Twenty years ago, on Easter, I was losing my mind. I was basically dead. The worst picture that exists of me was taken that morning. You would cry if I shared it. I never will, because people with anorexia would use it to justify hurting themselves.
I rose each time we were supposed to in the Catholic Mass, blacking out a little bit each time. I had a real mental breakdown of sorts during the service; some of the ugliest thoughts of my life. And primarily because the calories in Communion freaked me out.
That Monday after Easter was a real come-to-Jesus moment; I had a several-hour medical assessment culminating in a doctor assembling my family together, and informing us that my pulse was 32 and I was probably going to have a heart attack that week.
When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t set out to do that.
My parents gave me the choice whether to go to the hospital or not. God bless them, that helped. They let me go home, they let me cry about it. They let me come to the awful realization on my own that I needed to go. The next morning I went into school early, and told my teachers what was happening. They wouldn’t see me again for awhile. I hoped I could get my work done and be able to graduate on time, but I didn’t know. It was a stressful moment for a straight-A student.
After telling my sad story one more time, I lingered in the door of the room where my math class would soon meet. “Mr. Talbot?” I said. “Yes?” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry I used to come late into class because I was outside smoking.” He smiled with such care. Men with beards can be harder to read, but those eyes communicated an encouragement by example to forgive myself. “I was never really that worried.”
Getting better was a bitch. I was able to graduate. I got better. I got worse. I went on a merry-go-round of recovery. Ultimately, I came out ahead by connecting the dots that my eating disorder was a personal, hellish manifestation of a society that oppresses women and girls. I found a way to fight what happened to me, which prevented me from going back into the darkness. In this way, feminism saved my life.
Over the years I have considered my relationship to God in light of what happened. As I described, I had a private breakdown in the Catholic Church when I was basically a walking corpse and, frankly, I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. As my consciousness grew, I connected the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of women to what happened to me, and the all-male Catholic hierarchy’s outsized role in the sexist systems that go unquestioned in both religious and secular settings.
It’s not acceptable that just a few years ago Pope Benedict said allowing women to be priests is a sin equivalent to pedophilia, particularly when the Catholic hierarchy was exposed to have suppressed the sexual abuse of children and adults by its own priests. As I grew older, I learned that the opposition to abortion and birth control that I heard through CCD classes is about controlling and shaming women’s sexuality. With more time I came to connect the dots that shame about sexuality and gender roles is about controlling people in order to ensure that white men retain the most power in society, period. At age 22, I saw the sex-abuse cover up stories and I snapped. I told my mother, “The Catholic Church is the embodiment of the patriarchy and I’m never going back.”
So I stopped going to church, which was something I barely did in the first place. I began to identify as an atheist. Of all the stigmatized identities I have occupied in my life, few get people as upset as saying “atheist.” How interesting that we are socially comfortable with people saying there is a God, or there are Gods, or there might be a God, but not saying, there is no God!
Recently, I have started attending an Episcopal Church on occasion. It gives me a certain level of ritual that I appreciate as someone raised in the Catholic Church, and I enjoy the community and find the frankness of explanation in the written materials refreshing. At this point, I am not going up for Communion, but I take the opportunity as it proceeds to get on my knees and pray. I pray for equality. I pray for girls who are struggling. I pray for Black women getting the recognition they deserve. I pray for people who have abortions to know that they are doing nothing wrong, and with gratitude for the safety of the compassionate people who serve them. I pray that the people who oppose women’s equality may gracefully find a way to join the community of people who respect women and our ability to make decisions about our own lives. I pray that I will find the grace to welcome people into my community working toward equality and justice — even people who have espoused views that harm women and girls — and lead by example to encourage welcoming in others.
Religion did not pull me out of the worst crises of my life; I pulled myself out, with love support from people who supported my agency and dignity as a human being. Here I am, twenty years later, improbably alive. Improbably, too, I am going to church. I brought my daughter this Easter Sunday, twenty years later. I am finding grace in song and stories, reclaiming prayer within my own life, and maybe even finding God. I am open to the journey.