Did God hold me throughout my anorexia?
Hope Virgo, Author and mental health campaigner.
“At the start of June 2019 I found myself sitting on the platform at Highbury and Islington Station. It was a Saturday and I had just arrived back from three days in Berlin with my Dad and older sister. Whilst I had been away I had tried so hard to hold myself together but it hadn’t been easy. It had taken all my energy to put on a brave face. I sat there at the station tears streaming down my face, staring at the floor. I was stuck in my head. A few people stopped to ask if I was okay. A sharp “I’m fine” said with conviction meant they left me. I was good at that! One man didn’t let my sharp word phase him but instead sat next to me and began to tell me about his faith. I listened for some time, people coming and going, and then when he finished I followed him up the escalator and he took one look at me and then I lost him.
Something pulled me back to church the following week. I am not sure what but I longed for something more.
As I sat there in church on that first Sunday back I looked at peoples faces. Analysing them, they had this sense of peace I could only dream of.
I thought for so long anorexia had given that sense of peace and freedom but the reality was it hadn’t.”
I met God when I was just a baby, being born in to a Christian family. Attended church each week, reading my bible studies, doing what I thought I should do. I became involved in the church from the age of 10 determined to make a difference. But things took a turn for the worst when aged 13 and I spent 8 months being sexually abused. I felt lost, alone and so guilty for what had happened. Ashamed and not sure how to even talk about it. These feelings I just so wanted to go. And I had to find away to get rid of them. Instead of turning to God with this pain, I found other ways to cope. My abuser had told me never to tell anyone what had happened and I assumed that by telling God he would punish me for it.
It was then that anorexia came in to my life. A true best friend holding me tight in the evenings, giving me purpose and value. I loved everything it gave me allowing me to numb myself to the world.
Fast forward four years and I was well and truly sucked in to that way of life. Anorexia had become my whole identity and whilst I carried on going to church it tended to be so I can make excuses to miss dinners. And to meet boys! My value wasn’t from God but from those around me. Owning myself, my sexuality and not letting anyone have any control over me (or so I thought!)
Aged 17 and I hit rock bottom, with a failing heart I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent the next year of my life.
That hospital saved my life, and at the same time pushed me further from God. People would come in a pray for me but because I wasn’t healed instantly I assumed that God didn’t really care, that God didn’t understand. I was angry constantly at him begging him to save me from my brain, begging him to hold me tight. But each day I felt nothing.
After a year in hospital I had given up on God. I knew what I needed to do to stay well and knew I didn’t need God in my life for that, but something didn’t ever quite go. That longing for something bigger. I knew that God existed but I didn’t feel like he wanted a relationship with me. And I had absolutely no idea where to even start exploring that.
The reality was that my whole relationship with God and the church had been a confusing mess. It stemmed back to abuse that I faced in church when I was 13 years old. Abuse that left me so broken, and scared. I was constantly angry at the church, angry at God and resenting everyone around me who tried to interfere.
11 years ago; I walked out of a church and vowed never to go back.
Little did I know that 11 years later I would be stood in the entrance to HTB, sweating on a hot summers Sunday evening. Looking in through the door debating what to do. Hiding in the back row of church so no one would talk to me, so I could keep myself separate.
Then Alpha began. And more anticipation. I had no idea what to expect. So instead my guard was up, I spent my first few weeks resorting back to my old teenage self (that version of me where I so often used to get stuck, trapped in my 13 year old self where the abuse set it).
I knew something was stopping me making a commitment to God but I couldn’t work out what. Perhaps giving up control? Trust? The guilt I felt? The fact that I couldn’t let go of my past? I felt God had punished me over the summer, and over parts my life because of what happened as a child, something that was out of my control.
The truth is, I recently gave my life back to Jesus, it took a lot of courage and support from others to do this. But it has been life changing already.
I never thought I would get to 30 years old and I am now just 6 months away. I have come from being so broken to feeling okay again.
When I walked back into church after so long I never thought it would be any different that I would never feel God. I knew he existed and loved others but I never felt he loved me. Now I know he does. Despite all my failings, he is there and he cares.
The past is in the past.
I left that weekend knowing that I don’t know everything and that there is so much to learn. I feel a mixture of fear and excitement about my future with God. But I know now for once in my life I am ready for this. This isn’t just my parents having a relationship with God or someone telling me what to believe or me feeling guilty so I believe. This is the real deal.
But looking back was God there all along?
At the time I hadn’t felt anything. In fact I felt I had been deserted. All those evenings when I had cried out to God, those evenings when my brain tormented me... the three times I had come close to ending my life and something had stopped me. Someone had perfectly intervened so I hadn’t been able to. Maybe that was God.
God was there holding me tightly those evenings when I was in hospital, he was there when my heart nearly stopped, he was crying as he looked on as I worked out in my room, he was staring in the mirror at me trying to reassure me when I didn’t feel able to look at myself in the face... God was there holding my hand as I got on the tube and burst in to tears, there giving me the strength to put one foot in front of the other when I felt like the world was caving in... he was there when I gave my first media interview and when I stood on a stage sharing my story. He was there on Boxing Day in 2016 when I ran across Wandsworth common shouting at myself because my brain was unbearable. He has been there all along... holding me, sharing life and being there through it all.
Looking back he had been there through it all. I can’t sit here and tell you I kept my faith throughout, as I was so far from it for most of life, but what I can tell you is that coming back to it was the best decision ever.
I know it isn’t going to always be plain sailing but I know with God by my side I will always be okay.
I wanted to end with sharing a few things that helped me this time round:
The welcoming nature of the church: I attended HTB and did an Alpha course. Finding a safe space to talk openly but also with no judgement was key to me. And my group offered just that!
No one abandoning me: again essential. At times I have pushed people away but they have stuck by me.
Letting me get angry at God
Not making up answers as to why I wasn’t healed
Helping me find my purpose!
Author of Stand Tall Little Girl and Mental Health Campaigner / Public Speaker
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