14 February, 2007

A Moment of Focus on 30 Years

So, this is my first post back after a nearly two weeks break. That's always a tough call, but more so when I have not been posting largely because there's so much on my mind. And an especially hard thing when the things on my mind are big. I have thought about this post for seven days and worked on it for four. That's a bunch for me.

Circumstances with a friend of mine have given me the opportunity to learn a little bit about anorexia nervosa. It's an odd little disease, and probably the deadliest of psychological diseases. It's fatal in 1 of 10 cases. Like everything psychological, it's not fully understood and especially not by me, but one take on it goes something like this. My life is out of control. People I trusted hurt me, and I am helpless to fix it. If I didn't have so many needs, I would not be so hurt. I can control my needs with logic and will. See this food? My body says I need it, but I know better. I will control this need, and prove that I am in control of all my needs. I will take my life and my death into my own hands, and wrestle it away from those who hurt me. By disregarding my need for something as elemental as food, I prove I am in control of my whole life. Obviously body image and the cult of thinness play into the issue, too, but without the drive for control anorexia does not take root. Fighting pain with control seems to be the seed of this disease.

You can see why anorexia is so deadly. The more you hurt, the more you hurt yourself.

This next statement makes no sense to anyone, not even to the person suffering, but anorexia is a toolset for dealing with life. It is a way of coping with life, stress and pain and enables the person suffering to make it from day to day with those minimal feelings of security that we all need.

We see Anorexia Nervosa as a disease, but its victims see it as a set of tools working for them in dealing with life's agonies. Until the anorexic finds a better toolset, they will continue to use these ones.


The moment I heard that sentence, I repeated it to myself slowly until it sunk in really deeply.

What an amazing insight into the problem. Identifying why Anorexia Nervosa is unhealthy doesn't actually help anyone. Even identifying a better eating strategy won't help anyone. Recovery is a long, hard process of coaching someone to a new use a whole new toolset that feels awful and dangerous. Nothing less than a lifelong commitment to nurturing new strengths has any hope at all.

Learning new strategies does not feel like "healing" to the anorexic. It feels completely foreign. I am learning to play tennis left-handed (mostly because I like doing weird things), and even though I can hit every stroke with style and power, I suck with my left hand. Nothing I do over on that wing feels natural, and I am naturally almost ambidextrous. It should be easy for me, but 35 years of practice and grooving of strokes on the right wing have made the left wing feel all wrong. If I am losing, I quit fiddling with that left hand and pull out the big gun again. The anorexic who begins to learn the tools of "trust and boundaries" instead of "control" is going to feel awkward and exposed and weak and might fall back to old strategies the moment stress levels rise.

Those thoughts were all very frightening, and quite heavy. And then a new thought hit me between the eyes. I was on the inside looking out with this problem. I have all the preconditions for anorexia, but never made eating my toolset. I have that strong need for control, and a strong will to implement those needs, and implement them I did. The only difference is that I did not turn my power against food. I turned my willpower against thought.

Religious fanaticism is my anorexia.

It is odd to gain this insight just as I am so far along in the process of walking away from my fanaticism, but it is still overpowering.

Let me take a close look at what I mean by fanaticism.

A fanatic shuts down the faculty of reason outside of a single dimension. When confronted with a hard decision, the fanatic doesn't collect facts and struggle with hard, contradictory options. He consults whatever his touchstone might be, the bible in my case, and accepts the answer as gospel. His reasoning on any subject amounts to a single question, "What would Jesus do?" He answers it from tradition, proof-texts and direct revelations. And thus he gains control. God said it, so he cannot be wrong when he believes it. Nobody on earth can hurt the fanatic without challenging God. God will bless him because he moves entirely within His will, so he feels secure.

And, of course, most of the time people will agree with the fanatic, or even admire him for his strength - much like they do the anorexic for their body. The fanatic transcends most common temptations, and even ascends to fine works and great commitment to his thing. It's a free ride! He gains control over a thousand pains and the admiration of dozens of distant acquaintances. Of course, those friends closer to the fanatic question the thinness of his decisions, and even their correctness from time to time.

It is a cause for dismay when the fanatic learns that his best friends think he is about to make a mistake on some important matter. Sadly, he lacks the tools to react appropriately to their concern. Instead, he feels threatened by their opposition, and runs back for a fresh supply of divine revelation, scripture, history, tradition, the Spirit, or whatever other religious answer jumps to the front of his mind. He will dress his guess up in the cloth of reason, but it's still a guess. He denies himself, and comes off as spiritual. He comforts himself that he is still moving within God's will. He may feel out of control, but finds peace because God is in control as long as he "trusts and obeys" blindly enough.

