Conversatio Divina

Anorexia as an Avenue to Grace

Christie Pettit

During my freshman year in college, I was on top of the world. I was enjoying campus life at the university Thomas Jefferson built, playing on the tennis team and making good grades. Life was great—until I developed an eating disorder called anorexia athletica. I had heard that many female college athletes struggle with this strange disorder, but I never thought I would be susceptible to it. And I certainly never thought anorexia would become a means for me to experience grace.

When I arrived at the University of Virginia, I quickly threw myself into working as hard as I could. I thought that in this new and competitive environment, I would have to earn love and acceptance through my performance. Rather than having an identity that flowed out of my relationship with Christ, I had learned to grab my worth from striving to be the best. It wasn’t about being better than everyone else, but about being the very best me that I could be. What began as a simple effort to be a successful student athlete led to a downward spiral of obsession with healthy eating and overexercise.

01.  My World Without Grace

In my story of anorexia—my world with no room for grace—there were three primary themes: (1) having a performance-based self-worth, (2) becoming a slave to perfectionism, and (3) grasping for control over my life.

Performance-Based Self-Worth

As I sank into my anorexic mindset, I no longer found my identity in Christ. Who I was had been reduced to my weight, numbers on a gym scale. I created a false self that was based on my performance. As Fr. Basil Pennington wrote in the Fall 2005 issue of Conversations, when discussing obstacles to union, “The hold that the false self has on me makes me captive to wanting to have things, to fearful possessiveness; to wanting to do things and have accomplishments to which I can hang on; to being possessed by concern about what others think of me.”Basil Pennington, “My Will be Done, My Kingdom Come.” Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, 3:2, 2005, 18.

My performance-based self-worth had me far too busy achieving to be able to slow down and become open to simple awareness of God’s love. I could not experience God’s grace because I was so focused on earning my worth. I was obsessed with doing the “right” things: spending time reading the Bible, doing Bible studies, and attending fellowship groups, almost as a way of running from God. If I could check these things off my list each day, then I didn’t have to be still and be in relationship with God, and I didn’t have to believe that God loved me without all these activities.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism quickly became an idol to me in this competitive college environment where I was struggling to find my niche. I wasn’t focused just on my weight; I was striving to be perfect in everything. I read every page I was assigned—many twice. I declared war on any fat in my diet. With the new craze of fat-free foods, it was fairly easy for me to go an entire day and eat almost no fat whatsoever: fat-free breakfast bars, fat-free yogurt, fat-free/low-calorie bread, fat-free turkey, fat-free salad dressing . . . fat was the enemy, and I avoided it at all costs. I exercised each day until the point of exhaustion. Everything in my life had to be perfect, accomplished to the extreme.

I took the same perfectionist approach to being good enough for God and others. I spent time with God every day, checking off our appointments in a special “God notebook” and attending a college fellowship group almost every evening. I joined a sorority, began dating a great guy, called home every day, and developed some of the best friendships I have ever had. But I did not allow myself the time or spiritual openness to see grace in any of these areas of my life. I thought that if I was not performing, then others, including God, would not accept me. I guess I thought I was unlovable if I was ordinary, but that I could somehow earn love by being perfect.

Philip Yancey speaks to the influence of the performance-based self-worth and perfectionism that plagues many women when he writes, “Every institution, it seems, runs on ungrace and its insistence that we earn our way. . . . The disease anorexia is a direct product of ungrace: hold up the ideal of beautiful, skinny models, and teenage girls will starve themselves to death in an attempt to reach that ideal.”Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 36–37.

The more rigid I was in my diet and exercise regimen, the further I got from being able to experience God’s grace. I was operating entirely out of my self-devised system of “ungrace” and perfectionism. This mentality had increasingly developed as I continued my downward spiral of obsession with performance. I put pressure on myself in every area of my life to be the very best I could be. But this attitude was the polar opposite of the grace God extends to us, based not on our performance but on God’s love for us through Christ.

Control

Both my performance-based mentality and my perfectionism were ultimately a matter of control. I wanted to be in control of everything. In a sense, it was as if I were saying to God, “Too bad you missed the mark when you were knitting me together. But don’t worry, God, the good news is that I can fix this. I can clean up your mess. Through extreme discipline and self-control, I can create the perfect body that you weren’t able to make. You don’t seem to be giving me the things I want out of life, so I am going to take matters into my own hands.” Grasping for control, I created a life for myself that was empty of grace. But I was eating from the “Tree of Death” (self-sufficiency) instead of the “Tree of Life” (surrender to and cooperation with the love of God).

