Recovering from an eating disorder (ED) means blooming. There’s a seed of us that God doesn’t let to be taken away from us, but it’s buried under the earth, that is, in the midst of darkness and cold. Little by little, painfully, we go out towards the sun and become who we were called to be from the beginning. Something better and more beautiful than anything we could ever have imagined.
There are three books by saints that I consider fundamental for recovery. I’ve previously talked about Confessions by St. Augustine and the Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska. Today, since next Monday, October 1st, is her feast day, I’m going to talk about the third one: the Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux.
When I read this book, I had already heard a lot about recovery being like a blooming, and perhaps that’s why the first pages, where she compares people to flowers in the garden of God, were so striking to me. Specifically, I was very moved by her description of how God wants to have in His garden both roses and lilies, and small daisies and violets. “I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty […] the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection”.
Each flower is beauty in its particularity, but only when it’s at its plenitude, not withered. Something similar happens with our bodies. Anorexia gets one ideal stuck into our heads, extreme thinness. But there we all resemble each other a lot, we’ve been equalized downwards (like withered flowers). On the contrary, with recovery, when our body reaches it optimal point, that looks different in each case. However, all of them are beautiful.
Mortification and obedience
St. Therese also helped me to channel the issue of mortifications. For me, anorexia was a special way of mortification, and quitting it made me feel serious remorse. But little by little several ideas left a mark on me:
Exterior mortification can be made in multiple ways, that don’t imply damaging our body.
For example, this saint suggests: “not leaning my back against a support when seated”. It’s just about making some exceptional things that help us remember God in that moment, and about enduring certain discomforts to offer them as a penance, think about the sufferings of others, or learn to tame our impulses if we need it.
The most valuable mortification isn’t the bodily or exterior one, but the interior one.
“Holding back a reply”, “rendering little services without any recognition”, etc. Now those are the though ones, and I realized I had neglected them since I believed I was so holy and profound with my bodily practices. In fact, at a certain time St. Therese is forbidden to do her only exterior mortification of sitting without leaning her back, but she obeys and she offers some spectacular interior mortifications.
In line with this, the importance of obedience.
It’s more precious in God’s eyes than any mortification, since it does really imply self-denial. “O Mother, what anxieties the Vow of Obedience frees us from! […] Their only compass being their Superiors’ will, they are always sure of being on the right road; they have nothing to fear from being mistaken even when it seems that their Superiors are wrong. But when they cease to look upon the infallible compass, when they stray from the way it indicates under the pretext of doing God’s will, unclear at times even to His representatives, then they wander into arid paths were the water of grace is soon lacking”.
As laypeople, we don’t have Superiors, but we must apply this obedience to our spiritual director. This conviction is what has given me strength to persevere in the path of recovery when every fiber of my being was yelling to me that it was a mistake. “I must continue through obedience what I have begun through obedience”.
Hope in suffering
We can get frustrated when all our struggle to fulfill God’s will and recover doesn’t seem to give us any consolation; just the opposite, we feel worse than when we gave in to the illness, and we can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. We also project things towards the future, and we think that if we feel bad now, as we gain weights things are going to become more horrible. But we must trust that our Promised Land is on the other side. That all those good things we’re told are there, and we’re going to get there.
St. Therese proves this with several examples, showing how Jesus sometimes performs immediate miracles with anonymous people, but with the people He is closest to He doesn’t perform miracles until He’s tested their faith: He allows Lazarus to die, He tells the Virgin at Cana that His hour hasn’t come yet… but in the end Lazarus is raised from the dead and Jesus changes the water into wine. “Thus Jesus acted toward His little Therese: after having tried her for a long time, He granted all the desires of her heart”. He’ll do the same with us if we persist in the good path and trust until the end, even when the trials seem more difficult and unsurmountable.
But, what do we have to do while this time of darkness lasts?
Well, in fact, the same as always: God’s will. “But He knows very well that while I do not have the joy of faith, I am trying to carry out its works at least. I believe I have made more acts of faith in this past year than all through my whole life”. We’re still so controlled by evil that we can’t let our feelings guide us. There’s something above them: truth. This truth, at the end, will give us joy, peace and happiness. But, sorry if I’m redundant: true ones. That have nothing to do with the highs or reliefs we can get through giving in to the impulses of the illness. You’ll see.
