Ladies! What is our problem?

PictureI know, I know.  You’re not supposed to speak when you’re angry.  And I’m guessing that applies to blogging as well.  But I confess I am, so bear with me.

What IS IT with us women hating ourselves?

Now, I might be out on a limb on this, and if so, I apologise.  But over the past few days I’ve talked and met with some incredible, beautiful, talented, strong and wise women, women who are wonderful mothers, daughters, friends, sisters and people.  But despite being from different backgrounds and walks of life, they had one thing in common – a deep, paralysing sense of not being good enough.  Of being uniquely useless – or as one put it, uniquely sinful. Because here’s the saddest part – it’s not just unbelievers.  It’s Christians!

Ladies, why can’t we ‘get’ grace?

You see, this is the part where, after saying how sad it is that some women can’t see how lovely they really are, I talk about how, as a Christian myself, I’ve found total self-acceptance in the love of Christ.  But whilst I know this as a truth in my head, I find it so difficult to feel it.  And it’s not for lack of good teaching.  In fact, some of my biggest struggles where when I was studying full-time at theological college and had a ‘successful’ ministry teaching the gospel to others.

And that’s not to prioritise experience over systematic truth.  We’re not how we feel.  But at the same time, God has made us as whole people, and our emotions are a part of that.  I want to worship Jesus with all of me, not just my mind. I want to see myself and others as He sees me, to be satisfied with His love, to know who I am, not as a self-construct or reflection of other people, but as He has made me.

So who we are in ourselves? Well, let me kick it off…

Even though I’m technically both a woman and a wife – I’m not very good at either.  Recently my husband and I did the ‘Star Wars personality test’  (yes, we have far too much time on our hands).  Anyway, he came out as being most like Princess Leia, whilst I was the Emporer (who, for those of you who don’t know the film is not only a bloke, but the bossiest, nastiest piece of work in the galaxy).  Even at school, the careers computer said that not only did I have the personality of an adolescent boy, but my skills were most suited to being a prison warden.

Now as well as being a bloke trapped in a woman’s body, I’ve more than a sneaking suspicion I’m failing on the whole wife thing too.  Our kitchen sink is so grubby its practically got a personality of its own, our fridge (and my husband) is stuffed full of ready meals and I’ve killed everything living in the garden, including a cactus that was supposed to be indestructible.

And while I’m on the subject I may as well tell you that I’m also a deeply superficial person, whose living room and brain is filled with reality TV. Which might mean that my husband’s shirts are never ironed, but if anyone in the parish needs to know about Jordan’s love life, then I’m your woman.

Why am I telling you all this?  More self-hatred?  Possibly.  But, as my nan always said, when you meet someone for the first time it’s only polite to tell them a little bit about yourself. But what about you?  If I was to ask you  – who are you?, what would you say? And on what basis?

The whole existential ‘who am I?’ thing might feel a bit heavy for a Saturday night,  but like it or not, it’s a question we are all faced with, even before we leave the house.  In a sense,  it’s behind everything we do and every decision we make –  what we wear, where we go, whether to walk or drive or even get out of bed.  So how would you answer?

It’s not an easy question – even more so, because there seem to be millions of right answers.  As I look at all the magazines around our house or switch on the TV or go shopping, everyone seems to be saying something different.

Recently we watched the programme, ‘Who do you think you are?’ which concluded that people are their families.  Which is lovely if you were born in the Waltons, but not so great if, like most of us, you’ve spent a large part of your life trying to jump out of the family tree.  And perhaps  that family tree just needs to be spruced up with a bit of paint work.  Or a new wardrobe . You see, those bulging carrier bags represent not just a fashion forward addition to the wardrobe or bargain skirt.   They’re the new, improved,  Emma.  After all, the old one seems to be a bit of a disaster.

So where was I?  Ah yes.  The new clothes.  Lovely. Now all I have to do is fit into them – for as Gillian McKeith says, I am what I eat, right? And with a little bit of surgery I can not only chop bits off but add them on too.  (This will come as good news to my mum, who informed  our wedding guests that , ‘with that Wonderbra, she should be arrested under the trading standards act’).

But hold on a minute, isn’t all this a bit superficial?   After all, if Michelle Pfeiffer can say  ‘I’ve got big lips and a bent nose.  My face is completely wrecked.  I have never been confident about my looks’, then there’s not a lot of hope for the 98% of womankind who are uglier than her.  Who cares  what’s on the outside?  What’s important is who you are on the inside, right?   If I can only peel back the layers, ask the right questions and get in touch with the inner me, then I’ll know who I am.  Well thank goodness for that.

