What’s My Spinach? (Eating Disorder Recovery)

In the day when I cried thou answeredst me, and strengthenedst me with strength in my soul. Psalm 138:3

When I was a little girl, I remember buying into the Popeye-eating-his-spinach-and-becoming powerful–thing hook, line and sinker. I believed in it so strongly, that, after eating my spinach, I would then run around my family’s farm, waiting for that epic strength to suddenly kick in and I guess, launch me into the stratosphere.

Yeah, I’m still waiting on that one.

I started thinking about this incident in relation to my eating disorder development and recovery. And I started seeing idolatry in how I saw spinach.

Now wait, I haven’t lost my mind. Please give me a minute here.

I equated spinach with something more than what it was. Most of us, as kids, go through a stage in which we hate it. Some of us, perhaps, never grow out of that stage. But, most of us are told to eat it because it’s “good for us.”

So, it’s not the spinach itself, but what it represents.

And as the spinach went, so went other things in my life.

Enter the idolatry thing. When I was a child, watching the Popeye cartoon, I was convinced of the spinach’s effects, believing outside things could strengthen me and make me somehow better. And indeed, a definition for the word, idolatry cites anything from which we derive strength and energy or anything to which we willingly give our strength. Yep, ding, ding, ding! That sounds about right. When I was a kid, zooming around the farm after my bowl of spinach, I had no clue I was buying into a spiritual lie. I was just fully expecting to activate into my own version of a super hero Popeye, taking complete charge of my life; I would never being weak and imperfect again.

But the problem was, I was setting myself up for the disappointment of the “overpromise and under-delivery” of my chosen idol.

And I kept going with the same idol throughout my life. Only, the “spinach” changed.

As a young girl, I next bought into the beauty idol. In the context of fairytale princesses, magazines and television, I didn’t stand a chance. Beauty was a force; it was aesthetic spinach. If, therefore, I could only obtain, possess and sustain it in my life, I would be strong, happy and perfect. Beauty would magically propel me through life at 1,000 miles an hour. I’d be set.

My beauty spinach drove me to such extremes as the pursuit of impossible thinness and perfection. Enter: eating disorder havoc and yes, eating disorder idolatry. What started as another innocent diet, turned into a sinister thought process of “keep going and get to that lower weight.” That turned into anorexia, with food restriction, exercise obsession and punishing rituals. Unless I met a certain standard of specific daily calories, sit ups and hours on an exercise bike, I was worthless and weak. If, however, I achieved that quota, I was Popeye, strong and invincible.

My bulimic phase, however, threatened that position. As physical, spiritual and emotional hunger overtook me, I soon spiraled into a monster which had none of the anorexic self-control I prized. Now, it was about doing damage control, which meant an endless cycle of bingeing, exercising six hours a day, using diuretics and laxatives. And then, what followed was the shameful secrecy and desperate self-protection — even though I got “caught” on my behavior numerous times. I stole my roommates’ food and ate out of dumpsters. Was this my new spinach? Was this new idol making things all better? Was I safe? No. Was I healthy? No. Was I in control? No. But was I chasing that unrealistic spinach effect, oh yes!

And now, years later, in my recovery, I see how that unattainable spinach kept changing; it was a moving target. No matter how much I focused on it, I still couldn’t get it. Addictions, obsessions and compulsions work like that, don’t they? Food, alcohol, drugs, shopping and gambling are just a few examples of that strong spinach, promising, that if we consume them, we’ll find our answer, ourselves and our peace. However, we never do.

We run and run and run, chasing after this thing or that thing, panting, exhausted as these promised solutions only dissolve into mirages. We reach our hands out to them, but only retrieve emptiness. Or, if we think we’ve found a permanent answer, we discover, eventually, it is not sustainable. It cannot continue to promise the answer indefinitely. Everything has its expiration date. And sooner or later, we experience that reality, feeling confused and betrayed. We’re never left feeling better though, are we? Idolatry failed us. We are shocked and saddened to accept that news because of the hope we invested in it.

And that’s largely because idolatry isn’t the answer; no substitute ever works. God is who and what we need, not anything else.

    My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.Psalm 73:26

Maybe you never bought into the Popeye/spinach connection of strength. What is your chosen spinach, your answer? Is it things like substances, money, power, image, material possessions or approval? Or is it something else, something so personal and meaningful to you, but not on a given list? Do you know what your hearts longs for? It is a heart issue:

    Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23

Don’t despair about the current state of your life. It’s not hopeless, even if you’re struggling. Take your heart to God. He’s the answer you’re looking for.

    The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise him. Psalm 28:7

Nothing and no one else can take that place. Accept no substitutes. Assess your idols. Where have they brought you? Whatever state you find yourself in, it’s never too late. Take your heart and life issues, even when you fall in life. And let God be your spinach, Popeye.