catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


For the health of the body

In preparation for this article, I conducted a highly unscientific study: I asked several of my friends and family to name the first thing that came to their mind when they thought of being physically healthy. Not surprisingly, almost 100% responded "eating well." It's interesting, then that not too many Americans do "eat well." In fact, most of us eat pretty badly, sporadically, mindlessly, with little variety and too much, well, too much. The complaint has been the same for thousands of years: "I know what I should do, but I just don?t do it." For some, however, the struggle to eat healthfully goes beyond minor guilt over a lack of leafy greens and becomes an obsessive, addictive battle that can last a lifetime or, in my case, more than eight years.

An addicted mind is not pretty. From the first groggy consciousness to the final collapse into bed, a fierce, all-consuming battle is fought on a daily basis. An addicted person might make a good show of going through life: brushing their teeth, showing up at work on time, meeting a friend for lunch, taking notes at the school board meeting. However, an addict's mind is never, ever in the here-and-now. Instead, her mental energy is focused completely on the object of her desire. Voices in her head chatter incessantly, unbearably, reminding her about her addiction, arguing over the pros and cons of giving in: "I should have it. I just want it! I have to give in; I have to! No. I can't, I shouldn't. Wait, after church tonight, everyone will be gone. I could do it then, no one will be home. Man, I'm so stupid! I can't believe I'm going to do it again, what an idiot. Unbelievable. I can't wait!" This dialogue doesn't happen once a day, or twice, or even hourly. It is absolutely constant.

In my case, the obsession was not the more "common" addictive substances: drugs, alcohol, or the like, but eating, or not eating, or getting rid of what I'd eaten. Most people are familiar with the basic behavioral ins and outs of eating disorders, so I won't focus on the grisly details. Most people, also, probably have some idea of the intense physical complications associated with eating disorders, namely hair falling out, teeth disintegrating, bones becoming brittle, heart attack, electrolyte unbalance, central nervous system failure, etc. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.

Why would any sane person—and especially, in this case, a person with what would seem to be quite a concern for the physical self—choose to engage in such life-threatening, physically debilitating behaviors?

Like many other addictions, eating disorders are evidences of poor mental health manifesting itself physically. Look back at the addict's mental dialogue. The key sentence, the one that ought to jump off the page is: "I'm so stupid." The eating disordered person chooses, usually unconsciously and usually beginning at an age where she knows no better, to give herself what (she believes) she truly deserves: physical hurt and pain for existing as such a hateful, worthless, horrible person.

Peoples' individual reasons for self-hatred vary. Abuse, an unstable home environment, learned distrust of emotion, bipolar disorder or clinical depression, childhood bullying, or unrealistic expectations of parents may all play a part. But ask any addict of any kind and you'll find a person who dislikes herself and doesn't know how to deal with it. So she chooses a quick fix, something that will numb her to her emotional turmoil (going without food for x amount of time works quite well) and will provide a measure of relief. For when an addict gives in to her urges, those infernal voices become quiet and calm for a short time. Physical relief also occurs briefly. Like drugs or alcohol, certain eating disordered behaviors cause an influx of the mood-enhancer seratonin to the brain, one reason why these behaviors are so addictive. By giving in, the addict fulfills multiple objectives: her mind is still, her body has been punished and relieved all at once, and she has been distracted, for a while, from whatever real emotional distress she is avoiding.

While these problems manifest themselves in individuals' bodies, there is another very real body to consider: the body of believers in Christ. We know very well that the actions of one part of the body impact the health (physically, mentally, spiritually, etc.) of the entire body. The Christian community can't help but suffer along with its members. I don't doubt that most if not all Christians would agree that dealing with the issue of addicted persons is important, even a priority, within the church. Yet many church communities avoid these sorts of unsavory topics or treat them lightly and unrealistically.

I remember, vividly, one unusual church service in which a letter from a heroin-addicted member was read to the congregation. The letter was memorable for its directness and honesty in addressing the true, ugly, horrifying nature of addiction. It presented no easy answers, and asked the congregation to confront, head-on, the sadness of this addict's situation. Yet it allowed me, a fellow struggler who understood this person's trials all too well, to see the acceptance and understanding granted by the congregation and to participate in that acceptance personally.

Eating disorders, alcoholism, drug dependency, and other societal ills are not pleasant things to think about. Yet I can guarantee that you or someone you know or someone your children know is struggling with some sort of addiction. Not everyone is interested in starting AA meetings or an eating disorder support group at their church. But every member of Christ's body has a responsibility to help create a congregational atmosphere of understanding and acceptance in which the hard questions and ugly problems in life are not swept under the rug on Sunday mornings.

I'm not suggesting that worship turn into personal therapy time. But a lot can be accomplished by people who work to understand the world, who know what it means to be human, fallen, and struggling. Members of the body have a responsibility to become self-aware and self-reflective, a responsibility to embrace life's struggles and learn from them. Individuals who value this responsibility will naturally create a self-reflective, empathetic, healthy church body in which honesty is valued and strugglers know that their brothers and sisters will look them in the eye with understanding and acceptance.

Discussion topic: Accepting, but not uncritical

How can the body of believers be accepting of broken people without ignoring the reality of sin? Some churches will publicly condemn apparent sinners, while others seem to find the notion of sin distasteful and do their best to ignore it. How do we address the problem of sin in a productive way that allows for confession, healing and accountability?

your comments

comments powered by Disqus