By Annie Von Arx
I experienced my first heartbreak when I was 17. I was devastated. I closed in on myself, isolated myself, locked all the pain up inside my heart, and vowed I would never love or trust another person again.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over and over again, it’s this: unresolved pain is illness in incubation.
I was depressed for a very long time and thought often of suicide. Sleep was a welcome relief from the ache; I slept for days on end. Within the year, I had developed severe anorexia. I allowed myself one meal per day and worked out hard each day until my body was racked with pain. I relished physical pain – anything to distract from the chaos in my mind.
Anytime the slightest negative emotion tugged at my heart, I laced up my shoes and ran until my mind was numb. My feet developed sores that festered for months, so I ran with a limp. Negative temperatures, snow, rain, scorching heat – it didn’t matter. I ran mile after mile every single day. I felt like I needed my eating disorder; suppressing emotions through physical abuse was the only way I knew to comfort myself, the only constant in the ups and downs of life. And I was proud of it– I finally felt nothing; I was numb. I believed I was protecting myself, but really I was patching an infection that only continued to spread.
At 20 years old, I moved across the country for school and my stress levels (and the accompanying anorexic behaviors) soared. It wasn’t long before I could look in the mirror and clearly see every detail of my rib cage. My hair began falling out in handfuls. My pulse was weak and irregular, and my blood pressure dangerously low. What little body fat and muscle I still had disappeared completely and my body began cannibalizing internal organs. My heart hurt with sharp stabbing pain at each beat. I couldn’t remember anything or hold a coherent train of thought. And the only way I knew to cope was to starve myself and run… So I did.
After one semester I moved back home and started seeing a therapist every week for a year and a half. I realized that it’s impossible to struggle progressively with anorexia without eventually dying from heart failure and I was destroying my body for a peace of mind I couldn’t find. Recovery was pure hell. I had to relearn how to eat, what to eat, how to stop eating, how to feel, and how to think. I had to encourage and talk myself through each bite and then endure the mental torture of refraining from exercising when swallowing a single mouthful left me feeling like a bloated whale.
But through it all, I never addressed the root issue. I could talk for hours about food with the therapist, but I never once mentioned the sickness in my heart. And as I slowly began to feel again, the old loneliness and pain once more overwhelmed me.
I began spending time with a man almost twice my age who drank too much every time I saw him. I let him abuse and manipulate me. It didn’t matter because at least it was some semblance of a friendship and I knew he wouldn’t reject me. I had abused myself for years; what did it matter if someone else treated me the same? Slowly but surely, I relapsed. I exercised and restricted calories to cope, my weight plummeted, and my hair fell out again. Around the same time, my little brother died unexpectedly. I pushed all thoughts of his death out of my head, quit therapy, and absorbed myself in exercising, school, and work.
One year later, God sent another man into my life who treated me with nothing but patience, love, and respect. He helped me file for a restraining order from my abusive friend, he encouraged me to eat, distracted me from exercising, held me when memories of my brother crept into my mind, and patiently endured my every effort to push him away because I was terrified of men. In spite of his heroic efforts, I still feared it was only a matter of time before he would also reject me. So I rejected him first.
Sometimes it seems like all God does is take, and sometimes the pain of loss leads to distrust in God’s goodness and providence. For 6 years I starved my body of food in an attempt to distract from the wounds in my heart. I didn’t trust anyone (not even God). And when my misery and confusion drove me even to reject the man who most exemplified the tender love of God to me, I was finally forced to recognize the unresolved hurt within that I had guarded so viciously for so long and had prevented me from being able to give and receive love.
God will go to any length to save even the most wretched and miserable soul, and as Venerable Fulton Sheen wrote, “Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.” God’s merciful love is like water that trickles down and always finds the lowest places. No matter how much a soul may distrust Him, shrink from His goodness, and seek fulfillment elsewhere, He is always there ready to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and breathe in the healing and peace that only He can give.
By God’s grace and with plenty of support along the way, I’ve made it over a full year into recovery without relapsing into anorexia. I can eat whatever I want whenever I please without a second thought, and am able to move my body in a way that is not a punishment. Reversing the physical effects of years of deprivation is a continued work in progress, but the newfound healing and deep peace in my heart make life’s challenges so much easier to bear. Trusting God and inviting in His healing can be uncomfortable and unpleasant work, but I found out the hard way that suppressing pain and keeping God at a safe distance only leads to further heartache and deeper wounds.
Life was never meant to be lived without an intimate relationship with the Creator. And any life without Him is a life devoid of meaning or hope, filled with addictions and emptiness. Take it from me– Choose a life with Him.