But here’s a question – what if, when you peel back the layers, there’s nothing there?  Even worse, what’s there is someone you don’t want to get to know, someone who’s done a bit of good stuff, but who is also really messed up.  Because maybe you’re different, but that’s me.

Complete the following sentence…my life would be perfect if I could just have….what?  A perfect body?  A different job?  A partner?  A family?  Money?  Good health?

Would that really make a difference?


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Good News For Messed Up People

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Good News for Messed-up People

I’m hoping that this site will be a forum for discussion on all kinds of issues connected to identity and faith.  This will include eating disorders – but hopefully, the application will be for all believers seeking to make sense of the world.  Our behaviours may be different, but our hearts are the same  – and so is our Saviour.


My Real Problem – Sin

My biggest problem is not my eating disorder, my compulsions or my self-harm.  My biggest problem is my sin. That’s much harder to deal with than any addiction.  And in a funny way, it’s also really good news.  If God can take care of our sin – if He loves us enough to die for us, even when we treat Him like absolute rubbish – then there is nothing that can separate us from Him.  He will never abandon us.  He will never hurt us.  There’s nothing about us that He doesn’t already know.  No secrets.  No surprises.  No need to hide or cover up.  The gospel is for sinners – and that means everyone. Everyone is messed up. Everyone needs to be rescued.

There are things I should feel ashamed about, things that do deserve punishment.  But they’re not the stuff I’ve spent my life beating myself up for.  They’re not about being “fat” or “rubbish” or “a waste of space”.  And they’re not even the bad stuff that other people might have done to me.  My real problem is much worse. By rejecting Jesus, I am cut off from relationship with God, refusing His love and trying to make life work on my own terms and in my own strength.

Where does this leave me?  If I stay like this, I will be forever separated from the God I’ve had no time for.  And that’s a problem that all the cutting and starving or purging in the world won’t solve.

But the same Jesus who ought to hate me and make me feel ashamed and punish me, doesn’t do what I do to myself.  Instead, He says, I know you.  And I love you.  He says, I’m going to take away your shame. And I’m going to take the punishment, not you.

God’s Real Solution – The Cross

We can’t remake ourselves.  And that’s at the heart of so much disordered behaviour – making a new me, a better me, because maybe if I look better or maybe if my body says how rubbish I feel, then what’s inside will change too. But there’s nothing we can do to change or to save ourselves.

On the cross, Jesus was cut off.  On the cross, He was abandoned and punished and stripped and shamed and exposed. He took that darkness on Himself and put it to death, where it belongs.  Jesus has dealt with that stuff.  Perfectly.  When it was all done, He cried out, “Finished”. And because He rose from the dead, we are raised with Him from the tyranny of our old selves.

So we can draw a line under the verdicts of other people.

Don’t buy the lie that you are what other people think of you.
You are not who your family say you are.  You are not what your mates think.
You’re not your job, or your grades.  You’re not your clothes size.
You are not even how you feel.

The Bible tells us who we really are: God’s dearly loved children.

Your old self has been nailed to the Cross.  Those accusing thoughts and judgements have no power over you any more.  They have fallen on Him.

The Real You

Who am I? The first question is, who is He?  You are who Jesus says you are, because He bought you on the Cross.  And that means you are priceless – because the ransom He paid for you, is more than the whole world put together.

This means that I can know – and face – who I really am. No more secrets, no more shame and no more masks.  There is a real me beyond the performances that exhaust and enslave.  As I enjoy His unconditional love I can start to live out of a new centre – a centre “in Christ.”  To “get” this love is a work of the Spirit.  And it will take a lifetime to grasp it fully.  But as we do, the real me can emerge.

Real Recovery

Jesus doesn’t just want to change how I behave.  He doesn’t want to bully me or get me to smarten up my act.  He loves me and he loves you, just as we are.  But he also loves us too much to leave us that way.

So – real life and real recovery is possible. Not just from eating disorders, or self-harm, but from self-hatred, from fear and shame and the stuff you keep locked in the basement.

Jesus didn’t come to give us a whole new set of rules to live up to.   He doesn’t need us to keep it together for Him.  He can handle all of our feelings and he can give us a future that is full of hope.  Not only that – He can use the mistakes we’ve made and the years we feel we’ve wasted. Freedom is possible because He lives in us. That’s not going to happen overnight – it’s a long and sometimes painful journey.  But we can trust Him to lead us every step of the way, to walk with us, minute by minute, to join us in the mess and to lift us out of it.

