Bread of Life
“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” -John 6:35
The first time I knew something was wrong was when I was eight years old. I was sitting on my bathroom floor next to five full sized Nestle Crunch Bar wrappers which I had just rapidly eaten. They were from a Costco supply box in our kitchen and were reserved for new visitors at my family’s church. While I probably should have thrown up or laid down because I had consumed an excessive amount of candy, I remember trying to throw up simply because I was angry at myself. I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop. I asked God to forgive me.
My young world had three absolute truths: that Jesus loved me, that my parents knew best, and that I was going to change the world. My fourth absolute was not as obvious: a hidden, painful, compulsive eating disorder that I had been developing throughout my childhood and teenage years. It was my second biggest interest aside from Jesus. It was consuming and painful. Like my faith, it told me who I was and who I couldn’t be.
Coming from upper middle-class America, in a loving and otherwise stable family, I had had no exposure to any major problems in my childhood. My family was a tight-knit group of two parents, two kids and a dog, and we were one paint job away from a white-picket fence and the unattainable American dream. In other words, I was well-off, comfortable, and extremely privileged to have such a carefree and sheltered childhood, which gave my family plenty of time to be centered around one bright and shining identity: Christianity.
I believed I would change the world, mostly because I was a very headstrong person but also because everyone in my world told me I would — through Jesus. Years of youth groups, church meetings, conferences, retreats, well-meaning pastors, family, and like-minded friends reaffirmed my identity in this religion. By the time I turned 18 years old, I had decided to continue my pursuit of religious passion at a “discipleship school” for Christians called Gateways Beyond International. This intensive program was centered in Cyprus, an island near Israel, in a community of long-term missionaries hosting six-month programs for religiously passionate young adults. All I knew was that it would involve daily worship and prayer, various community events to local churches, and, at the end of the term, a month-long mission trip to another country. Many of my peers had completed this program and promised me that it would be a transformative experience.
To this day I wonder who I would have become had I been brave enough to face my insecurities on my own. I did pretty poorly in high school, I never applied for college, and like many teenagers, had no idea what I wanted my adult life to be focused on. I was completely afraid of being inadequate on all levels, and, most of all, I was afraid that I would be judged as inadequate for not getting into college. So instead, I decided on the alluring path that affirmed my biggest passion, interest, and identity.
(Disclaimer: I had so many unique and complex experiences through the church of Gateways that I feel it would take a book, not an essay, to explain them in-depth. This is not a critique of the well-intended and genuine people I met during these years, but an honest look at why I so easily accepted the values and principles I learned through this church.)
I arrived in Cyprus in January 2011, welcomed by leaders of the program and a handful of twenty-some other students. Our school was housed in a poorly-constructed one-room building that used to be a restaurant. It housed a room of musical instruments, a community kitchen, and an office space. It was situated in a rather remote location in Cyprus, about an hour bus ride to the main city of Limassol. The run-down school was a far cry from the glamourous, multi-million dollar churches in Washington State, but that was okay. After all, Jesus told me to come here, and I trusted Him entirely.
I quickly found out that the program was just as obsessive and intense as I was, which allowed me to spend the first few months casually avoiding my eating disorder. Every day began with two hours of mind-numbing worship. If you didn’t look like you were connecting well to God, you were prayed for, or talked to (or talked about). Multiple times during a morning service there would be one or two fervent people who would come up to the front of the room and demand us to “really press into God.”
“Don’t we want more of Him? This is lazy. C’mon! Does He deserve laziness?” our leaders asked us. I felt bad. Of course I wanted to experience God! We would repent for our selfishness.
By the end of the service, we would be in a feverish state of mind. People would claim to have seen heaven. (I think you can convince yourself of seeing just about anything if you focus on it for hours at a time.) Some people laid on the floor, blissfully exhausted, and talked about the love of God that was present in the room. Some days that was all we did, which was nice because I didn’t really enjoy cleaning or studying.
After morning worship, we took two hours of Bible classes, usually taught by the leaders. Sometimes, they flew in guest pastors to speak for a week. Then, each of us were assigned two hours of community work, which usually involved cleaning the pastors’ homes or our school base (or the student living quarters). If you weren’t enthusiastic or happy about your work, you were reprimanded for not demonstrating a “spirit of excellence.” We were supposed to be serving Jesus, after all, and often Jesus turned out to look a lot like our pastors and their families.