I was clinging to something I could control when everything else in my life seemed dangerously out of control. As Gary Moon explains, “In grasping from the wrong tree, [Adam and Eve] voted that they cherished control, independence, and self-determination more than surrender, community, and abandonment to the love of God. In hiding they moved into a world of shame and isolation and out of the realm of grace and togetherness. . . . Grasping and hiding yank us away from Eden and into a world of competition, loneliness, and silent desperation, an unnatural world for the human soul.”Gary Moon, Falling for God: Saying Yes to His Extravagant Proposal (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2004) 29–30. The imagery of “grasping” and “hiding” is inspired by Robert Barron. See also Robert Baron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (New York: Crossroad, 1998).

That was my life. I grasped for control as I set out to prove to the world that I was a success. But as I pursued performance, perfectionism, and control, I turned my back on God’s invitation to a relationship based on love and grace.

02.  Receiving Grace

Recognizing My Need for Grace

It was not until I reached my breaking point that I finally turned to God. It was at this point that I became aware of the extent to which I was controlled by my obsession. I was isolating myself and becoming hardened and cold. I realized that I was avoiding time with friends if it would interfere with my eating or exercise schedule. I didn’t like who I was becoming.

In order to receive grace from God, I had to recognize the ways in which I was turning away from God in and through my disordered behavior. My exercise routine each morning had become more important to me than spending time with God. My mood each day was based on whether I was feeling fat. I had become so focused on my obsession with performing that it was hard for me to think about anything else. But as I began to become more conscious of what my life had become, I was able to see my sin more clearly. The only thing that could save me from the downward spiral of my eating disorder was God’s grace. Because I was at the end of myself—where I discovered that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried or how rigid I was, I would never feel satisfied with myself—I realized that peace would never be found through my performance, but only through the acceptance of God’s extravagant and irrational love.

Story as a Means to Grace

One of the tools that God used in my journey of recovery was the power of narrative. It was in large part through the telling of my own story that I was able to receive grace. As I became willing to tell my story, I began to experience the words of Roberta BondI when she states, “For me, it was only as I was able to tell these stories of my own life to God that I was even able to hear for myself what it was I needed to ask God for, to ask for it, and to receive it.”Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 13–14.

In telling my story, I became more self-aware and could draw nearer to God as I recounted these experiences to others. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and real with others and discovered that I was not rejected, but was, rather, more connected now than I had ever been. Similarly, God did not want me to be perfect; God wanted me to be open and honest about the struggles that I faced. Recounting my story to others and to God helped me grasp the depth of God’s grace as I sorted through how God had been acting in my life even in the midst of a season of such pain and struggle.

The Stories of Scripture

In reading the stories of Scripture, I experienced another powerful way of receiving healing and grace. The stories of the lives of biblical characters served as a team of people, a great cloud of witnesses, to help me rebuild my life. Like many who struggle with eating disorders, I often felt isolated and alone in my struggles. But in the stories of Scripture, I found others, like Paul, with whom I could identify and from whom I could draw strength.

For example, when I was at my loneliest point, when I hated myself so much that I couldn’t imagine anyone else loving me, Paul’s words in Romans 7 clearly paralleled what I was feeling. When Paul spoke of struggling with his will and not being able to do what he knew was right, I felt as if I were reading my own thoughts. While I didn’t want to be obsessed with my weight, it had become a sin—an idol of control—that was so ingrained in my daily life that I felt powerless to overcome it. I knew what I should be doing, how I longed to live with a healthy perspective, but it seemed like an impossible goal to reach. By serving as a connecting point and helping me to see that I was not alone in my struggles, the stories of Scripture were a means by which I experienced God’s grace.

In the Spring 2005 issue of Conversations: Scripture and Formation, Barbara Mutch writes, “There is no substitute for the stories of Scripture for the feeding of our hearts and souls. Our personal stories are also an integral part of spiritual formation. Self-knowledge and understanding are foundational to spiritual formation. Learning to recognize and respond to the activity of God in our lives is one of the central themes of spiritual formation.”Barbara Mutch, “Shaped by the Story: Narrative, Formation, and the Word.” Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, 3:1, 2005, 63.Meditating on the stories in Scripture and connecting them with my own story helped me more fully to understand and internalize God’s grace. As I read of God’s mercy, compassion, and love toward others, like Abraham and David, I became more open to God’s forgiveness.

