Coming from a very performance-oriented non-Christian Asian family, I struggled with issues of identity, self-worth, and belonging. My parents didn’t show me love and affection the way that many of my non-Asian counterparts’ parents did, which I understand and accept now, since I know that they didn’t grow up with that themselves. But to a middle schooler’s mind, the conclusion was simple: your parents don’t love you, you are not accepted, and you do not belong unless you are something.
“You must be the best!” was a catch phrase I heard many times in my childhood, and I quickly learned that I was not the best. I was not the smartest, I was not the best at violin, I was not the best at anything…except losing weight. And because I needed a defining quality, because I needed to BE somebody, my identity quickly devolved into being “the skinniest.”
You see, not only did being “the skinniest” give me an identity, but people praised me for my self-control, which made me feel like I had worth and I belonged. People actually envied me! And after spiraling down a self-destructive path to a more life-threatening “concentration camp” look, my need for worth and belonging was continually fed with conflicting messages. As I began to look into modeling, I was praised for my thinness. And as others expressed their concern for me, even my parents, I felt love and care. Anorexia helped me receive the love and attention that I had craved for so long, and I could not let go of this identity. To do so would threaten my security, it would threaten my sense of being, it would threaten my self-worth, it would threaten the love and attention I was finally receiving. It would be all gone, which was something I could not bear.
So I spiraled even further until I reached rock bottom my freshman year of college. As I lay in bed one night, my bones aching and my heart beating slower and slower, I thought to myself, “I think I’m going to die tonight. And I am going to die all alone in my dorm room, away from all of my friends and family.” And so I prayed, “God, if you let me live until tomorrow, I promise I’ll get help.” And He did.
I realized in that fleeting moment when I thought I was facing death that though I finally had an identity, a false sense of self-worth, and a sense of belonging and acceptance, what I really had become was a slave. I was a slave to what others thought of me, I was a slave to food, I was a slave to my body image, I was a slave to this disease. For example, I had a list of about 10 good foods that I could eat, and everything else was evil. I became obsessive compulsive about measuring portions out 7 times. And even though my bones ached as they were being eaten away, I was compelled to exercise. I was a textbook anorexic. All of these things, what I thought would fulfill me, what I thought would bring me life, what I thought I really wanted in the end had me in complete and utter slavery. And I was alone, and I was miserable.
I left school shortly after this night, a little more than halfway through my freshman year of college to receive treatment, and began a grueling and heart-wrenching three year process of recovery. I was hospitalized for five weeks for re-feeding and gained about 25 pounds in those five weeks. I then began a rigorous 12 week intensive outpatient eating disorder program, where I put on another 15 pounds. After that, I continued with nutritional counseling, group therapy, and individual therapy. And throughout all of this treatment, my primary thought was, “Do what they tell me to do, say what they want me to say, and just get out of here so that I can go back and live the way I have been living.”
And I did for a while, until the most horrific thing that could happen to an anorexic happened to me: I became a binge-eater. Throughout the week, I would restrict and exercise obsessively the way I used to as an anorexic, but on the weekends I would lose complete control and eat thousands and thousands and thousands of calories in one hour sittings. This became my secret life and this became my shame. What kind of anorexic was I to lose control over and over again? And though I could fool my therapists with my “progress,” I couldn’t fool my mother, who said to me one day, “You’re never going to get better!” And I’m not mad at her for saying that, because that is what I believed. I had given up, I was too far gone.
I had lost hope.
But God. Two of the most incredible words in the Bible. Words of unimaginable hope in all hopelessness. But God.
But God, for some reason, saw it fit to rescue me when neither I nor all of the therapy I went through could rescue me. And I’m not against therapy, I am a therapist myself! But what I really needed the most in all of my treatment was what was blatantly absent – God.
As I continued my secret, shameful life of binging, restricting, and excessively exercising, one day I just sensed God saying to me, “Alice, do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, MY temple? And have you forgotten the promise you made to Me on that one night when you thought you were dying? And do you not remember that you were bought with a price? You are not your own, you are Mine (1 Corinthians 10:19-20)! ”
And in that moment, I was awakened from whatever weird reverie I had been in for the past few years and it all made sense. My body wasn’t MY body! It was God’s! And this wasn’t about self-preservation anymore, it was about thriving!
Up to this point, I had relied so much on therapy and my own self-effort to help me get better but it just wasn’t working because in the end, God was the answer. It’s not like I wasn’t a Christian. I had become a Christian during my freshman year of high school and knew that God was always the answer in my head. But it wasn’t until this moment that I knew it in my heart.
Yet though I had come to be enlightened in this way, I still had a long, hard journey of recovery ahead. It didn’t make recovery easier, but it did make it more purposeful.
That fall, I transferred to UCI since it was closer to home, and I knew that I just wanted to know God more. I had heard that the Navigators, a fellowship on campus, had a great reputation for digging deep into the Word of God (shameless plug, I work with them, hahaha. But I promise, true story) so I joined their group, because I knew that was what I needed.
And as I began the journey of knowing God and knowing His Word and letting His Word speak deeply into my life, the most incredible thing happened. I can’t explain how it happened or the exact mechanism behind it, but by the time the next summer rolled around, I was freed.
Gloriously, ridiculously, abundantly, and miraculously freed.
Free from restricting, free from binging, free from counting calories obsessively, free from compulsive exercise, free from “good foods” and “bad foods” (except mushrooms, they are always bad, bleech), free from using diet pills and laxatives…I was just FREE. And free in a way that therapy and self-effort could not even come close to. I have no idea HOW, but I do know this: that the more I turned to Jesus, the more I turned away from my disordered eating.
Because I didn’t need it anymore.
You see, what turning to Jesus, knowing the Word, and letting the Word speak deeply in my life did for me was it gave me a new identity, a new sense of worth, and the acceptance and love that I craved. I am a daughter of the Most High King. I am a child of God. I am beloved. I am precious and honored in His sight. I am adopted into His family. I am fully accepted no matter what. I am fully loved no matter what. And because all of these needs were met, I didn’t need the eating disorder anymore. I was free!
I share my crazy long and detailed back story with the hope that it may both demonstrate the interconnectedness between the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of our lives, and also with the hope that it may greatly encourage and bring hope to any of you who are fighting seemingly impossible battles. God is greater than anything we could fight and we are victorious because He fights for us. I wouldn’t know His great love and mercy in the way that I do today had I not let myself fall so far from grace.
He is the One who rewrites the tragic stories of our lives into amazing stories of redemption, and nothing is impossible for Him.
And for that, I am so thankful.