I’ve been spending time today with a dear friend, talking about how the Lord has been working in our lives and of our shared experience. We’ve been thinking of the treasures that He has been able to bring out of times of darkness. And of our experience of church community as a way of shining light into the depths.
On the surface, her struggles look different to mine. But the dynamics of addiction and enslavement are very similar.
For both of us, the burden of secrecy has been the most difficult part of our journeys. It wasn’t the drugs or the booze or the food – though these were pretty grim. No, what really made life unbearable was the shame. And more importantly, our desperate attempts to cover and conceal it.
One of the many benefits of having an eating disorder, is its transformative power. It’s a brilliant way of externalising how you feel. But despite claims to the contrary, it doesn’t unfurl a leggy supermodel. Reality looks more like an emaciated, etiolated wraith, a walking cadaver. An animal, rather than a person, ripping through the bins for discarded scraps, gorging on butter and raw meat, then vomiting it all up and starting again.
But shame and concealment don’t stop with food. They’re in the empty bottles, stashed in the wardrobe or the car boot. The rows of outfits with the price tags still attached. The maxed-out credit card. The shaking fingers, the sleeping tablets. The frenetic cleaning. The altar of work. The holidays, the schools, the job, the grades. These things act as storm breakers against the tides of criticism and self-contempt. But the shelter they offer is as illusiory as the identity they shore up.
And, despite the rebranding, they’re not new strategies either. These bone-wearying, soul-destroying, life-denying attempts to cover our shame are simply fig leaves by another name. And just as effective. No, just as Adam and Eve learnt – to deal with sin and to deal with our shame takes more than our efforts. It takes sacrifice. Blood. But not mine – no-matter how deep I cut. Another died to clothe them in the garments they didn’t deserve (Gen 3:21).
If shame and secrecy are so destructive and isolating, then it’s not surprising that life and hope involves letting others in. But this is a delicate process and, like restoration, it takes time, love and tenderness. (Also a terrible Curtis Stiger’s song, unless I’m sorely mistaken).
In a recent post, Pedro comments on the link between biblical love and patience in 1 Corinthians 13. Love requires patience, not only towards others, but also with ourselves. One of greatest struggles I have had with recovery was how long it took – and is taking. But planning to ‘get better’ overnight and in my own strength was the kind of thinking that landed me in trouble to begin with. Starting the first day of my new diet with a MacDonalds was setting myself up to fail. More than that, it demonstrated that I was guilty of the same mistake I accused others of making – defining my problems as purely behavioural, neatly filed under the label of ‘food issues’. Instead, restoration involves more than gaining weight or eating a more rounded diet. It means changing the ways in which I think and relate to myself, to others and most significantly, to the Lord. And while the Lord’s view of me changes instantly, my view of Him takes a life-time of the Spirit’s work.
Similarly, as a church, we need to be patient with those who are struggling – and to allow them to get used to the light. Our aim is to draw those who are suffering out, not to be sucked in. And part of this is to listen to what they need, rather than simply to dictate it. (For a great example of this, see M’s recent post).
But to begin with, this may mean entering their world – not just temporarily, but for the long haul. One of the lyrics from ‘Cosmic Love’ by Florence and the Machine reads like this;
‘I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too, So I stayed in the darkness with you’.
There’s a lot to this. But it’s harder than it sounds. Especially in church communities, where we often want to help, to fix. We talk to those who have been suffering for many years from say, insomnia, and, with the best will in the world, we feel that they’re not doing something right. We pour forth a torrent of remedies. ‘Lavender? Have you tried that? Hot milk? A bottle of rum? Works for me..’ We pray and we fast – but all too often, if the answer doesn’t come immediately, or in the way that we hope for, we feel discouraged and dejected. Someone somewhere is not doing something right. We want answers. But whose?
The way to help is not always to jump in, feet first, with a solution. Sometimes there just isn’t a ‘fix.’ Sometimes what is needed is someone to just sit and be with you. To acknowledge that things are not ok. Not to try and make it better, or to dismiss even scary emotions – however destructive or threatening they may feel.
When you are in the pit, what is it that makes the difference between hitting the bottom and looking up? Maybe it’s as simple as this – the presence of someone else there with you.
Are we willing to stay in the darkness with those we would love?
And as we ourselves look to the Light, will we point others, out of the blackness and towards Him?