Eating disorders and the priesthood

(trigger warning for frank discussion of eating disordered behavior)

My version of hell is eating some overcooked starch in a creamy sauce in front of a room of people while they all make idle chatter and comment on how much or how little I’m eating.  Unfortunately for me, I’m a minister, so this situation occurs approximately 5,348 times every week.

I hate eating with people.  I’m supposed to love it.  I’m supposed to love “sharing the feast” or whatever and it’s supposed to be linked to my love of the Eucharist.  I am supposed to rejoice in the fat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the cookies at coffee hour, the endless soup suppers.Well, I’m here to tell you, as a girl who has never been skinny, eating in public is its own hell dimension.*  And the “Eucharistic feast” of bland, gummy little wafers is the farthest thing from an excellent meal – a feast, people – that I can imagine.

First of all, as an introvert , all other people are noise.  Any other people are like pressure, noise, tension, fog, that thickness in your lungs you get when you’ve got a terrible cold, the tightening of your skin you feel at the beginning of a panic attack.  Now listen, I love people.  I love my partner and my parents and my congregation and my friends.  But human presence is intensely loud to me, completely distracting.

Second of all, as someone who lived with an eating disorder for most of her adult life**, I’m here to tell you that little is more nightmarish than having other people comment on what I eat.  And at church, I can never eat enough to satisfy them.  They want me to take seconds, and thirds, and fourths, and eat everything on my plate and love it all and compliment the cooks.  They want to stuff me like a little pig.

They also want me to be thin.  Last fall I lost a bunch of weight after a particularly brutal suicide in the parish.  And parishioner after parishioner after parishioner came up to me and told me that I looked “so pretty”, “so thin”, “I bet you lost 15-20 pounds”, “you look thinner in the face”, “you’ve lost a lot of weight”, “how much weight have you lost?”, “you look great”, etc., you can imagine the rest, infinity.  They didn’t care that I was sick.  They cared that I lost weight.  That’s all.  Without a trace of self-consciousness or shame about it, either.

I mean, “thin” for me looks like a size 12, so I’m not exactly “thin.”  But after a size 14/16, apparently this is what registers for them as “pretty”.

I first asked my mom if I could diet when I was 7 years old.  I was not a chubby kid, but I was a solid block of muscle kid – I sank in the local swimming pool.  And I knew even then that the willowy girls, the ones with knobby knees, were going to grow up into the thin women that everyone wanted to be, the women that got love, affection, attention, and the best outfits.  And I wanted to be one REALLY bad.

I also, however, was a kid without friends, and one summer I went up to visit with my dad, who’s a fisherman in Alaska, and I had some spare money, which I spent on Archie comics and candy, my intensest pleasure being to eat the candy while reading the Archies in the bunk of the boat, totally encased and safe and no one could see me and warm.  Because I didn’t actually have a good sense of body awareness, I didn’t realize that I gained a bunch of weight doing this, when my mom came to pick me up, I proudly told her about all the walking and exercise I got, and said, “Do you think I’m thinner?”  She told me much later she about fell out of her car seat because I had gained so much weight.

That year she let me start dieting, teaching me how to count my calories and keep track of them on a piece of paper.  I could also have one Diet Coke per day (my favorite, because it was sweet, and it was a zero on the calorie sheet).

This started my constant running commentary about calories.  I started throwing up in high school, and it felt so good, erasing the pain, major adrenaline hit, I could do it at home.  I would alternate between periods of binge eating and bulimirexia, yo-yo-ing like mad.  This continued through my late teens, until finally when I moved to Seattle for college, I realized no one was watching and I would drink coffee in the morning, eat one Luna bar and one Baker’s cookie while in class in the middle of the day, go by the QFC on my way home, buy one box of brownie mix and one box of macaroni and cheese, go home, make the mix, eat it raw while the macaroni boiled, eat the macaroni, throw it all up, do my homework, have a tiny bowl of cereal at night, and then sleep for several hours.  I did this for weeks and weeks and when my boyfriend finally visited in January from Vermont, he was like, “You’re sick. This is sick.  You need help.”  He held on while I started calling therapists.  I found an amazing, amazing one, who helped me for about a year. Then my boyfriend moved to Seattle and his family offered to take me on a trip to Italy with them (they were loaded and they had family there).  This meant travelling with his older sister, a really frightening person who was either sucking up all the available air, gesturing dramatically, sulking, or flirting with being a working person like rich girls do – all while being a level of fucked up about food that eclipsed even my worst days.  She would monitor what I ate and treat me more kindly if I weighed more than she did.  I was determined to not have my European journey ruined by feeling like the pitied “fat one”.   So I ordered diet pills on the internet, lying about how much I weighed.  And oh my God they felt like heaven.  All the chatter about food cleared, I could do my homework well and quickly, I wanted to exercise, I felt like floating.  And I lost a bunch of weight and looked adorable on that trip.  And she seethed, which was amusing.  Score one for the charity case girlfriend.  Well, except for the fact that I had to start lying to my therapist about my recovery, because I had in fact blown my recovery, which was all about intuitive eating and identifying my feelings instead of eating them and puking them back up.

