Was God really there through it all?
Mental health campaigner and author Hope Virgo shares the impact her eating disorder has had on her faith
I was 17, laying there in bed on a cold evening. The rain pounding against my skylight. My brain was reflecting on the last 24 hours. The CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service) appointment where they had discovered I had been lying to them the last few months about my weight, the argument over dinner, then me shouting at my younger brother at breakfast as he had tried to help me find something to eat. To the obsessive ruminating, calorie counting. I had got so good at putting on a bit of a front all day when I was at school, when in reality I was finding things really hard to navigate.
My brain did what it did every evening, telling me that tomorrow would be different, that somehow I would get up in the morning and everything would click into place. I longed for that freedom away from my brain, away from these behaviours.
Every single evening was the same, but as the sun began to rise, my shame, insecurities were no longer hidden in the night sky. As the reality came back, I pulled myself up in the early hours of the morning, found my scales stashed away in the cupboard. The number that appeared in front of me was never quite what I wanted it to be. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, and told myself that I had to just do one more day of this and everything would be okay.
Little did I know on all these evenings when I was so desperate for things to change, that just weeks later I was to be admitted into a mental health hospital with anorexia, where I was to spend the next year of my life.
Throughout my year admission I spent a huge amount of time questioning my faith. I knew that people were praying for me which was some comfort, but I was angry, frustrated and just fed up with God. While eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, with complicated causes, I knew that one of the contributing factors to mine was the sexual abuse I had faced as a child. And it was this that I kept coming back to that year. That anger that because of what someone had done to me had left me with these feelings, that there was something categorically wrong with who I was and I had to change that factor. How could an all loving God allow this to happen without healing me?
It was this anger that totally consumed me. Even as I began my road to recovery, getting more of my life back, I was at the same time pushing God so far away. By the end of that year in hospital I had given up on my faith altogether, and I would spend the next 10 years or so completely separated from God. If anyone ever tried to talk to me about him, I would have a difficult question ready to go.
All up until 2019, when someone stopped at a station to talk to me about their faith. I had been going through a bit of a rough patch and just felt at a bit of a loss. He sat with me, telling me all about his faith, what it did for him. I longed for what he had. Longed for that sense of peace. Longed for the shame to disappear.
The next afternoon I found myself in Holy Trinity Brompton in London. Sitting at the back of a huge congregation, absorbed in the faces around me.
What followed that church visit was attending the Alpha course, lots of heated discussions about faith and then finally in November 2019 I recommitted to my life to being a Christian. The thing about becoming a Christian, it doesn’t immediately mean that all these problems and hardships will disappear. For me it was about learning to sit in this place of tension. This place of not having all the answers and being honest in that space. In those moments when it feels really hard and the emotions begin to take over me, I journal a lot, flood myself with worship music and find a Bible study to do on the Bible app. I don’t always get it right, and I have these moments when the fear completely consumes me, but I am learning to be intentional about my time with God, getting stuck in and ensuring that I am part of a community where I can be inspired and challenged.
As I sit here 14 years later, I still feel grateful that I am actually alive. Grateful that I got the support and treatment I needed back when I was 17 years old. As I sit here I can one hundred percent say that God was there by my side through it all.
Recovery from an eating disorder is hard, long and relentless in places. And when you aren’t healed you have to choose to trust, to keep bringing these behaviours in to the light and that will give you that space to heal.
Hope Virgo has had an eating disorder since she was a young girl, and is passionate about using her voice and her experiences to give hope to people caught in the grip of mental illness and/or eating disorders.
In 2019, she led the #DumpTheScales campaign, aimed at changing policy and practice around eating disorders, ensuring funding is in place for training and the provision of education
Hope’s first book, Stand Tall, Little Girl was published in 2019.
Her second book, You Are Free (Even If You Don’t Feel Like It) - Mental health, faith and finding your way (SPCK), publishes in May 2022
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