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Mortification and anorexia: your intention isn’t the only difference

Mortification and anorexia: your intention isn’t the only difference

God made my recovery harder.

Well, not exactly. In fact, He and only He was Who made it possible, Who pushed me to start it, Who supported me through all the moments of pain and Who is bringing it to an end now. So saying that would be deeply unfair. But the next statement is true: my idea of God made my recovery harder. An idea in which mortification held a prominent place.

Background

When I was caught up in anorexia, I honestly believed that it was a sacrifice I was doing for Him and because of Him, a mortification I was offering up.

That’s why, when I started recovery, this was one of the most conflicting points. On the one hand, everyone was telling me that anorexia wasn’t right and it wasn’t what God wanted for me. On the other hand, I had a very strong feeling that I was betraying God, quitting because I was weak and wanted to give in to worldly pleasures, specifically food. That made me feel like a dirty glutton. Even worse, as if I was apostatizing. As if I was a disgusting ingrate that, after everything God had done for me, that wasn’t enough for me to be a little self-sacrificing, no: I wanted to have everything, I wanted to have the mundane food too.

Therefore, I found myself utterly desolated and I wasn’t able to turn to God in my suffering, because, if everything in me was telling me that what I was doing was wrong, how could I ask Him for help to carry it out?

September 2016. BMI 13
August 2020. BMI 18.6

Triggering texts

Anything that spoke about sacrifice and mortification was extremely triggering for me. That included not only numerous saints’ texts, but also the Bible. In fact, the latter didn’t even have to talk about those topics, since I had created an “anorexic interpretation” of lots of passages. So many times going to Mass was a torture rather than a relief, and I just wanted to cry and go out. After listening to what I saw as a direct accusation in the lectures, how could I receive Jesus in the Eucharist? But, on the other hand, I knew it was the only way to survive to this, so I kept on going daily.

Reading or listening to the Bible was kinda unavoidable, but other texts weren’t. Still, I read them, I triggered myself on purpose, because I felt very guilty if I didn’t, as if I was ignoring reality so I could twist it as I pleased (oddly enough, that was in fact what I was doing with anorexia, but I saw everything upside down). Add to that other hundreds of things: homilies, preachments, articles and posts on Christian websites —more or less trustworthy—, comments of Christian people around me, etc.

In spite of the fact that everyone seems to see clearly that anorexia is something wrong, I think my doubt was more than justified: what was the difference between sacrifice and mortification, which were recommended and praised as virtuous, highlighted when talking about saints’ lives as something important, and what I did with anorexia, what horrified everyone? What’s the difference between a holy fast and an eating disorder?

Is the difference in the intention?

And now we’ve arrived to the core of this matter. Because I started to look for answers on Christian forums and websites, and I found out I wasn’t the first one to think about those questions. Only that usually who wondered about it was on the opposite side. Instead of saying: if fasting is good, then why an eating disorder isn’t?, they formulated it the other way around: if an eating disorder is wrong, then why fasting isn’t?

And the most common answer was this one: because of the intention. According to many, Christian fasting was done for God and with the intention of making reparation for sins and dominate the body so as not to give in to our passions, whereas the fasting of an eating disorder was done out of vanity and with the superficial intention of being thin and looking like supermodels.

This is a very harmful and dangerous answer. Because it insinuates that the only thing that matters is the intention, which is subjective, when we’re judging an objective reality. This is a relativist way of thinking, not a Christian one. Intention can turn something neutral into something good (for example, if we offer up our work or study, what was something merely human is divinized); but not something evil into something good.

After all, when someone murders in the name of God, we do not consider that his intention changes the intrinsic wickedness of the act; on the contrary, we probably see it as an aggravating circumstance, a blasphemy. However, this is the answer that’s being given to someone that’s slowly murdering herself: that what matters is the intention, that if she doesn’t do it for a superficial desire of thinness but for God, she has the green light to do it.

Health, what health?

Some of the answers would add another nuance: a mortification is good if it it doesn’t reach the point of damaging your health. Although it’s an important point to take into account, it doesn’t satisfy me either. It can be an extreme indicator: if you have symptoms of undernourishment (as it was in fact my case), you must immediately stop. But the problem is that this concept of health focuses on physical health and overlooks mental health.

