Back in that other life—before a mortgage, midnight wakings with babies, and shoveling snow on Saturday mornings—my husband and I would often venture from our home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas. We weren’t gamblers but rather lovers of deserts and the high, clear mountain air of Mount Charleston. Along the 15 Freeway we’d snake through the Mojave Desert surrounded on all sides by barren lands and crooked cacti. Once, I looked out my window, right in the middle of the Mojave, and saw a lake.
“Paul,” I asked my husband, “has it rained? I’ve never seen that lake before.” “It’s not a lake,” he answered, “it’s a mirage.” But the lake was there, huge and sparkling in the sunlight before me, and yet, in truth, it was nothing more than a convincing illusion. It wasn’t the first time my eyes had deceived me, and it was not to be the last.
Related to the word mirror, the term mirage comes from the French word se mirer, “be reflected” and the Latin word mirare, which means, “look at.” It is fitting, then, that for most of my life, I’ve looked at myself in mirrors only to see mirages.
For 10 years, I suffered from anorexia. Recent studies have shown that eating disorders are on the rise, especially in China, among women of color, in women over 40, and among children. Not even men are immune. According to USA Today, a study released last week suggests that “many young men suffer from undiagnosed eating disorders and distortions of body image.”
These disorders are both mental and physical illnesses fraught with complexities that researchers have struggled to fully understand. Why do only some women (and men) develop eating disorders when most people are under the same cultural pressures set by the media? What factors influence the length of recovery and the possibility of a full recovery? And what does it mean to be fully recovered? Does it indicate merely absence of harmful behaviors or a healthy self-image completely free of the haunting, critical mindset of those with an eating disorder?
My own eating disorder coincided with the collapse of my parents’ marriage and my mother’s drug rehabilitation treatment when I was 13 years old. A parade of therapists said I was trying to “purge the memories of an abusive mother” or that I was merely trying to control the one area of my life where I had any actual control. But in truth my eating disorder, at least in the beginning, was partly about perfectionism. Maybe if I were perfect, I thought, then my mother would get better. Maybe if I were perfect, then my parents would be happy. Maybe if I were perfect, my whole world wouldn’t go careening off its axis.
The trouble, of course, is that perfection is not attainable. No matter how much I starved myself, how much weight I lost, how gaunt I became, I still saw the mirage of a chubby, dumpy girl with a rotund belly, mammoth thighs, and cheeks that ballooned out like a puffer fish. And I kept waiting to be well, to love food for the life it gave me rather than combat it for the figure it gave me.
Although perfectionism is strongly associated with eating disorders, researchers have discovered the layers beneath it. According to brain researcher Guido Frank, body image-related illnesses are rooted in brain biology, “and those biological origins of eating disorders may occur early in brain development.” The brains of those with eating disorders differ from healthy people in four significant ways. First, they have abnormal responses in the reward center of the brain—the part that releases dopamine when we receive hugs and compliments or eat sugar. People with eating disorders are extra sensitive to rewards, and they can be overwhelmed by what healthy people would consider a normal stimulus. Thus, the process of eating can trigger anxiety.
Second, the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain—which sits right between the eyes and regulates what and how much we eat—is enlarged. The insula, buried deep inside the brain, is also enlarged. The insula connects with parts of the brain that allow us to feel whether we like the food, and perhaps most devastatingly, it regulates how we feel about our bodies. Self-perception, too, gets warped by the brain: A recent study from UCLA revealed that the brains of those with anorexia and those with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) “have similar abnormalities in their brains that affect their ability to process visual information.”
In other words, they cannot see themselves as others see them. For them, mirrors only reflect mirages.
As a Christian, I know that my disordered thinking and disordered brain are part of living in a broken, fallen world. A passage in C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters reminds me of this brokenness. In the story, an older demon mentors a younger demon on how to tempt a young Christian, and when the young demon is unsuccessful (and the Christian departs to heaven) the older demon says to the younger, “How well I know what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you! There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer.”
I know that all things fallen will be restored, and there have been circumstances in which God has completely transformed my character in an instant. But like those who attend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, I walk with a limp. I still see mirages in the mirror. I see what I see in the mirror, but I know it isn’t reality.
In 1 John 3:2–3, the apostle instructs us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” As Christians, we live in this tension of “already, not yet”: Already we are children of God, and yet we’re still living in broken bodies in a broken world.
And so, I keep waiting to be well. Truly well. And I know there will be a day when that healing comes, when my eyes will be “suddenly cleared.” Meanwhile, I no longer starve myself and I have learned to quiet the hypercritical voice inside my head. I’ve learned to celebrate what my body is able to accomplish: My body survived a violent ejection from a rollover car crash. My body has run a marathon and 1,000 miles every year in daily jogs. And my body has gifted the world with two courageous, kind human beings. It is only through my body that I am able to serve God—my hands, my feet, are what he uses to bring the Good News into the world.
And that, for me, is enough to bring me peace.
Halee Gray Scott is the director of the Kaleo Project at Denver Seminary, which is focused on enabling churches to build ministries that reach millennials. The author of Dare Mighty Things, she is currently at work on her second book, which explores how men and women can forge effective partnerships in ministry.