03.  Extending Grace

Listening

In addition to sharing my own story and connecting to the stories of Scripture, listening also played a vital role in my recovery. Being trained as a counselor has taught me how to listen well. As I am given the honor of being let into another woman’s story of battling an eating disorder or depression or a difficult marriage, I see the importance of being a good listener and feeling heard.

Each woman whom I counsel has something different to offer, but I must be willing to be present and hear how God has worked in and through even the harshest of situations. It is a challenge not to assume that I know what she has been through or impose my own experiences of pain or suffering on her. Instead, I have to be open to the ways in which her story is different from mine. I see the value in identifying common themes while also honoring the uniqueness of how God works in each of our lives.

Being aware of the ways I can connect to the women with whom I work and determining how their individual stories fit into larger narratives help me better to connect with the women with whom I sit. In addition, by thinking in these ways, I move toward authentic transformation in my own journey. I can both experience grace and extend grace by being an artful listener.

Effective listening should enable the counselor to locate God’s presence in the story. As Roberta BondI notes, “Just to hear their stories filled me in a new way with a holy wonder and gratitude both for the reality of each separate human life and the mystery of God’s presence in it.”Bondi, 15.

Listening to the stories of others has revealed to me the depth of God’s grace. I’m not fully sure why, but it often seems easier for me to see God’s grace for others than for myself. But as I listen to how God has worked in the lives of others, I see more clearly how God is also extending grace to me. For example, when I hear a young woman who is struggling with low self-esteem talk about how there is nothing special about her, my heart breaks, and I want to tell her of the beauty and strength I see in her. It is then—even in that same moment—that I catch myself having a similar pattern of self-destructive thoughts, and I can imagine God’s heart breaking, wanting me to see how uniquely God has created and gifted me.

As I extend grace toward others, I experience grace from God. Loving others often opens a window in my soul. How much more must God love me?

My Ongoing Need for Grace

It has been important for me to recognize the ongoing nature of the process of experiencing God’s grace. A common question that has surfaced in my mind during my recovery has been, “When will this ever end?” I have wondered if I would be anorexic for the rest of my life. My journey since that period in my life has made me aware of the importance of forgiving myself for my weaknesses throughout my life. It is a continuous process of experiencing God’s grace, not a one-time occurrence of forgiveness.

On days when I find myself dwelling on a negative body image, I remind myself of God’s grace and God’s vision of who I am. In addition, not only do I work through my own issues, but I also strive to fight the societal structures that promote separation from God in the form of eating disorders. The process of experiencing God’s grace is ongoing in my own life and in the larger narratives of our culture.

Anorexia was an amazing means to grace in my life. It wasn’t until I experienced a life with no room for grace that I could grasp what an incredible gift from God grace is to each of us. Anorexia—with its unholy trinity of performance-based worth, perfectionism, and control—made me more aware of my own sins of separation and self-sufficiency than I have ever been. And through experiencing the almost deathly results of playing god, I discovered that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not save myself. I needed God, and God was there.

Although it has been the hardest thing I have been through, it has also been one of the most formative experiences of my life. Through this trial, I more deeply desire relationship with God, wanting never to be separated from God like that again. I have become more self-aware so that I can recognize when I am choosing my own will over resting in God’s control over my life. I have seen what will become of my life when I try to play god. I have seen how miserably I failed. As a result, I can now respond to how God has abundantly provided for me even in the most difficult of life situations. I continue to pray that God will use the challenges in my life to draw me into deeper union:

Grant me grace to bear thy will without repining, and delight to be not only chiseled, squared, or fashioned, but separated from the old rock where I have been embedded so long, and lifted from the quarry to the upper air, where I may be built in Christ for ever.Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994) 73.

Footnotes

Christie Pettit is a counselor, author, and public speaker. Her counseling practice focuses on women’s issues, including a specialization in working with adolescent girls struggling with eating disorders. In addition to her work as a counselor, she also serves as managing editor for Conversations. Christie is the author of Starving: A Personal Journey Through Anorexia. Her most recent book, Empty: A Story of Anorexia, will be released for teens in June 2006.