Grace shares her story of learning to love herself as Jesus loves her, through overcoming a self-destructive and futile pursuit of perfection.
We’re all writing the story of our lives. We want to know what its about, what the themes are, where we’re headed. We want to ensure we’ll get there and when we finally do, we want to be able to look back and know it was not all in vain. I always hoped my story would be an uncomplicated narrative, perhaps sandwiched between a “once upon a time” and “a happily ever after.” But life is never that simple.
I grew up in a Christian home. My dad was a church deacon and my mom taught Sunday school. On the outside, we were a model family. My parents were hard-working professionals and my sister and I were “good” children. On the inside, the story was different… isn’t it always?
From a very young age, my parents communicated through actions and words that they had high expectations of us. We learned names like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford before we even learned our own names. Unlike my sister, I had no interest in fulfilling their expectations. I wanted to partake in team sports and try out for the school play – things my parents thought would interfere with my studies. It didn’t help that my sister was setting a very high bar, excelling in everything academic. To encourage me, they planted the fear that I’d never amount to anything and showed me love the only way they knew how: by pouring lots of money into my education—summer school, tutors, enrichment camps, etc.
They sent me to private high school, and after a less than perfect report card, they threatened to take me out. They explained that I was like an investment – money spent on me, so I’d yield a profitable return. Their threats worked because somewhere along the way, I became profitable. However, the more “profitable” I became, the more pressure there was. I became obsessed with the idea of being perfect. It wasn’t okay for me to make mistakes, to fail. There was weakness in failure and I could never be “weak”. No, I had to be successful, motivated, disciplined, and of course, independent. That’s a lot of pressure for a teenager…so much so that I was suddenly always feeling sick to my stomach and having a difficult time keeping my food down.
I decided it was probably best to stop eating altogether. My parents had no idea what was happening. What could be wrong? I was doing so well in school, had lots of friends. The one time my sister expressed something was wrong with me, they confronted me by insisting I was fine. They couldn’t afford for anything to be wrong with me because they had sacrificed a lot for me. So I made myself tough as nails. I became stronger than my emotions, burying my deepest hurts and insecurities so deep that I forgot they ever existed. I was fine.
I didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. Of all the colleges I got into, I chose the one farthest away from home. I set out to prove that I was smart and could be successful. I needed to prove this: that I was just as good and loveable as my sister. And I was determined to do this even if it meant I’d die trying.
I was oblivious to how out of control it was getting. I learned that if you lie to yourself enough you can make yourself believe what you want. I believed that I was fine. I continued doing “all the right things.” I overloaded on classes. I ran miles every morning. I attended church and fellowship. I led a Bible Study and went on missions trips. I was “perfect” on the outside. I had completely shut down emotionally and didn’t seem to care that I had forgotten how to eat. I starved until I nearly fainted, or I ate and had to throw up after. I couldn’t go a day without hours of exercise. I studied as though my life depended on it. It was an escape, a way of drowning everything else out.
The winter break of my junior year was pretty memorable. I’ll never forget the looks on my parents’ faces when they met me at the airport. My mother looked as though she had seen death. My parents wanted to know how much I weighed. I insisted I was fine, but they knew better…especially after they saw the 88.7 lb reading on the scale they demanded I get on. They informed me the next day that if I wanted to return to college in January, I had to weigh at least 100 lbs, and this wasn’t up for discussion.
After a month of what seemed to be house arrest—three family meals a day and no exercise, I was allowed to return to school. As miserable as it was for me, it was even more miserable for my parents. I later learned that my mother checked on me almost every night to make sure I was still breathing. While I resented them at the time, I know now that I probably would’ve died had they not intervened.
I graduated college with 2 majors and 2 minors. I had a job lined up in San Francisco. This was what I had been working for. All my years of thinking, it will be better when I get “there.” Now I was finally “There.” Only…”there” wasn’t anything I had thought it would be: long, empty working hours, jaded feelings, and a lot of uncertainty. What happened to my “happily ever after?” I coped with this by forcing control on whatever aspect of my life I could… including my eating disorder. I exercised between 4-5 hours a day. I ate like a bird; a handful of dried fruit, a couple of crackers here and there. I kept my room spotless – everything had to be in order.
One night, it occurred to me that the way I was living might kill me. I felt so weak and tired. My hair was falling out. My body ached and I was always cold. I was void of any emotions. I realized if I went to bed that night, there was a chance I’d never wake up and I didn’t care. But I did care because if I died, my last words would’ve been, “Lord, if I ask you for help tonight, would you help me?” I did care that I was missing my life – the one I thought I was strong enough to live.
I’m sure God heard my cry. I had been attending City Church San Francisco for awhile, but was without community. It’s sad, but between a full-time job, a crazy exercise routine, and little energy, there wasn’t room for much else. I had heard about this new church called Great Exchange (GrX) that was starting in San Francisco, but had no intention of ever going there. God always gives me exactly what I need, even if it’s the last thing I want. Through a series of “coincidental” events, I ended up at GrX. My first Sunday there, I encountered an authenticity that I never thought was possible. The people weren’t embarrassed or ashamed to share their struggles. They were real about their brokenness and the church even had a recovery ministry.
As I slowly began opening myself up a little to the people at GrX, I started to feel again. Deep feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger that I had harbored for so long against my parents started to surface. Every time I struggled, I found myself blaming them. They became what I thought was the primary roadblock to my recovery. I dealt with it the only way I knew how, by avoiding them and shutting down whenever I was in contact with them.
