Having just binged and purged, Kelly Raths remembers “literally pulling my head out of a toilet so I could go do youth group and be this vivacious person that people depended on for their kids.” Kelly, a former youth minister at her Montana Methodist Church, has lived a sacred struggle with food and faith for 12 years.
Kelly recalls months when she would spend Friday night in the local hospital on suicide watch only to force herself back to church on Sunday for her work with the youth group. Church, a place where the Last Supper is celebrated and communities share fellowship over cakes and cookies, can be a devastating place for women who struggle with disordered eating, commonly known as “eating disorders.”
5-10 million Americans struggle with disordered eating, approximately 1 million of them are men.
There are a variety of disordered eating habits. The two most common labels are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
Some characteristics of anorexia nervosa include 85% or less weight than what is expected for one’s age and height, menstrual periods stop in women, sex hormones fall in men, person is terrified of becoming fat and feels fat even when very thin.
Some characteristics of bulima nervosa includes binge eating, purging, and the belief that self-worth depends on thinness.
Twenty-percent of people with eating disorders that go untreated will die.
During church fellowship hour, Kelly recalls a mother who repeatedly proclaimed how jealous she was to see Kelly losing so much weight. “I would dread going to church because I knew I would see her. And the reverse side of it was that if I ever got well, I would have to regain that weight and people would still talk about it but it wouldn’t be to my face anymore.”
Since the age of 16, Kelly has suffered from anorexia and bulimia. Although she began restricting food as a teenager, when she got to college her weight plummeted dangerously low. She became seriously ill and remembers constant brushes with death as she went in and out of doctor’s offices. She says she felt possessed by an evil that she couldn’t overcome. “For me what felt like something very spiritual going on was getting diagnosed and treated with lots of medications.”
In her darkest moments, she cried out to God, “Where are you?” She recalls wondering if God is really there for us unconditionally or if we have to do something in the relationship. And if someone is too sick to do something, would God still show up to help us?
God did show up. Kelly recalls one evening when she used a deadly chemical solution to induce vomiting. She passed out on the bathroom floor and had a vision “of being in these very tumultuous waters and the image of a Christ figure standing at a distance with arms open but knowing that I had a load of wavy, dark waters to float or swim across before we would meet.” She believed she had died but woke up in bed the next morning, not knowing how she got there.
During her recovery process, she would often think back to that image of Christ and reflect upon how near or far she felt from God. “For me it has been a walk of faith of incorporating an absolute love for myself and going back again and again to what I believe is the Creator’s vision for me.” Through the Creator’s healing presence, her own inner strength and a number of friends, family and counselors, she has been graced with the gift of a renewed life.
One of the life-renewing experiences for Kelly took place at Mirasol, a treatment center in Tucson, Arizona that helps women with disordered eating. The counselors and friends she met there, and the opportunity she was given to reconnect with her own body, marked a turning point in her healing process.
Although the healing process is on-going, she takes comfort knowing God is with her. She feels that nobody knows fully what she has endured but God. She has “a sense of a God who comes to [her] and says at the end of the day, “Kelly, well done. You’ve done so well.”
When she thinks about how much God has been with her on this journey of healing, she tearfully sighs and says, “It’s that whole notion of ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil for thou are with me.’ It is that constant feeling that there is no space, there is no place where God is not with me.”
Through her struggle, she feels that she has been given a gift to minister to others. Thus, after working at her church and then the Montana Governor’s Commission, she decided to pursue ministry studies. As she prepares for graduation, she looks forward to entering a vocation that will allow her to help other people who also experience deep hurt and seek healing. She says that her experience has given her the opportunity to humbly connect with other people who may also be suffering to be able to say to them, “I knew God here, too.”