We finished the day with community dinner each evening, and then discussed the various ways God was “moving among us” in small groups at our gender-segregated housing. Internet was forbidden, phone calls home were limited to one or two per week, and films, TV, and other entertainment sources were also not allowed. Naturally, dating was forbidden — we even had to sign an agreement that we would only focus on God during our program. The unlucky few who were already in relationships were often encouraged to break up. We were in the world and definitely not of it. Even sleep began to feel graded on our “dreams from God.” We were given classes on how to interpret them and, in doing so, therefore become closer to God. Every second of my time was fixated on becoming a “better follower”. It was essentially boot camp for Christians. I was in love with it all. I had developed what I felt were close friendships with people from all over the world. I was devastated at the idea of leaving. I was hooked.
Halfway through the program, my affair with my eating disorder became more apparent. I started to sneak away from house discussions and obsessively journal my weight and my fears. I was away from my comfortable white-picket fence in Washington. I started to miss my friends, my dog, and my Twitter app. I was still 18. I missed getting attention from boys. I missed my favorite MTV shows and The Bachelor. There was more pressure to fit in here than I had ever faced before, and not only to fit in, but succeed! I will note that no one ever described the motivation as a need to fit in or perform our religion; instead, we were encouraged to “press in to God and what He wants for us” and to “trust and surrender to what He is doing.”
I was emotionally exhausted trying to become my best all the time. I didn’t have the slightest clue about appropriate eating habits under stress, and by the end of the year, I had 25 new pounds on my frame. None of my clothes fit. I was ashamed of my lack of control. I was told to stop wearing my yoga pants because the way they highlighted my ass was inappropriate. I was told this several time in one day. To quote Mean Girls: “These pants are all that fit right now!” My leader told me to pull my sweatshirt down to try and hide the shape of my ass. I was humiliated… but not outraged. I had been brought up in the sexist culture of the church my entire life and had never thought differently. The unspoken command of the churches I had been raised in was to never question the church — and if you were in a liberal enough environment where you could question something, you had better come to the same conclusion as your pastor.
Our personal clothing choices during this program (speaking on behalf of the women) were often regulated by our Resident Assistants to make sure they were appropriate. In other words, we had to make sure the male students did not see us as sexual beings. I was frequently lectured about this at Gateways. Every time, I left the conversation feeling guilty, ashamed, and more sensitive to “doing the right thing.” I certainly don’t remember the guys on our team receiving a similar talk. I guess their sexual purity was less important than ours. In most church cultures, and certainly at Gateways, women were taught to control their appearances so as to not tempt men into ‘sinful’ or ‘lustful’ thoughts. I don’t remember if boys were ever taught not to sexually objectify women.
After I was told to stop wearing yoga pants, I borrowed my roommates’ clothes and cried in the bathroom. The boys of my class wrote a tasteless song about the how much Nutella my female classmates consumed (to be fair, we ate a lot of it as it was the most accessible chocolate in the remote area we were in). They apologized about it, eventually. I cried daily about how I looked. I also cried daily about most things. Insecurities were my specialty in this time of life, and I had no interest in overcoming them myself unless “Jesus healed me.” I thought it would be a great story to tell at church.
I came home from my six-month program both wildly eager to change my world back home and also wildly terrified of dealing with my new appearance. I wish I could have seen that that was the smallest of my problems.
Even though Christians claimed to be accepting of all people, I always perceived that I was more accepted the thinner I became. Most of the women in the churches I was raised in were slim, beautiful pastors’ wives, the epitome of being a Christian woman (unless you happened to be Kari Jobe or someone else who Sings for Jesus). Women weren’t often admired or respected for their individuality. As the church was the primary focus of my life at that time, I was determined to gain admiration. I wanted to become a leader. I wanted desperately to fit the successful mold I had seen in every church.
