Dying for a Crown
I could sense the frustration in the young doctor’s stern voice. “You look like a prisoner in a Nazi death camp! You are starving, Sharon. You have to start eating.” Dr. Fenton* had been assigned to my case while doing her residency in psychiatry. I was one of her first anorexic patients.
Later that day her supervising doctor ordered bed rest. With a blood pressure reading of 68/40, just standing erect caused my heart to race and my head to spin; yet I believed the doctors were over-reacting. I can’t be starving; I don’t even get hungry anymore, I argued to myself as I pulled the blankets over my thin, shivering frame and drifted off to sleep.
I developed the eating disorder anorexia nervosa two months into my first hospitalization for major clinical depression. One of the symptoms of depression is a change in appetite; mine vanished. I was no longer interested in eating and began to look quite thin. Having grown up believing I was fat, it pleased me to be losing weight so easily. This is the one good thing to come out of this miserable experience, I thought.
I believed I could control my weight–loss, and planned to return to eating normally once I was thin enough. But anorexics live in a world where normal is not possible, lies become truth, and reality is ignored. This is a place where flesh is fat and bone is beautiful. There is no such thing as “thin enough.” Giving in to physical needs is weakness; wasting and withering are signs of strength.
My anorexia was partially a response to living an existence that always seemed frighteningly beyond my control. With my depression, life had become completely unmanageable. My body became my kingdom, the only thing I could rule. The treasures of the land were hollow cheeks and stick legs. My crown was made of bones.
Although I was a believer in Christ and I knew God loved me, I had always sensed that I was, in some way, flawed, sub–standard, inferior. I desperately tried to hide this “truth” from others. By carefully controlling my behaviour, my performance, and even my emotions, I believed I might be able to influence what others thought about me.
I worked very hard and managed to make people believe that I was a bright, talented, decent person. The more praise I received, the better I felt about myself. I began gauging my value by my achievements and deeds.
I burned out at the age of twenty–six. Exhausted, I no longer had the energy to do anything. I couldn’t concentrate on the simplest of tasks and lost interest in all the activities I had previously enjoyed. I withdrew from others, just wanting to be alone, quiet, and still. I had everything to live for—a loving husband and two beautiful daughters—but began to long for death. I felt like a failure as a mother and a wife.
My first admission to the psychiatric ward came just days after my youngest daughter’s first birthday. As the door to the unit closed behind me I thought, What's someone like me doing in a place like this? I felt defeated and confused. My days of achieving had ended; my greatest accomplishments became getting showered and dressed in the morning.
A need to succeed at something, and my lifelong dissatisfaction with my body, made me vulnerable to anorexia nervosa. The quest for thinness became my new focus in life, something to fill the void left by depression, and I worked hard at it. My thoughts became consumed with calories, weight, and ways to avoid eating. As I reached weight–loss goals I had set for myself, I was still dissatisfied with my appearance. “Just five more pounds,” became my mantra.
The illness progressed and I became increasingly weak. While someone else cared for my children, I slept—eighteen hours a day.
Eventually, I grew weary of this battle. I longed for a normal life and knew that my first step would have to be to give up the quest for “thin enough”. I resolved to start eating healthy meals again, but soon discovered that it would not be easy.
I always felt terribly guilty, defeated, and angry with myself after I ate. One evening, after finishing a meal, I was leaving the hospital dining room when I heard a hideous voice inside my head. Full of loathing, it screamed at me, “You fat pig! Why did you eat that? You’ve ruined everything! ” I had never heard anything like it before. It was very frightening.
The harder I worked to get well, the more vocal the hateful being became. I felt like two people in one body, one who wanted to live and another who wanted me dead. I realised that I was no longer in control. Someone, or something, had seized my throne and it appeared that I was now at his mercy. Each day I became weaker. I tried to eat, but often was too tired to even chew. My doctor knew I was struggling, but I never told her about the enemy in my head.
The afternoon I found myself looking through my closet for something to wear to my own funeral, I realized that I would not live much longer as an anorexic. I was ready for death, but was not willing to leave a legacy of pain and torment behind for my husband and children. I knew that I had to live for them.
After three years of battling my psychiatrist, I resigned myself to trusting her, to tell me how much to weigh and what to eat—no matter what the voices shrieked. In this way I managed to overcome the eating disorder, but I was still depressed.
I tried everything the doctor ordered, hoping that each new treatment or medication would be the one that would set me free. But the depression would always sink its claws deeper into my soul, drawing me away from the edge of the pit, back into the darkness.
As my husband parented our children, I focused on trying to stay alive. I had many hospitalisations and my absence was difficult for my family. My eldest daughter, Lauren, asked, “When will you be coming home forever?”
After nine years, 20 medications, 80 weeks of hospitalisation, and nearly 200 electro–convulsive treatments, I realised that if I was ever going to find a cure for my illness, I had to look elsewhere. While home from the hospital, I began to see a Christian counsellor.
Berys was unlike any counsellor or therapist I had ever spoken to. “I don’t have all the answers,” she said, “but the Lord does.” Together, through prayer, we invited Him into the counselling process. Berys also taught me how to study God’s Word and listen for His voice. The words He spoke changed the direction of my life.
Words of Hope
The angry, condemning voice in my head was replaced by God’s loving, tender one, speaking softly to my wounded soul. As I listened, I came to understand that the roots of my depression reached to the core of my spirit and my entire life had been based on a lie.
I had worked so hard to hide my inferiority, but I was not the worthless person I had always believed I was! I was the handiwork of the Creator of the universe, made in God’s image. It was not a number on a scale that determined my value. My achievements did not matter. My lineage or who I was did not determine my worth—whose I was did. I was a beloved child of the King!
God told me that He had a plan for my life, a future full of hope. He said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart…and [I] will bring you back from captivity” (Jeremiah 29:13,14). God fulfilled His promise. Within three months of my initial meeting with Berys, the depression was gone. I never had another electro–convulsive treatment. I no longer needed medication, or the care of a psychiatrist. And I never returned to the psychiatric ward. Lauren’s wish was granted: her mother came home “forever”. Six years have passed and I remain free from depression and from anorexia nervosa.
I spent the first three decades of my life looking for fulfillment and value in all the wrong places. My quest almost killed me, but God used it to transform me, to turn my life around. Finding my true identity was the key that unlocked the heavy door to the dungeon I had been imprisoned in for nearly a decade. I have learned that peace and contentment cannot be found in work or wealth, or even weight. By discovering the God–given worth, inherent in us all, I was lifted out of the dark pit of depression to stand in the glorious light of His love. God took my crown of bones and replaced it with a crown of life.