GUEST BLOG: Letters Written Never Sent

Today’s blog features a guest writer who wishes to remain anonymous.  Here is her story about dealing with an eating disorder. 

I don’t know really where to start. Part of me is always confused about how to speak about my eating disorder history when for most of my life I did not even see it that way. Part of me also sees it as a “first world problem” and whenever I’d feel an incredible sadness regarding my looks and failures (that’s often how I’d connect those topics) I’d just let myself go through the awful days of secret crying and maybe a few days/weeks of bad mood without telling anyone what the nature of it really was. Just simply “bad times that I’ll get over and just move on with my life”.

Of course, it wasn’t about having only a bad mood. Most of the times I’m a highly functioning, depth seeking person, who does not want to focus on looks only. I’m aware that self-love is the key to create a balance in life, in self-progress. I’m aware of so many traps that we, as human beings fall very easily into. But that does not stop the weak part of my mind from being very puzzled, miserable, self-loathing, toxic, desperate at times.

It’s safe to say, an eating disorder is never just about looks. Most of the time I felt loved by my family and friends, but certain “family drama” for sure influenced my perspectives (like my parents splitting before I reached age 1), and added to many unpleasant memories regarding my looks. For example, my dad made a lot of comments about how good it is that I lost weight when I was 18. I think he hinted that he was worried about my health, but it still sounded incredibly judgmental.

Actually, I should say it started with my mum who was scared of – for health reasons as well – me gaining a lot of weight when I was a kid. And I understand that. Yet still, how I remember one specific summer when me, my mum, her friend and the friend’s two sons had holidays together at the seaside. It was great and fun, but I was constantly reminded by my mom how to avoid sugary and fatty foods cause it’s bad for me. I was around 9 (I think) and I had no idea what her problem was. The only feeling that stuck with me was that the sons of my mum’s friend are better than me, because they somehow deserve to eat whatever they want and I have to be limited to tastless youghurt and banana as a sweet treat. I demanded an explanation after few days of bubbling childish frustration and I got it – I have to be careful with fat in my body, because it’s harming me and since I had a heart surgery as a baby, I have to be even more mindful. Obviously, in hindsight, I’m glad my mom taught me so much about healthy eating and understanding chemistry within our bodies (she studied food technology and to this day is passionate about science). But that specific summer I remember getting very bitter over “my looks.”

Believe me, it didn’t end with my parents though. A lot of people in my close surroundings (my parent’s age or older) liked to comment on my looks, including my grandma’s sister and sometimes they were nice, sometimes brutally harsh, especially about me being chubby – I already start to feel upset just thinking of all this. Mainly because a lot of times I wished to be thin just so people could get off my back and stop harassing me with their opinions. Don’t get me wrong though – I liked discussing all sorts of topics, but my weight was not one of them and I have not asked for it. And that suppressed anger had slowly grown into a very unbalanced attitude towards myself.

The thing is, I loved food. I started loving sports and movement too (at age 11 I started playing volleyball in an amateur sports club; I was kayaking regularly with my mum; sometimes I was swimming) but I loved food and that did not work to my benefit. What’s more, the more I dreamed of being thin and not eating, the more I got myself to binge eat. I obsessively read blogs about anorexia, watched awfully skinny girls photos, read hundreds of stories of losing weight with a crazy envy. I tried starving myself, I tried using anti-cough pills with ephedrine (which is a stimulant) to motivate myself to excersise at home, I tried to throw up every time I binged… I tried many things…

I can recognize the similarities between my thinking and the classical eating disorder reasons like gaining control, feeling like losing weight could prevent me from getting the unwanted attention (at age 14 I didn’t want some elder creeps to be interested in my curves) + attention of people all ages around me, including a teacher at my school who said I shouldn’t be wearing the type of jeans I liked because it “doesn’t suit my body type”. FYI, I never heard from my other classmates who would also be considered “bigger” to have such experiences with our teachers which makes me wonder why was I so “blessed” with “advices” all the time. Basically, the fat started to equal failure. (Still is, but a lot of things changed in the meantime which helped me to stay reasonable and focus on health). I’ve learned that I can’t starve and I can’t throw up. I felt like a loser cause I can’t even have a “proper” eating disorder. I can’t have the one that would make me thin. No one would see, no one would expect anything unless I said something disturbing out loud. But even then, I was surrounded with girls and adult women
saying constantly “I need to lose some fat” so everyone was numb to my comments (to this day I believe the society I grew up with is incredibly, but not always willingly judgemental, so even when you’re slim, it’s polite to be humble aka criticize yourself so you don’t seem full of yourself; even  if in reality you still like to show your body, you crave for attention, but you cannot complement yourself – ’cause you might sound like a diva). Imagine, I got to a point where I literally have wished I could have been anorectic cause maybe people would care. Maybe I could draw the attention to myself without using words and once I’d be so thin I’d be falling apart they could finally feel guilty about their comments and I could openly blame them. I fantasized about it a lot.