I committed to a second term at Gateways for the following January, and during the second week of my summer at home I was determined to shed my new weight. My obsession quickly became my new best friend (aside from Jesus, of course). I started my mornings scouring the Internet for fitness tips, then fitness inspiration, then ‘thin’ inspiration, then pro-anorexia blogs. I would weigh myself, work out for two hours, then reweigh myself. I would eat an apple while praying for self-control. I would work out again. Eventually I began to repeat this routine in the evenings as well. I wasn’t working that summer, so I had all the time in the world to change myself. I fasted and prayed, and fasted… and fasted. I avoided friends until I felt like I looked acceptable. I counted calories in food, then communion bread, then toothpaste. On the days I ate nothing, I felt the proudest. I spent hours praying. I really felt closer to God than ever before. I didn’t see how unbalanced my world had become.
After a rigorous year developing these habits, it became my only means to self-control. I was elated. I talked to God and He talked back, mostly affirming my own beliefs and thoughts. I was convinced of my salvation and, more importantly, of the path of everyone around me. I was on a mission and succeeding: I had the stories of third world experiences, of salvation, “healing,” of “real” dedication and reward, and, most importantly what I really, truly believed was the genuine love of Christ. The prayer team at my home church asked for me to share my wisdom for people.
It was a power trip with a one-way ticket. I shamed people out of their sin with a steady stream of prayer. Not only was I horribly insensitive to non-Christians, but I had developed a prideful and calloused attitude towards Christians I already knew. They didn’t experience God like I did. I was blind to the damage I created. My mind was humming with affirming buzzwords I had been ingesting all my life. I wasn’t condemning other peoples’ beliefs or opinions — I was “sharing Jesus.” I was “loving on others,” as long as they would one day experience God for themselves. I was seeing God “move in my community,” which meant that those at church shared my extreme values and experienced a similar high. I was “sharing God’s heart for the nations,” which means I enjoyed traveling. My personal favorite was “experiencing His heart.” I still don’t know what the fuck it means. Maybe it just means things were going according to my personal agenda. Being Christian was no longer just my security blanket, it was feeding my need of control.
I returned in January thinner than I had ever been and impressed with my inflated sense of power. My RA took away my Self Fitness magazine the first week because it was blatantly “self- and not Christ-centered.”
At first I hid it well. I sought out friendships with classmates who enjoyed working out. No one asked too much about how I had really dropped almost 40 pounds that summer, but they did compliment my appearance. I seemed happy and energetic and enthusiastic. I had brought my scale, a full set of weights, and workout DVDs in my suitcase, which set my parents back a few hundred dollars in oversized luggage airline fees (sorry). I emailed my sister that I was working out at 6am. (Thankfully, she was one of the few normal and stable people in my life, who let me chat about anything I cared about without much judgment). Before I left, my parents asked me how I was going to keep up my workout routine. They were proud of my accomplishments and worried I would fall into the same drastic weight-gain cycle from the first year. I was very confident that I knew how to manage my weight. I was thin, so clearly, I was healthy, and all I really craved was attention and compliments from my peers.
When the program started, however, I was quickly deprived of time to dedicate to my eating disorder. I started to have difficulty balancing my obsessions. I lied to my leaders that I had allergies to certain foods, so I wouldn’t be judged for eating differently or eating less at community meals. Most of the day I could get by without eating — breakfast wasn’t a monitored activity, and during lunches I could tell leadership that I “needed more time with God.” I quickly started failing both of my obsessions.
I wish this part of my story was different. I wish I could say that I received professional help to navigate the exhaustive cycle of becoming mentally and physically healthy. I wish that I had gone to therapy and not to Jesus. Therapy was a non-option as everything was consulted first with a) God Himself b) a pastor or c) someone close to God. God was the starting and ending point to any issue, disease, problem, action, thought, or feeling, and you were often belittled or judged for a lack of faith if you were considering seeking any other solution. I believed everything I was told without a question.
The first time I remember my eating disorder really being addressed at Gateways occurred early during my second year. My classmates and I sat bundled in a makeshift classroom mid-winter. I remember our nervous conversation and the cold air. Our leaders faced us at the front of the room, one empty seat between them. We were starting “deliverance week.” One by one my classmates would sit in the hot seat and wait to be prayed for by the holiest leaders (though they would never dare label themselves that way). Our leaders would pray, eyes open, for “God to reveal Himself,” and to “highlight the darkness” (or in other words, our sins).
