Death + Grief, Eating Disorder, Featured, Health

Losing Control, Finding Grace – Lydia’s Story

My earliest memories are of a childhood filled with bike riding, board games and hot summer afternoons spent at the beach. For the first nine years of my life our family lived in Cyprus, an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. My Dad worked in publicity for a mission organisation and my Mum was also active in the organisation and our church, while managing our home life and caring for my two older brothers and me. We were part of a diverse community with many rich friendships that spanned countries of origin and generations. 

When I was nine years old my parents made the hard decision for us to return to Australia so that my eldest brother could begin preparations for university. We moved back to my Dad’s home town of Wynyard in Tasmania. We had all loved life in Cyprus, and here the climate, culture and school-work environments were very different. We were warmly welcomed back but it took me a while to adjust to a place that although technically home was a place I knew very little about. I was however, a bright, engaged child who loved learning and people. It didn’t take too long before I was enjoying school and making friends. 

By grade six I was doing very well academically but was blindsided by the arrival of puberty. For the first time in my life I became aware of my body being different to my friends. As I became womanly in appearance, I wanted to run away and hide. Comparison and self-criticism became part of my life and my self-esteem began to crumble. Nagging doubts about my appearance and sense of worth began to taunt me. I wanted to excel in everything I did, but I equally wanted to avoid standing out or being noticed.

Meanwhile my parents were navigating challenges of their own. Dad used his journalism background to volunteer at the local Christian radio station, and Mum returned to full time teaching at Wynyard High School. Not long after we returned to Tasmania, Dad was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. His condition was serious and although it could be temporarily managed with medication, by the time I was in high school the doctors advised him that he would probably need a heart transplant within 10 years. My Dad had always been a fun loving warm and generous man. He consistently prayed for God’s divine healing but his condition continued to deteriorate.

On Saturday, June 18, 1994 I was in my room after lunch, having just returned from playing netball. My Mum was inside and my Dad was mowing the lawn. Mum recalls hearing the sound of the lawn mower repeatedly hitting the concrete of the pathway. She ran outside to see what was wrong. 

My Dad had experienced a massive cardiac arrest. He had collapsed on the ground and was unable to be revived

The days that followed were filled with an endless stream of people and casseroles. Our family was well loved and so we were well supported in many ways. Over time, family life returned to its former routine of work, school friends and church, but everything felt different.

I missed my Dad deeply. I missed his warmth and his presence and the busyness of our family life. Each member of our family grieved, and did their best to cope, in their own way. As a 13-year-old girl I had so many emotions that I didn’t even know how to put into words. I was confused about how God loving us fitted with my family experiencing such an unexpected and life changing loss. The year after Dad passed away my second brother moved away for University and Mum and I became close friends as we quietly navigated how to do normal life together.

I don’t ever recall saying to myself ‘I want to be thin.’ 

I do know that what I wanted was to be more disciplined and healthy, to feel more in control of my life. What I ate, how much I exercised, how much I studied and achieved; these were all things that I could control. So, I made goals and lists and I took great pride in ticking the boxes on those lists every day. I never stopped eating or skipped meals, but I meticulously managed exactly what and when I ate and ensured that there was a corresponding amount of exercise to keep things balanced. Music was an emotional outlet and I spent a lot of time in music lessons, concert band rehearsals and performances. I studied hard at school and it felt good to be focused on working towards my goals. Years later my saxophone teacher said that although I never talked about my Dad or grief, he could hear it in my playing. 

At the end of grade 10 I received a number of academic achievement awards at school and performed an hour-long musical recital for an invited audience of family and friends. I clearly recall collapsing into a puddle of tears at the end of the recital and being confused about why. I was achieving my goals and I knew my family were so proud of me, yet I wasn’t satisfied or peaceful. That summer it became obvious that I wasn’t doing well and I knew that the people who cared about me were worried. My successful discipline had become obsessive and now I was only 38 kilograms and dangerously thin for my height and build. I had created so many rules for my life, all in an attempt to keep me safe but instead I felt like a prisoner. It was as though there was nothing left on the inside.

I had found a way to not feel sad, but now felt nothing at all – no ups and no downs – I felt like a hollow shell.

It took the combination of a bad haircut, the ongoing prayers of my faithful Mum and some words of truth from my piano teacher, a former anorexic herself, for me to confront the reality that I needed help. It was extremely difficult changing my daily habits but over the next year or so I gained back the weight needed. However, my primary motivation in life was still to stay safe by being a good girl, and not disappointing anyone. The voice of my inner critic was relentless and my thought patterns were still obsessive. If I felt like I overindulged in any way I would punish myself by working harder – whether it was with exercise, eating well or studying more. There was so much more going on below the surface than anyone knew about.

Throughout this whole journey I had a sincere but fractured relationship with God. He had been a part of my life since I was a little girl. I knew He loved me but I rarely felt worthy of that love. God was holy so I only felt acceptable to him when I felt good about myself. This was a rare event. I had started journaling when I was in my early teens but increasingly I found myself unable to journal unless life felt under control. There was this sense that even my personal journal should be perfect and beyond reproach. I remember pleading with God to take away my pattern of failing, while working extremely hard to do better.

I moved to Hobart to study Agricultural Science at university and towards the end of my first year I met and became friends with a guy at church named Andrew. Andrew was relaxed, caring, easy going and seemingly unfazed by the imperfections I felt so deeply. Over time our relationship developed into a romance and the more time I spent with him, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin. I also became more comfortable with allowing myself to relax and feel life again – the sad parts and the joyful parts. Andrew and I could talk about anything, and we did.

As with the rest of my life, I was diligent with quiet times. One evening as I was journaling and reading my Bible I came across this verse;

‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11:28-30

It was not the first time I had read it, but it was the first time that I realised that I had never gone to God and asked him to give me rest. I realised that I believed God was only with me when I was being good, and not when I was struggling. I remember wondering to myself ‘what if this promise is actually true for me?’ I knew that surrendering my burdens to God would involve genuinely letting go of all the things that I held onto so tightly. My rules for living, the things I did to feel safe, my sense of control over the details of my life, could I loosen my grip on all those things? What would happen if I just ate what I wanted to, when I wanted to? What would happen if I didn’t do everything perfectly, all the time? Would I still be ok? Would God still love me? Could I take the risk of trusting that grace is truly unconditional? And that God’s love and presence remain even when life doesn’t feel safe or happy?

I pictured myself turning towards the God who had always been close, rather than running away when I felt guilt or shame.

I was so tired after years of running away to fix myself up and I was so tired of never being good enough. I decided to stop working so hard, and to trust. As I cautiously began to relax the tight grip of control I had over my life I found that new thinking patterns formed and I experienced the beginning of a new freedom I didn’t think was ever going to be possible. Inner peace was something I had only found in God, and it turned out it didn’t rely on me being perfect, or on life being easy.

Twenty years later Andrew and I have been married for 18 years and are bringing up three incredible boys in Burnie, another town on the North West coast of Tasmania. We run a small business, I work in agricultural research and we’re active in our local missional church and community. With life so full of potential and relationships, I’m aware of the tension between doing and being. An important part of my prayer life now is to be aware of the grace-soaked world around me and to allow God’s presence and love to speak to me through the everyday…. the sparkling ocean, family and friends, and weeding my messy garden. It is an ongoing journey learning how to truly rest and from that place, do my little bit to love God and others well.

That’s why we gotta pray every day,

to collapse into the ocean of Mercy,

and learn how to rest there.

Richard Rohr

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