The thing is I lost a significant amount of weight few times in my life and every time it felt awesome. I got compliments all the time. You might think it sounds shallow, but believe me, the more I stopped caring about people’s feedback, the more compliments I’ve received. Of course it boosted my fragile ego, fed the narcissistic little ugly duckling in me. Every time, for a while it was amazing to experience the positive attention, the “love and affection”, the “ooh lala” in people’s reactions. Though I liked it, I also hated it, because I was wondering was I so worthless and disgusting being my “normal self”? And it created a huge amount of pressure. At the end of high school I got ill (to this day I have no idea what it was) and I could barely eat as my gums were constantly swollen and I had a fever every evening for like 2 weeks. When I came back to school 2 sizes smaller one of my favorite teachers asked me if I’m anorexic. I was shocked cause I didn’t see myself being slimmer (body dysmorphia at it’s best), I also was not prepared to have that question asked, and definitely not in front of other people from my class. I wish I could describe to you that tremendous happiness when I heard that question! The most messed up part of the day is me glowing with pride that I had finally made someone think I might be sick. Yet I never really considered myself sick up to age 25.

I don’t really want to get more into the details of how my weight was up and down, but it is a vicious circle of people’s comments. Luckily, it’s so much less important to me nowadays. I know how I can defend myself, I’m trying to be honest and polite in my explanation of why the topic should be no one’s concern but my own (and maybe my doctor’s if there are some actual health issues). Yet with all the support and wisdom I receive I just can’t get over that time of judgment, humiliation and anger from the past. Especially now that I’m struggling with gaining weight. For the past 2 years I have had so many weight struggles due to my change of metabolism, very irregular life rhythm, a lot of travelling and lack of focus.

I will openly say I’m a chronic dieter, but I feel lucky to finally have a mindset where I search for a healthy lifestyle that suits me and is not the absolute bullshit calorie count. I started to enjoy workouts which are easy to do wherever I go, instead of depending on sports that I love but cannot access so left me not having enough movement in my life. But most of all, I’m lucky ’cause I want to become healthy with my mindset and I hope to help others in the future. The hardest, longest and most challenging fight is always to love yourself as you are.

Reflecting on the Anniversary of Jean’s Death

The following are my own opinions and do not reflect those of L’Arche International.

Screenshot_20200226_105259 I still remember sitting at home in my pjs when an email pinged on my phone.  Breaking news: Jean Vanier is Dead.  At that point, I had been connected with L’Arche for 6 years and I considered Jean somewhat of a hero.  No one could ever take his place, I thought.  Those are some pretty big shoes to fill.  Would the movement survive without his gentle guidance and presence, or would it crumble?  That’s the problem when we saint someone before they are even gone.  When people heard the name L’Arche their minds were instantly drawn to Jean.  Yes, there have been many men and women throughout the years who have made great strides for L’Arche at both a local and international level, but surely no one could ever do as much for the movement as he did himself.  His death seemed almost surreal.  None of us wanted it to happen, but it happened.  I was faraway from my Scottish community at that time.  I was back home renewing my visa, so the timing all seemed a bit unfortunate.  However, it wasn’t long before I was rushing to my laptop to stream in his service.  Remembrance ceremonies were taking place all over the world.  My Facebook page was lit-up with tributes and kind words of sympathy. 

Today, marks one year since Jean’s death, but today we are living in a very different world and in a very different reality.  When news came out about Jean’s abuse of power, my Facebook lit up once again, but this time the words, sentiments and tones were much different.  The words were not of kindness but of harshness, not of sympathy about Jean, but of empathy towards the women he had harmed, and not of tributes, but of dismay and disdain.

I remember shortly after the news was made public about Jean, my pastor emailed me to check in on me.  This was a very kind gesture as she knew how much L’Arche meant to me and how much I considered it a vocational ministry.  That Sunday at church (only a day or two after I received the email), we met privately after the service.  As I sat there with her next to me, I unleashed many words.  I do not remember those spoken words anymore, but I remember the intensity of emotion behind them.  It was like going through a grieving process.  There was anger at Jean and what he had done, there was denial because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that one of my heroes in the faith had truly done such a thing, there was the question of whether I wanted to continue on in L’Arche, and then underneath it all there was this unsettling feeling that sometimes no matter how good we think a person is, they are still capable of having a shadow side.  As my mentor would remind me time and time again since that terrible day “we are all only human.”