Many of these admitted sins revolved around things like depression, anxiety, porn (the watching of, not involvement with), family relationships, being gay, or the worst of all — premarital sex.
“That’s a soul tie,” they would announce. “You need to break that from your life. We need to pray for the blood of Jesus to cleanse this unholy relationship. We need to pray for God to heal you of your shame.”
A classmate admitted that they felt like the ‘slut’ of the group because they had had sex before marriage. Another acquaintance admitted that they were struggling with their homosexual identity, which prompted the community to try to cleanse them of their demonic gay spirit. (Wow! Talk about how damaging humans can be to one another when given unquestionable control). I’d like to say my classmates and I had enough integrity to treat people the same regardless of their choices, but that was a far cry from the reality of the church.
I was thankful that I, at least, didn’t have to deal with anything that bad.
If the students refused to admit their sins, leadership would pray for God to reveal them. With some students, they tried to command various ‘demons’ to surface until there was a reaction they were sure of. Even having grown up accustomed to this language and ideology, I remember being uncomfortable and scared. I didn’t want to be subjected to “spiritual warfare.” While the leaders were performing ‘deliverances of demonic influences,’ (or what non-Christians might call an exorcism), they told the class to pray for our classmates, hands outstretched, fervently asking God to heal them. Some people acted really dramatic. Sometimes people threw up. Some people just cried. Our leaders told us to “pray for the blood of Jesus to cover us” while this happened (of course it’s a metaphor).
After a supposed demon was expelled, a lot of people cried. Then we would all gather and pray for God to “fill those empty places with His love.” It was confusing and scary and dramatic and horribly manipulative. This is what makes me angriest to remember: watching someone get manipulated into publicly sharing their vulnerabilities, and participating in shaming them into God’s glorious kingdom.
When it was finally my turn, I don’t remember how my eating disorder was really addressed, if I brought it up or if leadership did. I do know that I passed out during that prayer. I was stressed the fuck out, and up until that point, I did have a history of dramatically fainting when I became overwhelmed. Leadership tried to exorcise a “demon of anorexia” from me. I remember being so relieved that my inner demons were really inner demons. I didn’t have a problem! It wasn’t my fault! This was warfare for my SOUL! It was God’s battle to win! I cried so hard that day that my eyes were swollen. I laid in bed with a cold towel over my face, silently thanking God for His victory.
Yet after the humiliation of undergoing an exorcism subsided, I faced the same challenges, fears, and anxiety. We were warned during deliverance week that “after God had a victory, Satan will try and attack you again”. Devil or not, it was worse than before. I had to prove even more that God was in control. Wasn’t He? Why did I still think the same way? Why couldn’t I stop myself from counting calories? Why was I vying for control? He clearly healed me publicly, so why was I still displaying the same sins? Why couldn’t I stop? Was I really reverting to sinful behaviors? Why couldn’t I make myself eat breakfast? Didn’t I trust Him? I sang “I surrender” to God every fucking day. I journaled to Him every night. Nothing was working. I was more hopeless and frustrated than when I started. I kept starving myself. My leaders noticed.
During one of our outreach trips that year, I quit.
We were in a women’s shelter in Israel, volunteering for miscellaneous tasks during our week-long stay. One night I remember hacking into the building’s wi-fi, logging into Facebook and hastily messaging a close friend back home. I don’t know if I told him much of what was going on, but I remember crying after having what was a normal conversation. It was one of my best memories from that time. I was 19.
The next day was when I gave up. I just stopped trying. I was crying the whole week. I felt so out of control, ashamed, and afraid of myself. I was also ashamed that I was facing people who had really drastic issues in the shelter, and that I had no love of Godä for them. I hid under a green sweatshirt the whole week. I didn’t want to look at myself (even though I knew my physical appearance hadn’t changed). I was trying to make myself throw up after eating. I was worried about other forms of self-harm. I was scared. I think my leaders were too; but having no professional training on any mental health issue, their response was to pull me aside that evening and tell me that I needed to announce to my class my continued “sin” with eating disorders. I did, crying and apologizing profusely. They all prayed for me. I didn’t feel better. Immediately afterwards, a few leaders and I left for another room, where they called my parents. I repeated the process. My parents sounded panicked. I think they may have cried. The whole time I was worried about a bridesmaid’s dress I was supposed to wear for an upcoming wedding back home. My dad said not to worry about it. At the end of it, we prayed for God to heal me.