If you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, even if your body doesn’t show signals of being sick (at least externally, a more exhaustive analysis can reveal more), you can’t define what you’re doing as something healthy. And that’s a problem in our society because the limits are blurry: sickly behaviors with food are perceived as healthy and food, obsession is mistaken for willpower. So that’s just what we needed now, to also have a religious justification for none other than the devil in our head…

This kind of statements contribute to reinforce the stereotype that a person suffering from an eating disorder has to be very thin. Granted, if the disorder is restrictive, such as anorexia, it’s likely that this becomes like that at some point. But the problem doesn’t start when one reaches a low BMI number. And we can’t encourage people to flirt with restrictive habits as long as their weight stays within a certain range.

Going around in circles

So we can’t judge the act neither by the intention nor by the visible effects on the body (after all, no one would say that hitting others is good as long as you don’t leave a mark). Establishing limits is becoming more and more difficult… Because of this, some people go off on a tangent and say: those who have an eating disorder mustn’t fast. Good advice, but the previous step is distinguishing between one thing and the other. If you’re convinced you’re doing the second, with good intentions and everything, but it turns out that you have the first, then it’s useless. And we must never underestimate the mind’s ability of self-deception.

Alternative mortifications

In addition, people in recovery who ask these things (if they can fast and so) are often told to do alternative mortifications instead. This shows a complete misunderstanding of the psychology of the problem, where control is a fundamental component — the glorification of self-control. Because the only thing you get with that is that the person focuses her obsession on something else. For many time in recovery I couldn’t undertake any kind of exterior mortification, because it would get out of my hands right away. I wasn’t able to choose just one without feeling that then I had to do all the other ones that crossed my mind, and more intensely, and for more time.

Moreover, it fed my thought that, since I had abandoned my great call to sacrifice through anorexia, the least I could do was to beat me up in everything else and have no other enjoyment. The voice in my head told me: “take your food if you want it so much, but don’t you dare asking for anything more, you f* egotist”.

Mortifications with food: just don’t

Among the worst recommendations of alternative mortifications I’ve read there were even some food related ones. Someone went as far as to say to me that I could eat enough, but of things that I didn’t like or were insipid. When one of the most essential and beautiful components of recovery is re-discovering food, tastes, appreciating its goodness and how it’s a gift from God to nourish ourselves. Learning to give glory to God through cooking and eating, and being grateful for that. Respecting, taking care of and honoring the temple of your body that He has wanted to create, to give to you (but as a tenant, not as an owner) and come to dwell in when you receive Him in the Eucharist.

Exterior and interior mortification

Another piece of advice, now this time more sensible, is to do interior instead of exterior mortifications. The former are more perfect and in general harder —against what it might seem at first—. But saying this isn’t enough to stop someone who has a problematic fixation. Because for them it will always be “in addition to”. I mean, why substitute when you can add? People with these disorders usually have a mindset of the more, the better.

Obedience

Despite everything I criticized before, I must say that in Catholic websites there’s a piece of advice that appears repeatedly and that has turned out to be the most valuable one for me: to always consult these things with a spiritual director, and stick to his judgment out of obedience. If I hadn’t done that before it’s because I knew that if I told anyone he was going to tell me that I had to stop doing it, and that couldn’t be because in my mind I had received a secret special call from God and I had to fulfill it. No one else was going to understand it and I couldn’t let them stop me just because they were less enlightened than me.

This has a name, and it’s pride, a huge pride, no matter how humble I felt saying that since this was a gift from God I couldn’t become conceited about it. True humility is exercised in obedience, and that’s something I learnt very well from the works of St. Faustina and St. Therese. It’s been in so many moments the only things that’s kept me going in a path that, otherwise, I saw as wrong and senseless.

The ignored minority

I understand that the problem today generally speaking is the opposite one. People has given up any penance and consider it’s a thing of the past. In light of this, it’s normal that those who fight for a return to truth and orthodoxy inside the Church insist on its importance. Rationally, I know they must not stop talking about it just to avoid offending sensibilities, even if that’s why I’d have wished many times.