The Christmas before I turned 25, my family decided to have an intervention with me. I wanted to laugh. I wondered what prompted them to finally say something. Even more, I wondered what they would say. They apologized and wished they could go back and raise me all over again. This time around, they would make sure that I always knew I was good enough. They told me they were and had always been proud of me. They just wanted me to be happy and healthy. They told me they loved me and were sorry for having failed me. I remember not feeling anything. So, I said I was fine. My dad told me that even though I kept saying I was fine, they knew I wasn’t and that I hadn’t been for a long time. I shrugged again and then left.
Even though I got what I needed from my parents…things didn’t really get better. I continued struggling; every day felt like a battle. I desperately wanted to be different but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break free. It just wouldn’t let me go and I couldn’t let it go either. I was about to turn 25 and I knew that if I let this thing go on for another year, it would officially have taken up half my life. I was so sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time. I was so sick of feeling like a slave to the rules I had enforced in my life. I didn’t understand why God wasn’t throwing me a line. I had spent my entire life following the rules, working hard, not complaining, and trying to do all the right things. I wondered where He was. I vaguely communicated some of these thoughts to a pastor. I told him I didn’t understand how to really “find” God even though I had known Him my entire life. He told me it’s not us that find God, but rather God that finds us. This made me feel even worse. If that was the case then how come God wasn’t finding me? Was I not worth caring about? Maybe He just forgot about me.
A week before my 25th birthday, I received a card from a former college small group leader. Embossed on the cover of the card was the question “What is Essential About You?” The inside read: Grace- I made this card a while back for you…and as the years have gone by, I’m thankful for the ways I’ve seen you grapple with this question. Even more of a blessing is the way I have seen God be faithful to your struggle and the small but powerful ways He drops molten gold into your heart and says, “I have always been and will always be here with and for you.” I pray as you learn to love yourself and grow in Him, the reflection of Jesus holding you in His arms would continue to guide you in grasping the meaning of your Name.
In my state of wreckage, I called her to thank her for the card. She asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine and then after a slight pause, I started to cry. For the first time ever, I said I wasn’t fine. I managed to tell her that I didn’t want to be this way anymore but that I didn’t know how to be any other way. I’ll never forget what she said next. She told me I wasn’t supposed to be that way and that Jesus’ heart broke for me because He never intended for me to be stuck believing that I didn’t deserve to be anything more than what I was. She told me that He had always been fighting for me and that it was time for me to fight for myself. Her words hit something in me: I wasn’t supposed to be this way. My life was worth fighting for.
I didn’t know exactly what I going to do from there, but I knew I needed to do something different. So I did the most humiliating thing I had ever done: I got in touch with seven of my closest girlfriends. I explained that while we all learned how to eat a long time ago, I had unlearned the skill and now at age 25, I had to relearn how to eat…and I needed their help because I couldn’t do it on my own. Each girl agreed to take a day of the week. They kept me accountable, supported me, and walked me through each day. My task was merely to focus on one day at a time. It was hard, at times agonizing, especially because I had to accept that I was going to fail many times…and that each time it would hurt. I had my good days and my bad days, but I kept trying anyway. I fought hard and through the daily struggle, I came to see that my life was created for more than I had been allowing for.
The more I stayed in the present, the more I realized that Jesus was there with me…in the present. Hehad been there in the past and He would be there in the future, but at that very moment, He was there and I’d been missing it all along because I was never willing to be in the present. I had lived most of my life working towards the future or trying to repair the past. It wasn’t that Jesus hadn’t found me, but rather that I had been refusing to be in the place where He was finding me.
My friends were there for me every day until I got to the point where I could do it on my own. When I did a few months later, God surprised me with something I never expected. After a lot of resistance on my part & a series of odd events, I got into a relationship. Looking back, he was exactly what I needed at that particular point in time; probably one of the healthiest things I had done for myself. He had this zest for life, one that I had been missing. He was pretty laid back and never took himself or life too seriously. He was really disciplined with exercise but never overdid it…oh, and he enjoyed food & eating, but was also healthy at the same time. While he didn’t end up being the right person for me, I learned a lot from him. I’m thankful that God placed him in my life at exactly the right time to speed up my recovery and make me a better & stronger person than I was at the beginning of the relationship.
Whenever I share about my past, people always want to know how I’m doing now. It’s been a while. I’m not stuck anymore and I’m pretty far from where I used to be, so far that I often forget what it felt like to have been there everyday. My life isn’t perfect and I’m not the perfect person I had wanted to be, but I’m okay with that and pretty happy nonetheless. I don’t take myself all that seriously. I laugh a lot. I live my life a few weeks at a time. I enjoy food and always look forward to sharing meals with people. I still exercise a lot and can overdo it at times, but I also know what is and isn’t healthy. I still hold onto my heart a little too tightly and am not all that in touch with my feelings, but I’m always challenging myself to take risks here and there.
There’s this popular belief out there that people don’t really change, but I know it’s not true because I’m living proof that they do. In fact, my entire family is. It’s been amazing to watch as my parents continue to grow even in their old age. God has been faithful to my struggles, using evil for good. He’s humbled all of us and made us the family we weren’t able to be in the past. And while I would never wish what I went through on anyone, I also wouldn’t trade this part of my story for another. I know it had to be written in order for me to be who God intended. I look at life a lot differently and have come to understand brokenness, compassion, and Grace better. Whether this understanding, in turn, has made me a better person, or a better friend, or a better daughter or sister, I don’t know. All the same, I know I’m somehow better for it.
Grace can be found at Reality San Francisco, located at 2174 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94114. Sunday services at 9am, 11am and 5pm PST.