Not much changed when I arrived home except that I was less animated about my faith than I had been after my first program and was more conscious of my health. I didn’t try as hard to change the world anymore — I was focused on trying to become healthy. I only told my family and a few friends about what had happened. Each time the response was about how ‘good’ God was and what a testimony it was of His power. I didn’t admit that not much had really changed in my struggle. It took almost a year to stop counting calories. It took longer to stop trying to lose weight. It took years to realize that not every community was as intense as Gateways, but that the church as a whole did believe that God was the only source of healing for physical and mental ailments. (And if not directly, as I had claimed to have experienced, they believed that God gave the “gift of healing” to other people, like doctors).
I will add that I do still believe my leaders had genuine concern for me while I was at that school. I was sometimes invited to pastors’ homes to hang out with them and their kids, to cook together and normalize my life a little after my incident at the shelter. I did meet some really well-intentioned people. The unfortunate reality was that most of these people had also been raised in the same religion and saw no problem with their ideas and strategies about God-ordained healing.
Slowly, I began to disagree with the religion. I began to see religious healing practices as harmful. No one in church had ever said that it was okay to be struggling with something. No one in church had answers apart from God: any challenge was always categorized as my personal sin or an attack from Satan. Either way, I was responsible to surrender it to God, and if nothing changed, then there had to be something wrong with my faith for doubting Him. I was never encouraged to find healing within myself. I was never encouraged to look objectively at my beliefs and actions and to take responsibility for my own future (unless God said so). I was taught my whole life that the entirety of my identity, strength, and choices stemmed from God Himself and His will for my life.
Over the following year, I didn’t share what had happened with many people. Most of the people in my church were excited about attributing their positive circumstances to God’s goodness, but personal problems like eating disorders or depression were rarely discussed unless a miraculous healing had taken place. I clung to my story from Gateways about my Anorexic Demon. I started to become frustrated again by the church’s apparent lack of passion for God. After such an intense experience, I felt like no one understood my faith. I began to distance myself and eventually stopped seeking advice from the church.
The more time passed, the more normalized everyday habits became. I regained a few deep friendships, mostly with my sister or with friends who were facing their own battles. I had one friend who would call me regularly to make sure I was eating. We would celebrate our good and bad days together over wine and chocolate. I let my obsessions slide a little. I stopped reading Self magazine, not because it was evil, but because I was trying to distance myself from the identity I had clung to before. I slowly learned to love my body. I also slowly distanced myself from the ‘body of Christ’ all together.
I began to do more on my own: I hiked mountains instead of the Stairmaster at the gym. Up there, I felt more in love with my life than before. I became happily addicted to breathtaking views instead of being fixated on numbers on the treadmill. I would work out, but it no longer controlled my motivation to appear “better”. I wanted to do harder hikes and go to higher places. I scared my parents several times by hiking by myself in winter. I had fallen in love with places greater than myself. I started to enjoy food again and eventually became passionate for issues concerning the food industry and other social causes. I got a job. I made friendships outside the church. Another year passed, and I didn’t journal about Jesus anymore. I started thinking about who I wanted to become without Him.
It took years to come to a truly healthy relationship with myself and my perception of control. It took even longer to finally let go of my relationship with Christianity itself. I no longer wanted control. I realized people were not projects, they were not an agenda, their issues were not to be solved by churches, they were not campaigns to be won or numbers to grow congregations. They could not be solved or “saved” by even the best of intentions. I began to notice the issues of misuse of authority and self-centered agendas, first displayed by leadership, then the church, and then, really, the ideology itself. I didn’t want to shame anyone into the Kingdom of God anymore — especially not if it benefited my “afterlife” by becoming a closer follower of God. I couldn’t understand both the hidden and blatant mistreatment anymore.
I wanted to take responsibility for the path of my own life, and more importantly, to learn how to respect the differences of those around me. I wanted to love people for their differences, not for their conversion to my beliefs. I could no longer believe in a faith that demonized my fears and only offered control as a solution. I no longer partook of the “bread of life.” I’d discovered who I was without it, and it was beautiful.