I’ve already talked about how we don’t need to want in order to recover, but wanting to want is enough. In the same way, we don’t need to believe, but wanting to believe is enough. That’s what happened to St. Therese when she couldn’t even see the essentials of the faith: “When I sing the happiness of Heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I want to believe”.
Small rays of light
But, even if sometimes it seems like everything’s darkness, we must admit that it’s never completely like that. God doesn’t let us in the dark forever. He gifted us with a flash of light when we realized we had to change our life and start recovery and, from time to time, He forces the shadows in our head to dissipate so we can see His light. “It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant”.
We have to take advantage of these moments, not so we want to cling to them and that they never go away, but to absorb them and bear them in mind when the struggles come back. Because, how soon we forget them! We’ve seen everything clear and we believe we already have the situation under control, we understand the logic of what they tell us, we’re motivated… but as soon as they go away, the same doubts and problems than before come back. In fact, we might feel even worse, because of the frustration of falling again. That also happened to the saint: “But afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense”. Let’s not despair. One day that passing ray will become a whole sun.
Pick your battles
It’s important to specify in which sense we talk about recovery as a fight: in the field of action and not of thought. With our actions, indeed we need to overcome the attacks that pull us backwards, that threat us with thousands of disastrous consequences, and do what we have to do: eating, sitting instead of working out, telling the truth, etc. But when it comes to our thoughts, we have to avoid direct combats, because there the enemy is stronger and more astute than us. “At each new occasion of combat, when my enemies provoke me, I conduct myself bravely. Knowing it is cowardly to enter into a duel, I turn my back on my adversaries without deigning to look them in the face; but I run toward my Jesus”.
The best tactic is to ignore them (which is very complicated as it is). Perhaps we feel guilty for not listening, believing that they can provide us with some valuable information, since they camouflage themselves as innocent as first; but we must not trust them, they’re the same putrefaction as always. Or perhaps we believe we already have enough strength and determination to defeat them, and then we want to go to war bragging. It’s another trap: it’s pride. “I believe it was much better for me not to expose myself to combat when there was certain defeat facing me”.
What we can do is turn to an indirect tactic: lay siege to them. Let’s fill our mind with positive and true thoughts of affirmation, and those will end up suffocating the lies.
Sincerity and humility
One of the most essential features of an ED is how it thrives in secrecy. Perhaps it is what defines it most: that anxiety to make sure no one knows what you do and think, because that would frustrate all your (its) plans. What I learned quicker when I begun recovery was to be sincere. If I had a thought, no matter how embarrassing it was, I revealed it to a person of trust. Even when the ED tried to make me be suspicious precisely of that people, telling me that they wanted to take me through a bad path and turn me into a fat person, I told that too. And that’s equivalent to punch it hard to death.
St. Therese explains it very well in the next story. She has doubts about her vocation and that “I was misleading my Superiors by advancing on this way to which I wasn’t called”. And here the evil one comes into play, taking advantage of that doubt: “It appeared to me (and this is an absurdity which shows it was a temptation from the devil) that if I were to tell my Novice Mistress about these fears, she would prevent me from pronouncing my Vows”. Yet, she does it, and this is the effect: “The act of humility I had just performed put the devil to flight since he had perhaps thought that I would not dare admit my temptation. My doubts left me completely as soon as I finished speaking”. Each time you have a temptation, a sick thought, tell someone and the devil will flee!
You have grace for this
You can do it! Sometimes you’ll be like: I can’t, I can’t, I can’t… But God knows you can indeed. He never sends you more than what you can endure. Mind you, counting on Him; with your own strength alone you’ll be missing a vital contribution. “Never have I felt before this, dear Mother, how sweet and merciful the Lord really is, for He did not send me this trial until the moment I was capable of bearing it. A little earlier I believe it would have plunged me into a state of discouragement”.
Repeat this to yourself as well when you think about the future and say, I won’t be able to cope with that! You’re projecting your current you towards the future, with problems that today would defeat you. But your future you will be equipped with new graces. Don’t be afraid.
St. Therese, pray for us and for all the people in need of recovery!