Life went on in the L’Arche community following not only Jean’s death but this awful news.  Our local minister was constantly in and out providing pastoral care and support.  Our leadership team got dialogues up and running and thankfully many people felt safe enough to come out and share their own thoughts and feelings about the news.  Some even were brave enough to relate their own personal experiences and tragedies.  There comes a time for transparency in all organizations, but more than that, there comes a time to honour our stories and to hold them tightly and in confidence.  I have no doubt that communities throughout the world were met with the same pastoral response and processing opportunities.  I know that as a L’Arche community we were “all in this together.”  It was something that all L’Arche communities had to face and process.  We were not alone.

My thoughts cycled through various stages.  Somedays, I was so glad to be part of L’Arche still and see this new resilience blossoming and a new courage igniting.  Other days, I found my enthusiasm waning.  I had already started thinking of a new ministry opportunity several months before and I knew that regardless of how enjoyable my time in L’Arche might have been, I was swiftly being called out of it to a different vocational role.  And then there were days when I sat in front of a Jean Vanier book agonizing over what to do with it.  In the end of the day, I decided to put them all in a drawer, but I haven’t opened that drawer since.  The academician in me is not willing to give up all that he contributed to disability theology.  The student in me is angry that we relied so much on one voice when there are hundreds more who have contributed but we have ignored.

It seemed like things were just getting in full swing with our individual and collective processing of Jean Vanier, when another tragedy hit us.  That of COVID-19.  The virus put a halt to any group processing meetings.  Pastoral care shifted to telephone and video calls.  A local organization which previously informed women they could reach out to them to talk about Jean was forced to suspend its services indefinitely.  In the words of a long-term L’Arche member who is a friend of mine “It seemed like the dirty bugger got off lucky.”  Isn’t that just like him?  A man of charm, escaping any further scrutiny because the world turned on its head.  As I sit here today, it amazes me how finite the human mind is.  We are only able to process one tragedy at a time.  No matter how devastating a blow something can be, when another difficulty comes along, we shelve the first and direct our energy solely on the new challenge.  Thus, we forgot about Jean, and started focussing instead on a wide-scale pandemic.

I hadn’t thought much about Jean until today.  The anniversary of his death.  And it seems we are all still grieving in our own ways.  Maybe there is a part of us which is still grieving Jean himself.  For all the evil he may have caused to women (and he did), he also was successful in founding an international movement which has impacted thousands and touched the hearts and souls of many young assistants.  He is a man who rescued people with disabilities from the horrors of institutions.  He is a man who informed a lot of what we know and rely on today in the disability movement as the cornerstones for a person centered approach.  Perhaps we are grieving the vision we once held of Jean.  That’s normal enough.  It is one of the hardest things for a human to process when they realize a person they loved and trusted is not who they once thought the person was.  And then there is the sense of grief we feel today – holed up in our homes, the loss of human interaction and connection, the loss of activities and hobbies once enjoyed, and the loss of many of our personal freedoms we once took for granted.

All of these events roll into one big lump of collective grief and an overwhelming sense of loss.  Every day we are hearing in the news that these are “unprecedented times” and that we are going to have to adapt to a “new normal.”  Human beings are incredibly resilient and while many of us have not enjoyed these new measures, we have come to understand them and abide by them.  The day we heard about Jean was perhaps not unprecedented.  Sadly, stories of abuse of power have swept both the religious and secular worlds.  Leaders who have abused the vulnerable is not a new story to tell, yet sadly, there is a part of us all that wishes it was.  There is a part of us that still may feel unprepared to deal with the reality.  A part of us that perhaps thinks somewhere in the back of our mind that there weren’t signs we could have seen.   And now L’Arche is forced to live in a “new normal.”  A normal which still includes Jean as part of our story, but which also uses pastoral sensitivity to show that what he did should never have been and will never be the norm.  It was unacceptable and it should never have happened.  Our new normal in L’Arche has called for all of us to be adaptable.  To find ways of being “L’Archey” (holding the core values and visions we always have) but in a different way.  

Today one year after Jean’s death, I joined the L’Arche prayers.  People’s faces filling the screen.  Trouble with mics and with WiFi.  Off key singing.  A bit of confusion about who does what when.  This has become the new normal for us.  We are all in this together. A year ago if you were to say we would be meeting in this fashion, I never would have believed it.  But this is now the seventh week we have done this and it will likely be several more weeks left to go.  We are adaptable, and we will find ways to thrive as a community both locally and globally and that’s exactly the same with our relationship with Jean. We have reached a new normal, but we are ready to be courageous as we face this change.  We can’t change the past and what our founder has done, but we can be responsible for having a positive outlook as we look for ways to continue to help and support all those who have been harmed by this tragic news.

You can access my first blog about Jean here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/reconciling-the-news-of-jean-vanier-with-the-work-of-larche/