Most of my twenties was marked by figuring out how to get pills, puking and then not puking, eating more and then less depending on what was happening in my life (the times when I was working less and had lots and lots and lots of silence I ate well, simply, and beautifully – again, the more people are in my life, the more hellish it gets inside my head). I realized that there had not been a house in my life that I had stayed in for more than a night that I had not thrown up in.  Not one.  I had thrown up everywhere I had ever been.  Finally in seminary for Lent one year I gave up puking, just to see if I could, because I was tired.  (I got a really cute pair of Campers if I made it all the way). I could.  And that started the end of throwing up for me.

Since then I’ve been on the roller coaster of either being dieting or binging, with small oases of doing neither in between.  I also quit smoking and hormonal birth control, both of which really screwed up my metabolism and my hunger mechanisms, and it’s been rocky in here figuring out how to deal with all this quitting within the space of a year, while beginning full-time parish ministry.

If I could eat every meal alone, I could probably return to a level of intuitive eating that would allow me to feel free and loving in my body.  But I can’t.  I’m partnered with someone who loves to eat together and I belong to this church where I have to eat things in front of other people.  As a minister, I am invited into people’s homes and out with people to eat a lot.  It’s part of my billable hours.

And I can’t remember eating anything if I eat it with someone else.  Honestly.  The presence of other people is so loud and so distracting, the burden of trying to figure out what nonsense chitchat they want from me so overwhelming, that I literally can’t taste or feel my food.  I always come home and have to eat an entirely new meal without interference.  I wish with everything I am that I could just hang out with people without eating, that I could just drink coffee, that I could come over for a holiday and see the kids and have a lovely conversation and just have a glass of wine or water, that there was some socially acceptable way to say, “You know, I’m in recovery, and it’s really important to me that I not eat in a way that makes me feel panicked or terrified, which is what would happen if I were to chew or cram this beautiful food down inside me.  And you are so nice and your house/this restaurant is so nice and you are really nice for wanting to hang out with me but eating with you makes me feel like I’m going to burst into tears.”  Being in recovery from an eating disorder is not as real as being in recovery as an alcoholic.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this.  I started writing it because I found the mental health and the priesthood post interesting to write: to talk about how some identities/aspects of being interact negatively or positively with the church.  Except now I’ve written two posts about how important stories in my life interact in mostly negative ways with being a minister.  There just may not be a nice ending to this.

*I hate eating with other people.  I hate the scrutiny, I hate being the fattest girl in the group, I hate that the thin girls, no matter how fake-supportive and girl-powery they are, always have a little bit of superior side-eye to give about how much they can eat (the fast metabolism category) or how little (“little old me just isn’t that hungry, I don’t know why!”).  Or they simply have the obliviousness of privilege.**I’m not actually sure if I’m supposed to talk about myself as being “recovered”.  I don’t know if I am recovered.  I don’t throw up anymore.  But I definitely have some disordered eating patterns, and some disordered eating assessments. I don’t know if this is something like alcoholism, where I’m just aware that this is how it is going to be, my body and brain react differently to food than other people’s and I’m just going to be managing that forever.  Or if I can, actually, someday, eat things for days, weeks, months, just when I want to, just what I like, and be healed.

2 responses to “Eating disorders and the priesthood

  1. Thank you for your courageous and touching sharing on this very difficult topic. I’m touched. If you’d like to be in touch, I’d like to learn more about your experiences. You can reach me through my website, I hope to read more from you in the future!

  2. You were very brave to write this post.

    I do not know how these kinds of things work in Christian settings, but is there any chance you could come out to your church as recovering and get their support? Or at least to the people who invite you over/out most often? It might take a little education for them to feel comfortable again, but once they realize that they neither have to force food on you nor keep it away from you, your dynamic might be even more comfortable than before, since you won’t feel so stressed about that in addition to managing loud presences. It could also be an important lesson for young people in your congregation, young people who might feel the same way you do, struggling with a disorder or recovery in a culture that feels entirely comfortable monitoring and commenting on their food intakes all the time.

    If that’s not something that’s possible for you, that stinks and I hope things get more manageable, at the least.