Full in a World of Empty

I’d come to the Middle East, 23 years old and engaged, on a six-month mission.

I’d learned Arabic and taught English in Palestinian camp to children with dirty faces and wide eyes and ragged clothes, feet bare against the garbage of the ground. I’d taught rich wahlad in clean uniforms and learned what it was like to experience a teammate murdered. I’d spent evenings in prayer, journaling, Scripture, and learning the language, dreaming at night of the land with its squat cedars, rolling gardens and earthy people.

I had forgotten to care what I looked like.

The village women would call me in for dinner. Feed me figs and fruit which grew on the roof and leaf-tea thick with sugar. They’d be insulted if you said you were full and so I ate in Jesus’ name. The mirrors were few.

I’d arrived thin, but my jeans were snug by the end of six months. When a friend said to me, “You’ve put on weight,” I put down my sandwich and told myself I’d never pick it up again; put on my coat and went home to Canada to marry a man who thought he knew me, his honey-haired girl.

The wedding came with its flowers and its dress and its big white tent in my parents’ backyard. We stood beneath the trellis looking pretty and handsome, a wreath of petals in my hair, and my heart screaming.

I looked from my dad, who stood marrying us in his clerical collar, to my husband in his tux, sweating love in July, to the long line of witnesses in silks and shiny shoes. Then it was, “I now pronounce you man and wife” and the title, wife,  wrapped like a noose. His lips found mine and it was, “Mr. and Mrs. Wierenga.” I didn’t recognize my own name but smiled my way through.

We fought on our honeymoon in Nova Scotia in a campground filled with people because I’d suddenly decided I no longer wanted children. This came as a surprise to him. He’d always dreamed of them, and dreamed of having them with me. But it was all I could do to think of being wife, and children meant gaining weight and losing control and so, our life began, a torn union.

I’d eat nothing all day and then cook at night. The food didn’t come out right, the bread doughy in the middle, cinnamon buns black and the apple crisp fell to the floor in its glass dish. He ate it all anyway, picking shards from oat flakes. I drank coffee and wore an apron because it was the only way I knew to be a wife. Soon I was drinking nine cups of coffee a day to keep the hunger away so I could pretend to be normal at suppertime.

I became editor of a newspaper and he, a missionary with youth. After editing all day and chewing gum and drinking coffee, I’d hang out with the youth girls at night, inspiring them to love a God I no longer listened to. Later Trent and I would watch a show and he wouldn’t know anything was wrong until I stopped being able to sleep and he stopped being able to touch me for the bony skeleton I’d become.

There were holes in our walls and in our hearts and we tried to fill them with pretend. Each night it got harder to sleep and each morning, harder to wake.

I would somehow pull on my track suit and run, further and further, even in minus-40 weather. This skinny little wife trying to outdistance her life.

Even though it was different than before, the problem, the anorexia, was the same. I knew what I was doing, and that made it so much worse — this starving myself. But I couldn’t stop because it had become me, Without it, I was just Mrs. Wierenga and I didn’t know if I could handle that because then I’d need to face all of my father-issues from the past so I could fully love the man in my present. I felt trapped, not wanting to forgive, and so I ran.

But the thing with not eating is, eventually, it catches up to you. As you’re running you see your soul passing by on the other side, and you’re forced, eventually, to stop, because without yourself you have nothing, no energy or blood or oxygen.

The stopping happened in the middle of the highway on our way home from Calgary after I tried to swerve into oncoming traffic. We’d been fighting again, and all I wanted was to die. Instead, he put his hands on mine and directed us over to the side of the road, and then turned to me, after three years of marriage and said, “It’s me, or food. You choose. I’m done.”

And even though I felt I could finally breathe, for having the choice, for him loving me enough to let me go, for the chance to end this strike against hunger, it took me a moment to decide. I knew if I chose to serve food, I would die, and even though I wanted to, it was so final. There was more to life, I was sure of this. If I chose him, I’d die too, to myself, but I’d get to experience more of life.

“I choose you,” the emaciated girl whispered.  He took over the wheel and drove us home.

I knew to research menus and find healthy ways of eating and lifestyle habits, and I knew recovery was about more than food — it was a spiritual giving way, a learning to value myself for more than my skin, a forgiving of myself as I peeled back the egg and ate it for breakfast, as I buttered toast and slathered jam and sliced knife into meat. It was a daily dying to myself, so I might live, so our marriage might survive. It was so I might learn what it meant to love this new person, this Mrs. Wierenga, who wasn’t that different from the old. After all, he’d married Emily, the girl with honey-hair who dressed in thrift store clothes and sang loud in the hallways at college. I could be her again. I liked that girl.

We left Canada for Korea and became one in a tiny apartment teaching English and riding a scooter and climbing mountains and eating spicy food. We became one in a land that didn’t know us. I began to dream of children with this man who prayed with me when I still battled sleep and food and sadness.

It was the beginning of my rebirth, and I learned to have grace, to recognize my triggers and let myself fail, to pick myself up again. This is life, no?

I am more than a physical being, and this, even as I became mother and gave birth to real life. This truth is ever transforming the way I love myself through food. I am a spiritual person with a high calling: to be an image-bearer, to walk with God and let Him transform the way I see the world and pain and beauty. Instead of creating my own safe place to run and hide in, I need to find that place in Him. No matter the changes that occur, no matter if I am hurt or bruised, I can rest in His ever unchanging self.

The eating disorder was my space to run to when life lost control, when I no longer knew who I was or felt threatened by a new name, identity, or role. But our calling is so much greater — a high calling that never changes. A calling that whispers worth to us from the moment we rise to the day we set.

I am a woman. I have been designed to breathe life into children, into husband, into neighbour, into friend. Food is a gift to be celebrated as I fulfill my calling. I can trust my body, listen to it, know what it needs, and respect it as the temple it is.

This is what I am learning with every forkful, with every turn of Scripture-page, with every pleading with spirit to transform my vision. This, what it means to be full, in a world of empty.

Flickr photo (cc) by Mary Lock

Reprinted with permission from Christian Courier