There is nothing – and no-one that He cannot redeem.

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Learning to Live

When trying to overcome harmful behaviours, people are taught how not to die.  But in truth, the challenge is learning how to live.

Often techniques are given for beating eating disorders or drinking or overspending or whatever.  But the solution is not found in ratcheting up my will power. In fact, that only exacerbates my problems.

Aside from anything else, I can’t change.

Scripture reminds me that I might tone down my actions, but I can’t change the heart that motivates these desires. And thank God for that.  Because if my recovery is dependent on me, then I’m trapped in a never-ending cycle of works.  I’m only as good as my last meal, or quiet time, or whatever it is that I think is important. And I will never get the rest or approval I so desperately crave.

Not only that, but life becomes a series of negations.  And that’s what I’d always thought Christianity was about – do not, do not. But the Bible says it’s the world that thinks like this, not Jesus:

“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col 2:20-23)

This is what doesn’t work.  Yet the passage doesn’t end there…

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  (Col 3:1-4)

Rules used to be your life.  And as a new friend has just commented – rules become rulers.  So what is your life now?  Not a principle but a Person.  Jesus Christ.

And Jesus is not a killjoy.  He tells us that He has come to ‘give us life and life to the full’ (John 10:10).  He’s the world’s greatest host, the master of the banquet.    But you know, that’s maybe the scariest thing of all.

The truth is, I’m not so sure I want to be at this banquet.  Now, given my history, a buffet style feast is never going to be up there on my top five events.  But it’s more than that.  It’s the noise, the colour, the people, the smells.  It’s too much.  I feel I don’t belong.  It’s not safe. I’m outside in the cold, looking in, breath steaming up the window, shrinking back into the shadows as the door opens and all the colour spills out. I can see all the people and the noise, I can hear the laughter and I can’t stay away –  but there’s an almost physical barrier that means I can’t – I won’t – join in.  It’s too dangerous.

C S Lewis explains this far better than I could;

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” (‘The Four Loves’)

You see, that’s another tricky thing about ‘recovery’.  And even life.  I kind-of  like the coffin of my selfishness.  It’s what I know.  Yes, it’s a little grey and pokey, but I know where everything is.  It’s my world and my universe.   And in it, I am God.  After all, hope is much more terrifying than despair.  At least with despair, you know where you stand.  You can predict what’ll happen, even control it.  But hope? Hope means opening up to the possibility of good things, to the possibility of being hurt.  And that’s not going to happen to me.

I’m torn.  On the one hand, I want a simple, glorious recovery.  A matter of hours – days at most. And sure, I’ll say that the Lord helped me.  But actually, I’ll do it myself.  On my terms.  Because secretly, just as I masterminded my decline, I’ll dictate the terms of my restoration.

But on the other hand,  I’m not sure I want to be better. My addictions and drives are problems, but they’re also solutions.  They do things.  They fill the spaces that threaten to swallow me when I stop.   And even if I don’t want to die, I don’t know how to live.

And yet..

This world of mine can get a tiny bit – stifling.  Airless.  It’s a safe world, but it’s also small.  In fact, there’s only room for one person –  me.

And it makes me wonder if hell really is other people.  Maybe it’s a world without God, without community.  Maybe it’s just me.


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Starving and Stuffing: The Same Thing?

50 per cent of recovering anorexics will go on to become bulimic.  What do you think are the reasons for this?  Is it that you have to relearn how to manage appetite? That your body is trying to ‘right’ itself? Or (given that we’re whole people), both physical and emotional hungers surfacing in an overwhelming way?

This is something I’ve struggled with myself and I guess it’s one of the things I have to keep working on.  You’d think in some ways that bingeing would be anathema to someone who feeds on self-control – and it is.  But what I’ve discovered is that, where in the past I’d starve myself to feel better and in control, now the opposite can be true.  Instead of skipping a meal, if I feel bad, I’ll often eat twice. Or much more. Where food was the enemy, now it’s the solution – to everything!

I think that’s one consequence of seeing only the physical side of the disorder – if gaining or losing weight is the issue, then you’ll use food as a way of being good and coping.   It becomes an extension of, ‘be a good girl and finish your plate’.  The danger here is that, although you’re maybe physically in a better place (and that counts for a lot), you’re still using food as a mechanism for self-expression and coping with life.

