“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When I was seven, my family and I started going to a big Baptist church in our little town, and I was told I needed to be saved. This was easily remedied: walk down an aisle in front of my Sunday school class, pray a specific prayer, and then you’re in. If I did this, I would go to heaven instead of hell when I died.
Only problem was, I had never thought I wasn’t going to heaven. I had always loved God. All my life. I never started believing in God. I didn’t even really understand the concept of “believing in” God. I didn’t “believe in” my parents. They just were. And so was God. Since I was a toddler, I had loved God, and He loved me. He was close to me. I was special to Him. I never questioned this. This was my reality, this was who I was.
Until I was seven. I had never said any specific prayer, had never “asked God into my heart.” I asked my parents over dinner one night if you would go to hell if you died before you said the prayer. There was a little pond a few streets over from my house, and there was an alligator that lived there. I thought of that alligator then. I thought of being pulled into the lake and never coming out. It seemed to me the most likely way I could die.
I can’t remember their answer, but I do remember that the more we went to that church, the more I realized that I was in the hell crowd because I’d not said the prayer. So, one night I asked my mom to pray it with me, and I did, I fulfilled the requirements, got myself on the heaven list.
And felt—somewhere deep inside—betrayed by God. I had loved Him all my life, but my eternal destiny was decided not by Him, but by a stupid prayer. If I hadn’t said those words that night, He would have sent me to hell.
2. Middle School
In seventh grade, I lost my best friend. She had been ushered into the “popular crowd” and there was no room in her life for me. Nothing about me was cool. My frizzy, uncontrollable hair, my big glasses, my sense of style—I wore baggy clothes, vests, long beaded necklaces, bright colors. Nothing about me matched. Most of my clothes came from thrift stores. I had not yet realized how important clothes were in how people treated you, had no sense of the importance of appearance. I was who I was. But when my best friend—who had been closer than a sister since first grade—stopped returning my calls, started pretending I didn’t exist, when that happened, I needed to find out what happened. And how to fix it.
And that meant fixing me.
3. Live Wire
I’ve always felt like a wire without its casing. I felt everything too much. Happiness was elation. Sadness was deep depression. There wasn’t anything in the middle. I was all extremes. Everything about me was sensitive, and I felt everything with a depth and a suddenness that I only later realized not everyone felt.
4. What You Learned in High School
This is what you are learning: that there are two of you, the person people see and the person you are.
You read your Bible. You memorized every verse for Sunday school. You always had the right answer. Once, you won a new Bible in some church contest. Its binding was stiff, and your Sunday school teacher remarked, in front of the other girls, that knowing you, you’d soon have it worn and creased.
After middle school, you changed your hairstyle. You wore different clothes. You started wearing makeup. You maintained status as teacher’s pet. You played piano at church.
You started watching what you ate. You got rid of all that baby fat.
You felt strong when you were hungry. It meant you were in control. It meant you were making the decisions. It meant you were invincible. You didn’t need anyone, you couldn’t be hurt, you didn’t need anything—you didn’t even need to eat. Desire was the enemy, and you were winning.
You were always alone, even when you were surrounded by friends. The real you—the inside you—was always alone.
In college, I started writing about my eating disorder. The fog of my adolescent depression began to lift, and I found other ways of being in control, of mastering my destiny. I became busy. Every hour of the day was scheduled. I made straight A’s. I was president of the English honors club. I made good friends and fell in love with food again. It felt like waking up.
6. Love Letter
Sometimes, I wish I could talk to myself at age fourteen. I wish I could take that girl by the hand and tell her not to change herself for anyone. I wish I could tell her that by the time she was thirty, she really wouldn’t care about anyone who had been in the popular crowd in high school. I wish I could tell her that her value was inherent, was integral—it was always there, God had always loved her, she had always been what she needed to be, in every moment, just what she needed to be. And it has nothing to do with what words you said and when, what clothes you wore, what you weigh.
If only I could tell her those things.
For years, I have either tried to forget I was ever that person, that sad little girl, or I have taken pride in how I had changed, how I had conquered my eating disorder, how I had gone from starving myself to taking great joy in preparing food. I pitied my former self and was glad I was no longer that person. I learned to harness the sensitivity and make it work for me. I wrote and wrote and wrote and found that vulnerability could be power when it found its way onto the page.
Now, instead of rejecting my old self, I am learning to embrace her. I love that little girl, the one who felt too much, who overanalyzed everything. The sensitive girl who wanted to be loved.
And I am beginning to realize that there is no “if” in the statement “If I could tell her.” Because though I am older now, I am still her, I am still that girl, and though I know a whole lot more about depression now than I did then, and though I’ve learned a lot about true friendship, and though I know a lot more theology than I did then, I am still myself, will always be myself. I carry around my former selves, because none of them are really former, not really.
I don’t know if I can explain the connection here. The thread that connects pudding to learning to love myself. I won’t try too hard, as I run the risk of making this seem silly.
I will say, however, that I love to make myself this pudding (raw, vegan avocado chocolate pudding) by Laura Miller, and to me it feels like a gift, a way of nourishing myself, of giving my body something good. I will never diet again, will never restrict my food the way I did when I was young; though some could see this as a “diet food” because it’s raw and vegan, I don’t see it that way at all. I think of the avocados and the way they’re good for my heart and brain, the way they prevent cancer.
The pudding’s full of vitamins, nutrients, all that good stuff, it’s a little present, a little comforting package that says, hello, you are not just fine the way you are, you are not just acceptable, you are beautiful.