A Companion on the Journey
“I must control what I eat.”
“I’m afraid to let my emotions surface.”
“I feel so guilty and ashamed about mistreating my body like this.”
I read statements like these on a regular basis—uttered by both men and women in bondage to eating disorders. They are terrified of food and weight gain, and they want to live a normal life again. They also desire a closer relationship with the Lord, but the amount of guilt and shame they carry prevents that.
I’ve met these men and women online, but they sit in your church too. Often, they suffer in silence because they are ashamed. They share some of their deepest thoughts and fears with me, though, because they know I can relate.
I was anorexic for six years in my 30s. I know what it’s like to fear food, emotions, eating around others, being found out and so much more. I also know what it’s like to break free of the bondage. I not only want to help others break free, but I also want to help church leaders know how they can support those who struggle with eating disorders.
According to The Renfrew Center Foundation, up to 24 million people of all ages and genders in the United States alone suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia or binge eating)1. With numbers like this, it only stands to reason that there are many in our churches struggling as well.
How to help
Eating disorders are complicated and involve a number of sensitive issues. A treatment team including a therapist, doctor and dietitian is usually recommended. Yet addressing spiritual needs is also vital. So, here are some things you can do when someone in your spiritual family acknowledges that he or she is struggling. Start with just a few points so you don’t become overwhelmed.
- Engage in a spiritual team approach. Don’t try to be the only support system; rather, when someone entrusts you with his or her story, ask if you might invite one or two others to share in caring for this friend together.
- Encourage the individual to indeed be seeking professional help from a treatment team.
- Gain a better understanding of eating disorders2. You’re not trying to become an expert, but it helps to recognize that these disorders aren’t about food, weight or even body image. They are often fueled by underlying issues such as a low image of self, perfectionism, abuse or rejection.
- Realize that recovery is a process, often a long one. Relapses are normal. Help the person focus on the positive steps forward and the progress made.
- Listen without judging. People with eating disorders usually feel ashamed and find it difficult to trust and open up to others.
- Try to connect this person with someone else who is at a strong place of recovery from an eating disorder. Search the Celebrate Recovery website for support groups nearby, and ask if they have experience with eating disorders.
- Be present. If you don’t know what to say, admit it. Then offer a hug, a prayer or a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes your presence can mean more than words.
- Pray. Yes, pray for the person’s health and ability to resist eating-disorder behaviors, but don’t stop there. Pray scriptural prayers and ask for the strength and courage needed to face and resolve underlying issues.
- When this individual does invite your input, focus on talking about his or her identity in Christ and view of God, even on the reality of spiritual warfare. These conversations will support the person in addressing specific underlying issues with a professional counselor.
Eating disorders are complicated, so the process of breaking free is characterized by many ups and downs. But certainly, people in the church can encourage and inspire those with eating disorders to stay on track in their difficult journey to freedom.