.
In the quiet solitude,
behind my salty tears,
God answered when I needed Him,
despite the last lost years.
WOW WOW WOW! I can relate to so much of your story…thank you for sharing. I was in residential treatment twice as a teenager for anorexia, and now at 46 years old, I’m struggling again. I spent 5 months earlier this year in a semi-residential/PHP program, and I’m still struggling now that I’m home. I love Jesus and have been a Christian for decades but the ED is always right there with me…I often feel helpless. I had many healthier years but the past few have been rough. I appreciate your honesty and would be honored to somehow connect with you. Thank you and God bless you!
Thank you for reaching out and sharing a little of your story, Kelly. I’m glad that you find faith a great comfort in your efforts to heal from anorexia nervosa and encourage you to perservere with your efforts. Connecting with others of like-mind in an understanding and supportive environment is very helpful.