I must also say that I haven’t met anyone with a case like mine, who conceived their eating disorder this way. But I’ve met lots of Christian people that, when they’ve tried to recover, have struggled because of these things, these messages. I know how hard it is for many people to cope in Lent, to be ashamed of not fasting, to listen to invitations to mortify the body, etc. Everything is triggering.

Even for non believers anorexia can take on moral features: feeling high, ascetic, separated and beyond the world, with discipline and self-control, etc. And when they want to recover, what they listen in their mind is that they’re greedy, impure, dirty, lazy, slothful, out of control, etc. Obviously, these feelings are much more intense in believers because of the depth that all these words have within a religious context. This part of the illness is very misunderstood in Christian communities.

December 2016. BMI 13.1

Recovery as a sacrifice

A key change of mindset that Christian people in recovery have to do is to understand that this process is in fact much more of a sacrifice than any abstinence. We’re to used to equate sacrifice with restriction in the physical level that the possibility that it can be just the opposite as well it’s hard to grasp. But everything depends on where you are in your life at a certain moment, what God’s asking for you right now.

When you’re in recovery, eating less is the easy thing, eating more is the sacrifice. Punishing yourself is the easy thing, taking care of yourself is the sacrifice. Pushing yourself to the limit of your physical strength is the easy thing, resting is the sacrifice. I was very inspired by seeing Christian people that I followed who resolved to double their recovery efforts in Lent: a fast of eating more, of facing fear foods, of adding more sweets and desserts, etc. Apart from other fasts like fasting from bad thoughts, from pro-ana websites, from articles about diets, etc.

Although I was still very scared. To start with, I struggled to accept that those were “valid” sacrifices. To accept that I could give glory to God like that. But I trusted, I did it, I offered it up, I obeyed. Mind you, always with the anxiety of thinking I was getting it wrong and, projecting towards the future, wondering: and when I reach a healthy weight? And when this stops being a struggle? Then, will I have to change this completely and stop enjoying food forever?

And now…

Now, already quite advanced in this recovery path, these worries don’t assault me and I don’t believe it’s like that at all. Those questions I asked myself have lost meaning for me. But that’s not because I’ve reached some revealing theoretical conclusions. I think it’s something that you just see when you’re healthy. In recovery we usually talk about healing the body and the mind as two different things, but in some way they’re related. The mind goes slower, but up to a certain point it’s dragged by the body. Your mental processes don’t work the same when your brain is not getting proper nourishment. But “you’ll see it when you get there” isn’t a very effective phrase to reassure someone who’s anxious because of their doubts at a certain moment. And they must be, if not answered, at least calmed down in the best way possible at that moment.

In fact, to be honest,I still don’t understand some things. Now I’m able to offer up mortifications —not to fast from food yet, of course— without it being triggering for me, and in a natural way, without feeling overwhelmed. And I’m also able to understand why other people do other mortifications, even food related. But I’m still unable to see why certain practices are good when done for Christ, and not considered as disordered self-harm.

August 2020. BMI 18.6

True mortification

I’ve learned a couple of things about true mortification, though. To start with, that it must be something that takes you closer to God and opens yourself to others, not that shuts yourself off and isolates you. Something that increases your ability of loving and serving. Of course, in more than one way, exactly the opposite happened with anorexia. I felt closer to God, granted, but at the expense of hurting my loved ones, disobeying His Church, and lying all the time. And it prevented me from living for anything else than that.

Another key: seek peace. Which isn’t comfortability, for sure. Sometimes you need to make changes and that’s painful. Sometimes you have to die a little to yourself and the internal fight is exhausting. But what we do should, deep down, leave us in peace, it should set us free and not enslave us even more.

And one more thing: things should flow naturally. How many times we overthink things and get tangled up in complicated arguments… Most times, those are traps from the devil to drive us away from reality, which is our meeting place with God.

Conclusion

The part with «positive answers» is way shorter than the critical part. I’m aware of that. Perhaps it’s because in these subjects there’s still more confusion than certainty, more shadow than light. But God is Truth and Light. So, even if this topic worries you or is triggering for you, don’t go away from Him. Recovery is worth it, but only by His side, because, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16, 26). There are many things that you can’t understand at first, but you’ll see the solution at the end, and that’s the great good and reward that He’s prepared for you. Trust. Get on His Heart and let yourself be carried away in this ride.

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