It turns out I can’t really address my issues with food and weight by focusing on food and weight. Something (or rather someOne) else needs to capture my heart.

Come, Lord Jesus!


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Spiralling Down, Cut Off, Ripped Apart

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Here’s the next installment of the seminar I gave on the weekend.

Extract:

Eating Disorders and Self Harm

Spiralling Down – How They’re Addictive

•    Addictive – physically and psychologically. What starts as the solution, becomes the problem.

•    Creates a sense of being in control but then becomes very out of control.

•    In ED, sufferers may experience a ‘whirlpool effect’, where as weight is lost the person experiences a physical ‘high’ and thinking and reasoning is effected, meaning that they become more and more obsessed with losing weight, and less able to break the cycle of over-exercising, laxative dependence etc.

•    A person who becomes a habitual self-injurer usually follows a common progression: the first incident may occur by accident, or after seeing or hearing of others who engage in self-injury. Before the event, they have strong feelings which they feel are unacceptable.  These build and without a way of expressing them directly, self-injury provides a feeling of release. This relief is followed by guilt and shame –  they then feel compelled to repeat the pattern

In both ED and SH sufferers may

•    need to go further each time

•    develop complex ‘rules’ or rituals around cutting or around food which become a part of making life ‘safe’.  Often they will suffer Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where they feel compelled to follow certain patterns of behaviour to prevent something bad happening or to feel safe.

•    experience a physiological and psychological high when they give in to these behaviours – and panic or depression when they resist them.

Cutting off – How They’re Isolating:

•    shame – I felt like this already, but the behaviours that started as a way of helping me feel better are now making me feel even worse.

•     my life is full of secrets – hiding my body with long sleeves or baggy clothes, lying about what is going on and pretending to be ok

•    others can’t understand – my behaviour arouses strong feelings/judgements in others, which makes me turn inwards.  In fact,

•    Other people become more and more a threat to my only coping mechanism.

•    The weirder I feel, the weirder I act…

•    Social interactions are about food and bodies!  We go for a walk or a swim or dancing, we eat meals together – SH and ED means retreat.


Split in two – How They Tear You Apart:

•    Feeling in charge but out of control

•    Feeling more and more distant from your body – your body becomes an enemy

•    But at same time you obsess over it – the anorexic hates food but can’t think of anything else.  The self-harmer mutilates their body but cares for it too.

•    Desperately wanting help but terrified of losing only avenue of self-expression/control/coping

•    Saving me but killing me:

•    Hidden but obvious

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Killing Our Desires – A Female Prerogative?

Great comments from Missy on how, as a culture, we value self-control, when in fact it can be just as sinful as its opposite.

I’ve spoken with different people struggling with eating disorders and those battling bulimia often comment that they wish they were anorexic instead, because of the cultural kudos attached to mastering ourselves, especially our bodies.

It’s no coincidence that eating disorders are rife not just outside, but within the church, where passions (especially in women), can be wrongly interpreted as something to be quenched or discouraged.

A few weeks ago I was looking with a friend at some photos of her as a young girl, before she came to faith.  She said she felt like a completely different person to the girl in the pictures.  And there was so much to celebrate in that!  But amongst the genuine joy for the Lord’s work in her life, she commented that she felt some sadness too.  As we talked, she explained that when she became a Christian she felt she needed to renounce, not just past behaviours, but the more exuberant parts of her personality.  As a Christian, she felt that these passions were inappropriate.  What’s interesting, is that they still come out – but in distorted ways.  And this just reinforces her own feelings of worthlessness.  Which in turn makes her want to kill those desires all the more.

But hang on – isn’t Jesus the most passionate person who ever lived? And doesn’t he want all of me – my hopes and fears and dreams and intensity? Surely our desires are given by Him – but in the desperation to make life work, we channel them into idols.  It’s not the desire itself that’s bad, but its end – only in Christ can they be fully and wonderfully realised.  But we try to squash them.  Or else we let them run riot and they pour into shops and shoes… or even good things, like family and friends, but which cannot give us the meaning we crave.  And somehow we can manage to squash them and let them run riot at the same time.

In my own life, I struggle with being still.   Ironically, both community and solitude can be deeply threatening – and my to-do lists are ways of avoiding myself, or, more accurately, the half-formed drives that propel me into endless busyness, followed by exhaustion.  In the evenings, I’ll quite often have the TV on, a crossword on one knee and a book in the other.  When I wake up in the middle of the night I want to DO.  (Poor Glen – it’s 2am and he has to peel his wife away from cleaning the kitchen, or colour-coordinating the socks drawer.  Again).

