I am Spirit not Skin

For over thirty years, my eating disorder held me chained within its grip. Mirrors were the looking glass that reflected my flaws, my imperfections, my lacking. Scales were the enemy, never revealing the number I thought they should. And food; food became my tormentor, always too much or never enough.

At the age of 19, my life changed in an unimaginable way. In a way that altered me to the very marrow of my being. All it took was a few sentences; a few words strung together and spoken by the one I’d committed my life to. The words struck me in a visceral way; a way that seeped under my skin, beneath my bones, and created within me a roaring doubt. Doubt that tore apart the very fabric of the girl I thought I was; of the girl I thought I would be.

What had started out as an exciting time in my life, newly married, attending college, and starting a new chapter, quickly turned into one of the most destructive periods of my story. Instead of the dream I had thought it to be, my first marriage quickly turned into a nightmare of physical and mental abuse. The physical bruises faded quickly once I found the courage to leave, however, the scars left on my soul would take years to heal.

The girl I had been ceased to exist. In her place was left a broken shell encapsulating the withering, fading essence of who I was. When I left, I took all of it with me, including the eating disorder that would follow me and taint my life for years to come. Years that would far exceed the short eighteen months that would mark my first marriage, from wedding day to annulment. The scars I bore on my soul from that time in my life would heave me headfirst into a life of searching for perfection, for completeness; into a pulsating longing for anything that would fill the silent void that threatened to consume me.

It incited me to a never-ending and illusive pursuit of perfection. It clouded and colored everything in a pale wash of gray; in a deepening and darkening storm of chaos and disillusionment.

Mirrors became the looking glass that reflected my flaws, my imperfections, my lacking. Scales became the enemy, never revealing the number I thought they should. Running became my salvation, the fiery force through which I burned and expended the energy needed to keep me alive. And food; food became my tormentor, always too much or never enough; taunting me and torturing me until I either starved or purged my body of its grip.

For over thirty years, my eating disorder held me chained within its grip. It came with me into my second marriage, projecting itself onto my husband, warping his words and tainting the truth of the love between us. It tormented me through my two pregnancies, preventing me from enjoying the miracle as my body fought against giving up control. It sidelined me from life, as the reflection in the mirror or the number on the scale dictated the course of my days. It incited me to a never-ending and illusive pursuit of perfection, derailing any sense of accomplishment I might feel when a goal was met, a degree earned, or for a job well done. It clouded and colored everything in a pale wash of gray; in a deepening and darkening storm of chaos and disillusionment.

The world around me spoke louder than any inner voice. The images in magazines, in movies, on television, became my ideal. I pushed my body past endurance, starved my soul past salvation, and broke myself against a standard I could never reach. And still I plodded onward; too tired to scale the mountain, but too afraid to stop. I found myself seeking new and more destructive ways to feed my soul. The numbness of alcohol became my reprieve. Attention and praise from others became the barometer against which I measured my worth.

I pushed my body past endurance, starved my soul past salvation, and broke myself against a standard I could never reach.

The numbness would recede into an ever-increasing desire for more; more excitement, more material things; more love, even if it was shallow and faithless. I’d then sink back into numbness, overwhelmed, ashamed, and desolated by the guilt the actions my incessant longing drew me to.

The cycle persisted for decades, slowly weakening my body and destroying my soul. Until the day I couldn’t breathe anymore. The day the darkness closed in, surrounding me in its unrelenting pressure. Until the day I thought death would be better than living within the chasm any longer.

That day was the turning point; the crossroad on which I stood. Rather than standing on that precipice, exhausted, hopeless and defeated, I fell to my knees and surrendered the fight. It could do with me what it would. I was done.

That day was both an ending and a new beginning. With the support of my husband and our daughters, I entered a facility that offered a dual treatment program. I knew getting help for the eating disorder without also addressing the alcoholism would be pointless and more importantly destructive in the long run. I knew, because I had tried it before, and I had failed. I never seemed to be able to extend any sort of recovery past a few months. The demons always won.

I spent four weeks, thirty-two days, in the facility, far from home and everything I knew. There, I journeyed deep into the darkness within me and finally came to understand it. I cried countless tears, fought my deepest fears, and battled with everything I was, all the demons clawing at me, desperately trying to pull me under. It was the toughest battle of my life, but one I knew I had to fight. One I knew I couldn’t win unless I was willing to surrender. For the first time in my life, I gave up control.

The power to withstand, the desire to reach the shore, it didn’t come from me. It wasn’t my strength that pulled me from the abyss. No. The power, the strength, the deliverance came from a source far exceeding anything I could conjure; anything I could ever understand. The power was God’s and God’s alone. And it had been there all along. Waiting. Available. Abiding and faithful.

Once I moved into it, placing my trust and my brokenness within its shelter, the storm receded. The fog lifted. And the peace I had longed for finally enshrouded me. It was as hard and as easy as surrender. Giving up all control; giving up the past, my present and my future. Placing everything into the hands of God, into the safekeeping of His Son, and into the promise of the Holy Spirit, I tasted freedom. A freedom unlike anything I had ever known. A freedom that surpassed anything this world could offer. A freedom that was all encompassing and beautiful. A freedom that promised deliverance forever from the chains and complete redemption for my battered soul. In its warmth I found healing. In its embrace, I found untold strength. In its promise, I found a pathway out of the grip of this world and into the everlasting assurance of the world to come.

I could breathe again, and for the first time in my life, I had a purpose that had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God’s plan for my life. In grateful surrender, I let go, and in letting go I was saved.

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There is a deep, furiously exhausted want in me that wishes to scream itself into our weary and troubled bones, “All that you are is your spirit, not your skin.” ~ Christopher Poindexter

I came across the words penned by poet, Christopher Poindexter, the other day and they inspired this post. They resonated deep inside me. From the time I was 19 until the day I surrendered, over thirty years, I lived locked within my skin, desolate and broken. At 51, I fell to my knees, and in that moment, God unlocked forever, and freed the essence and beauty of my spirit, the one and the only thing that gives me life and breath and worth, and the only thing within me that is worth fighting for, and worth living for.

~ Jennifer Nelson Fenwick © 2018


Author’s Note: The journal entries and poetry I penned during this experience culminated in a book called Four Weeks: A Journey of Discovery. The book captures my struggles and fears, the darkness I encountered, but more than anything, it captures the hope I found and the strength my deepening relationship with God brought me daily. I’m currently working towards publication. Once Four Weeks is released, my goal is to get it into the hands of counselors and treatment facilities that work with people suffering from addictions, going through loss and grief, and those who simply need a daily reminder that hope exists, even in the most difficult of circumstances.