The fanatic ought to establish a boundary such that none of these people can tell him what to do, but at the same time trust that they are worried "for" him, not "against" him. Given that trust, he should question himself, and research the decision he is about to make. He should pray for wisdom, and then find out all the risks he is really about to take. Only after investing himself in this process of making a mature decision should he allow himself to feel a peace that what he wants is God's will, and not just good emotions running a little wild.

Instead, the fanatic will revisit his decision, basing his evaluation upon whatever facts swayed him to the wrong conclusion in the first place. Guess what revelation he is most likely to reach? He will engage in all his personal religious rituals, be they prayer or bible study or plinking, and thereby make himself feel safe in counting God as an accomplice in his decision. He will, in fact, be fully assured that he is following God's will.

He is not.

He is starving himself of those nutrients needed for a healthy Christian life in hopes that he will be a lean, mean religious machine for God. Rather like the anorexic who expects their mate to cherish them for the sacrifices they've made for "sexiness," the fanatic expects God to nod approvingly at the denials he has willingly made for the Truth. Those closest to him see an emaciated human, devoid of strength and resiliency, but he sees himself as a paragon of commitment and love for God. And when his friends' contrasting image of him makes itself felt, the fanatic will withdraw from them.

At seventeen, I'm pretty sure I was might' near a perfect fanatic. I don't know whether I made a single decision without perfect blind faith. As a matter of fact, the first real decision I may ever have made was to drop out of college. It's rather a dear one to me to this day. Don't get me wrong, I had to couch it in plenty of religious garb to be able to allow myself that indulgence, but it was a real, human decision merely dressed in fanatical clothing.

The time from 17 years old to 23 years old was the worst I have ever known. If you've ever wondered whether people who really love Jesus can commit suicide, yes, they can. I did not, but only because I was too religious to admit to myself how close I was every day to pulling that trigger. Looking back, I see how few tools I had available to me. I see how very damaged my thinking was.

Slowly, different areas of my life have healed. Oddly, I quit being a doctrinal fanatic a couple decades ago. That's a teeny bit backward, as near as I can tell. People seem to be most fanatical about their doctrine, but I released doctrine first. I think it helped with everything else. I released behavioural fanaticism a little while later, and even moral fanaticism not too long ago. Making my moral decisions based upon scripturally informed reason, instead of pure denial, still feels like line dancing on the edge of a ledge in a gale sometimes, but it's better.

I have to tell you. Sometimes reasoning through a problem feels like eating must feel to an anorexic. It feels like a defeat, and it feels like ugliness incarnate. I used to trust God apart from anything I could see. For the last 20 years, as I have been growing into humanity everything is different. These days, I actually expect His guidance of my steps to make sense. I still weather a deep instinctive fear that God is disappointed because I don't trust Him any more, but more and more I trust He is proud of me for growing and learning to live life. More and more I know living is the way He meant for us to be. Under stress, I might still reach for the comfort of blind faith.

The little revelation that I was a religious anorexic brought three decades of aimless struggle into sharp focus. Oddly, of course, I love that I got to work through it the hard way. The Lord must have known I wouldn't mind. :-)

And I still have three decades left.

It's not too late to learn to live.


Milly said...

Good job stepping out on the edge. I understand the anorexia I’ve seen it in a family member and a roommate. I keep a watchful eye on my boy also. I think God is happy with Kevin. I want Kevin to be happy with Kevin.

Anonymous said...


Patchouli said...

Those are some powerful insights, CP,--and you have been living all this time; you just get to enjoy it more now.

Weekend Fisher said...

I am proud of you for doing such a frightening and awkward thing. And I am glad for you that you are starting to break free.

BarBarA said...

I read this yesterday but could not think of a good comment to leave...this was an exceptional piece of writing and sharing. thank you

codepoke said...

Thanks, all.

You're right, Patchouli. I have lived, and I have loved doing it. I have not always liked doing, but I've loved it. I like it more than ever, and trust that I will like it more as I dispatch my worst enemy.

Lynne said...

Hmm .. this gives me much food for thought, almost too much! :) I've known for a while now that my "coping mechanism" was rigid emotional control (of myself, I mean) There was a time when I prided myself on being the girl who'd been through some heavy stuff without ever losing her temper .. you know, if I couldn't control anyone else, i'd at least control myself (sigh) Now you've given me a new angle of approach. Thanks (I think)
Be blessed as you engage with and embrace more and more of life ..

pearlie said...

Wow ... gave me a lot to think about, especially when you linked 2 the two together. I have no problem looking at anorexia as a tool of mechanism of survival but I have to give fanaticism a thought.

If you've ever wondered whether people who really love Jesus can commit suicide, yes, they can.
I have not wondered because I know they can.

It's not too late to learn to live.
Yeah, never too late, thanks for sharing.