As a Christian, I want to live a life of freedom and grace – but so often I retreat into my own ridiculous system of works.  I didn’t make it to this meeting or call that person, but wait, I did do the shopping and send that card…

Is it something particularly feminine to want to be valued and accepted – desires which, post-Fall, gets channelled into frenetic multi-tasking and endeavours to be worth something?   Certainly, within marriage, the biblical injunction for husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands, suggests that, in this context anyway, men and women need different things.  My husband says men need to get off their backsides and love, women need to sit down and rest in love.

Returning to the issue of self-control, this is all part of the context in which self-mastery gains its kudos.  For the anorexic, who often feels voiceless and invisible, it’s as they master their physical appetite that they construct an inviolable self.  All of us do this – after all, ‘my way or death’ is simply another way of describing sin.

This is partly why some recovery programmes may help the sufferer on a physical level, but compound the spiritual/emotional issues. The anorexic is often encouraged to channel their amazing self-control into eating instead of starving, and to view recovery as a series of goal-orientated, self-empowered works.  Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that physical recovery (and this includes weight gain) is not absolutely vital.  In many cases it’s a key first step.  Nor am I saying that goals are always a bad thing.  But eating disorders are ways of wrestling with the very deepest existential and spiritual questions.  If you can ‘fix yourself’, or if your sole motivation is simply ‘to look better’, or ‘to be able to enjoy a nice meal with family and friends’, then, good as these things are, they won’t get to the heart of the problem.

Such goals and programmes are unable to deal with our deeper desires.  And they may well exacerbate the very works-centred striving that got us into that mess to start with.

What do you think?  Is ‘self-control’ our problem?  Is it the answer?  And even if it’s not ‘the answer’, what would godly self-control look like anyway?  Is there a genuine difference between men and women on this issue?  What is it?

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Eating Disorders and Self-Harm seminar – part one

Just got back from a seminar I gave to teenagers.  It was a small number but some wonderful openness and really useful chats afterwards.  Thanks to all who prayed for me!

I’ll post up my teaching in bits but here’s part one.  And these are a couple of introductory comments on how complicated these issues can be….


When I was trying to overcome anorexia, my mum would sometimes look at me and ask, ‘what did we do wrong?’  But it’s rare that there’s one big reason – in all likelihood there are lots of different factors involved. These range from personality type (e.g; high-achieving, perfectionist, thinks in black and white categories, low self-esteem), to culture, (a media obsessed with the body, conflicting messages about what it means to be male or female, lack of positive older role models)…the list goes on.  This can be a big help in terms of recovery too – as we try to negotiate the territory between sickness and sin.  Am I a victim of circumstances beyond my control?  Well, to some extent, yes.  Maybe I’ve been hurt and sinned against in terrible ways. And that’s something to be genuinely grieved over. But is that the end of the story? Using the language of sickness and victim-hood seems to be the most loving approach.  But in fact, it can actually take away our hope.  If I am the victim of say bullying, then I’m under the bully’s power.  Not just my sickness, but too often my recovery, may depend upon someone else. But that’s another post.. The point for now, is that life and people are complicated – there are rarely simple causes and consequences to anything.

Every person and every story is unique, but at the same time, there may be common factors or traits which predispose certain people to manage stresses in this way. And before we dismiss these weirdos, take a minute to think about the spectrum of ‘normal’ behaviour ..

This morning, for example. I lost my phone.  My brain was saying, ‘Emma, you IDIOT.  Why can’t you just get organised.  You’re so STUPID.’ Well, that looks a lot like self-harm – not as extreme as some, but coming from the same heart.

Or maybe I’ve had a really horrible day.  I come home and crack open the Haagen Daas.  Before long, it’s just me, the empty pot and a spoon. Comfort eating? Or a binge?

I can’t help thinking that to help others who are struggling, we need a real awareness of our own weakness. All of us are in a mess – and all of us need a Saviour.  Too often we can dismiss other people because they don’t fit our categories of acceptable sinners. But for many struggling with eating disorders (ED) or self harm (SH), these behaviours are not problems but solutions.  Not ways of trying to cause pain, but to deal with it.  Not ways of trying to die, but to learn how to live.

The rest of part one – including stats and definitions of anorexia, bulimia and self-harm

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