The Heart of Change

heart-shaped-lock-wallpapers_36025_1680x1050Sometimes I speak to folks in recovery from different issues.    They’ve made incredible progress – but there’s one question they often ask:

“I’ve gotten over X” they say, “but now I have Y! Something else has taken its place! What’s wrong with me?  Will this ever end?”

Swapping one harmful behaviour for another.  The anorexia who becomes bulimic. The bulimic who starts to self-harm. The self-harmer who turns to alcohol.  The alcoholic who starts abusing painkillers. Here’s how one blog reader puts it:

“Eating was relief for my depression, but this led to despair. Purging was relief from my despair, but this lead to anxiety. Cutting became a relief from the anxiety, but this led back to depression.”

It makes a horrible sort of sense, doesn’t it?  We develop certain behaviours because they help us in some way. Take them away and we’ll look for something similar to take their place. Something that does the same job.

As a teenager, when I was being treated for anorexia, I developed OCD. It had been a rough time for the whole family but at last, it seemed like I was turning a corner. I was putting on weight.  I didn’t feel so “fat.” But I did feel …dirty. Contaminated.  Unclean.

Before, I’d poured my feelings into losing weight. Now, they found an new outlet. Where I’d worried about calories, now I worried about germs. I started washing – over and over, sometimes with neat bleach. If I got it wrong I’d have to start over.

And over.

And over again.

My parents were dumbfounded.  “We’ve been through all this and now there’s something else?!”

I felt the same. Why was I so weird?  How could one person struggle with so many things?

Over time, I’ve come to see that struggling in this way doesn’t makes me uniquely weird. In fact, it’s universally human. All of us have deep desires that demand satisfaction – and beating ourselves up for it doesn’t help. What does help is to look at the way we tick and learn from it. Someone who was way ahead of us on this was the Scottish pastor, Thomas Chalmers. He writes:

[No-one] can dispossess the heart of an old affection, but by the expulsive power of a new one.

Chalmers says that we can try to reason with our hearts all we like. We can tell ourselves that our compulsions are ridiculous and try with all our might to stop… but it won’t work. The only thing that gets rid of an old slavery is a vision and love that’s even more compelling. Our addictions are what we see on the surface. But it’s affections (deep desires of the heart) which are the forces underneath. (Read the whole sermon).

This is why we run from one addiction to the next to the next. The issue is not fat or thin or clean or sober, it’s something deeper. Something we’re seeking with our whole heart. If we don’t address this deeper affection, we’re simply fire-fighting: swapping one addiction for another. What we really want to do is swap one affection for another.

When we struggle with a new addiction, we need to look not just at the behaviour, but at the desire which drives it. Say you swap OCD for an exercise addiction and you can’t seem to reverse it by trying harder. Don’t panic: now the deeper work can begin.

Ask yourself: what is underlying both the OCD and the exercise addiction? What do these things give you?

Maybe you answer “control.” That’s a start.  But there are many more questions to ask.  Control – how?  Control of what? Control why? Control since when? And by whose standard? And…

Keep going. Keep digging. Do it with friends. Do it in prayer. But get to what has captured your heart. Why? Because as Jeremiah 2:13 remind us – this is our broken well. It’s the pit we keep digging which delivers only mud.

As we grapple with these issues we’re going beneath our addictions. We’re getting to the affections – and the heart.



14 thoughts on “The Heart of Change

  1. I´m bookmarking all your posts, they are so helpful. You give truth a language. Thank you, Emma!

  2. Dear Emma

    You can’t know how very apt this post is… Today I am trying to get my head around my own recovery journey as I consider a re-admission into an inpatient unit in Bristol.
    I am all at once, gutted, part surrendered and resistant, yet, it is my decision and one I want to make wholeheartedly. – No easy thing given that Anorexia, by its nature, is a very ‘splitting’ illness. It loves to divide and conquer doesn’t it? It seems to rule by getting between aspects of your mind that would normally work well in tandem and forcing them to function and communicate through various mesh filters.
    Weird ramble there. Sorry.

    What I wanted to say was that you are so right about hopping from one addiction to another. Have you heard of the addiction tree? Really useful resource.
    It illustrates what you are writing about perfectly .

    Also, applying Jeremiah’s warning is so appropriate. I am definitely digging my own cistern… I just don’t know why. Worse still, I can’t seem to let go of the bloody spade despite my blistered hands and my broken back. Why? Why?
    Sorry to harp on.
    Thank you for inspiring me to keep considering these questions.


  3. I want to add my thanks too. I have a friend who has struggled with so many of these things- anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, abusing painkillers- and just when it seems she’s making progress in one area, something else takes over. I have really appreciated several of your posts as I try to understand more about my friend’s illness and support her through it.

  4. Firefly – praying for wisdom for you with next steps. Thanks for the link: and for being real about your struggles.

  5. Dear Firefly,
    Me too–“Also, applying Jeremiah’s warning is so appropriate. I am definitely digging my own cistern…”

  6. Hi Valorie

    Sorry you understand it all too well.
    Very hard when you are so aware of your mistakes and can’t seem to stop making them…
    Trust is the issue perhaps… Trust that the other cistern, the one that we don’t need to dig ourselves, will be enough to work, to provide… to rely on…



  7. emma! your books are incredible. they are literally setting me free and giving me a mentality that i can do all things through christ. i believe i was physically healed years ago of anorexia and binge eating but have lived enslaved to needing control. this is what i believe the hunger to be in your book that i struggled with.. i never felt enough and felt the need to be perfect. god is setting me free and using your books to help me. so raw and so real, so life changing. i understand myself and my situations so much better now. there is always hope. thank you

  8. “…Keep going. Keep digging. Do it with friends. Do it in prayer. But get to what has captured your heart. Why? Because as Jeremiah 2:13 remind us – this is our broken well. It’s the pit we keep digging which delivers only mud.”

    So true. Keep going. We are ever being made new.
    Love the Chalmers reference.

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