Embracing the Truth – ENDING THE SILENT SUFFERING OF AN EATING DISORDER

“Sarah, do you truly want to get better and healthy? Because if you do, you need to surrender control.” This is what my therapist said to me seven years ago.

I looked up and replied, “Well … yes, but I don’t know how to.”

This conversation and the leading of the Holy Spirit changed the entire trajectory of my life. For seven years, on and off, I was secretly battling one of the most difficult challenges of my life—an eating disorder. I was diagnosed with body dysmorphia and severely distorted eating patterns. Dysmorphia keeps you locked inside your mind, alone. My mind played tricks on my reflection and created negative self-talk. I was suffering by myself, fighting off darkness while I silently hoped for the slightest ray of light to seep in. Thankfully, my Redeemer operates best in darkness.

I grew up as a pastor’s daughter in the most nurturing and loving home; I wouldn’t change that for anything. It made me who I am today, and I am immensely proud of this version of me. But growing up in a pastor’s home came with a few challenges—mainly managing my personality and self-image. I am the middle child of three, often referred to as “the glue of the family,” the naturally bubbly, hopeful, ever-encouraging and positive one. But as a young pastor’s kid, I felt like I was always being watched and graded. This created major people-pleasing tendencies that ruled my life. However, it wasn’t just people I was trying to please. I began to mould myself into who I thought God wanted me to be—what He required me to be.

I also grew up competing in the sport of gymnastics. Though I love this sport dearly, it created body image issues for me. Coaches would comment on my body and the bodies of other girls, and we were encouraged to restrict food and “stay lean.” Sometimes, we were even asked to drop half a pound so we could land a cleaner finish on the beam. I had to shrink myself down to meet these impossible health standards, limiting what I ate while trying to control the narrative of my life.

I believed my relationship with God was like a giant ladder—an enormous, daunting invitation to climb as high as possible. The greater the height, the greater the sense of God’s love, approval and acceptance. But no matter how high I climbed, there was always another step; the top could never be seen, let alone achieved.

judge myself harshly
Photo © iStock.com.

I would try my best to be perfect—to be seen as perfect. All the while, the outside image looked nothing like the broken self-image I was carrying. Inner turmoil, silent suffering, and deeply-rooted insecurities consumed me. I would judge my body harshly, hating the reflection I saw in the mirror, and judge myself harshly for how I looked.

To combat these feelings, I would read books, listen to podcasts, talk to my therapist, cry out to Jesus, confide in a friend, make a plan, break the plan, feel disappointed in myself and in God, become discouraged, and inevitably, rinse and repeat. My discontentment led to disappointment, which led to discouragement. My discouragement led to doubt, and my doubt created an open door for the enemy to slither in. The enemy, though, doesn’t have the power to create, so he corrupts. In silence and shame, he tainted my identity and self-image; he corrupted the sense of acceptance I could find in God. I remember so vividly. I would look at other people’s lives, wishing I had what they had. I would take to social media and compare myself to others.

DYSMORPHIA KEEPS YOU LOCKED INSIDE YOUR MIND, ALONE. MY MIND PLAYED TRICKS ON MY REFLECTION AND CREATED NEGATIVE SELF-TALK. I WAS SUFFERING BY MYSELF, FIGHTING OFF DARKNESS WHILE I SILENTLY HOPED FOR THE SLIGHTEST RAY OF LIGHT TO SEEP IN. THANKFULLY, MY REDEEMER OPERATES BEST IN DARKNESS.

Sarah Colantonio

My worth and identity were wrapped up in my appearance. 1 Samuel 16:7 (NKJV) says, “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I have heard this verse hundreds of times. But it wasn’t until a random Tuesday evening in November, hearing the rain hit the window as my candle burned, that I truly heard the verse. As I sat in bed that night, I felt the peace of God flood my entire body. I felt the Lord gently say, “Sarah, I do not require a thing from you except your heart. Your body will change and fade away, but I will not.”

This encounter with God catapulted me into my healing journey. For the very first time, I experienced new life. In all my church experiences and hours reading Scripture, praying, serving and hearing the gospel preached, this was the first time I experienced the breath of God—He breathed new life into me. I was made new. I had a new mind and heart. A mind that understood the core of who I am in Christ. A heart that believed I didn’t have to strive, earn, or climb the proverbial ladder in hopes of gaining His love and acceptance. I was His; I belonged to Him. How incredible is it that the Creator of all things bends down low to place His hands in the broken and messy parts of our lives? And not only does He stay with us there, but He picks us up, brushes off the dirt, and says, “Come with me.”

Today, I am a huge advocate of therapy. I believe in taking medication and pursuing help from medical professionals. Therapy was a crucial part of my journey towards healing. But it is only one part. The other part of healing is found in trusting God and, perhaps more specifically, trusting in my identity as God’s very own beloved daughter. Scripture tells us so many true and beautiful realities about our identity in Christ. We are accepted (Romans 15:7), chosen (John 15:16), forgiven (1 John 1:9), and citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). These are all things I heard growing up that, while wonderfully true, are still difficult to believe.

Today, if you are feeling the way I did for years, and admittedly still do at times, please hear me: you can trust Jesus with your suffering. There is beauty in the brokenness, even when it seems too shattered and too fractured to be made whole. It is my experience that when we water the soil of our brokenness with honesty and vulnerability, God has the creative capacity to bring life. We can experience Jesus in ways that completely alter who we believe we are and who we believe God to be. Hope and healing can emerge from the brokenness. So, repeat after me: hope can grow from my suffering.

Sarah Colantonio lives in Ottawa, Ont. She is a podcast host of “There Must Be More” and is on staff at Bethel Church.

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