Sister Marie Thérèse: 'Anorexia has been a friend'

She devoted her life to God, but Sister Marie Thérèse couldn't let go of her lifelong eating disorder – until she faced up to a childhood scarred by abuse

Interview,Peter Stanford
Sunday 27 January 2008 01:00

Anorexia has been a part of my life for more than 50 of my 61 years. It has been a friend really. Having it is like being with somebody who takes away your feelings. Anything you can't cope with, you put into anorexia. Once you confront it, as I have in recent years, you are left alone.

I grew up in Luton, one of four children. My parents, who married in 1939, were not well matched. Nowadays their marriage would have ended quickly but they were good Irish Catholics and marriage was for better or worse. When I was small my maternal grandfather came to live with us. Mother would never see him as anything other than a perfect gentleman. When my two sisters were born, I was handed over more and more into his care. I came to be called "grandad's little girl". As far back as I can remember, he would take my upstairs, undress me and sexually abuse me. He died when I was nine.

I could always talk to God when I couldn't talk to anyone else. He was the only person who knew everything and still loved me.

I didn't think of being a nun until I went to a Catholic school at the age of 10 and met some sisters. I knew I wanted to be an enclosed nun, giving myself totally in prayer, living in a convent, as I do now, at a Carmelite monastery in London. I remember talking about such a life with my mother and she said, "They wouldn't have you." I thought, "Of course they won't have me because I've been abused. I'm not good enough."

So I decided to be a nun in an active order, giving my life to God as a nurse or a teacher. I joined one order at 17 but left at 19. By that time I was very anorexic. I can't remember a time as a child when I ate normally, but my mother said I did until I was nine. I didn't eat as I felt like the biggest sinner in the world. I wanted to die more than anything else; I thought I'd go to God and he understood.

I was very ill by the time I left the first order. I ended up in a mental hospital. I remember a doctor asking me what I wanted to do and I said, "I would have liked to have been a nun but I've taken two overdoses now, so that's impossible. Nuns don't do that sort of thing." And he said, "I don't see why not."

So I discharged myself and tried again, in my mid-twenties. I entered another active order and spent four years with them, but I couldn't make final vows. It wasn't where God wanted me to be. So I thought I'd come to Carmel for a week and show God it just was not possible. But God showed me it was possible, so I became a Carmelite at 30. It wasn't the end of anorexia, though.

After I'd discharged myself, I'd decided to live with whatever was wrong with me. I still didn't think of it as anorexia. Everything I read about anorexia seemed to say to me that people who had it wanted to have a figure or be thin. And I didn't want either.

Entering a contemplative order where fasting is part of the way of life was, with hindsight, a bad idea. There was an expectation in Carmel that you will eat everything put in front of you. You had no choice. One thing about anorexia is that you have to be in control of something – and that is your food. I couldn't do that in Carmel.

I coped – not very well – by vomiting and using laxatives. There were a lot of questions and a lot of trouble about why I wasn't eating everything given to me. They tried to be kind but food was a daily nightmare. I cried a lot of the time, but I don't think those around me really knew what was wrong. It made me feel I wasn't a proper Carmelite. In an enclosed monastery you are left totally with yourself. You have long hours of silence. Any psychological problem is magnified. Prayer gives you so much self-knowledge and there is no escape.

It was five years ago, when I finally went to an anorexia clinic, that I finally made the connection between the abuse and my anorexia. I met some other girls who had been abused and lived with the fear of normal body weight. In the clinic, they insisted on calling me Sheila – my baptismal name – rather than Marie Thérèse, which is my religious name. I didn't want to be Sheila because I hated her, but I had to. It's only now that I am beginning to realise that Sheila is living her vocation and has become Sister Marie Thérèse. They are the same person.

I struggled to admit to myself that I had anything to forgive my grandfather for. I didn't want to go back to those memories. Then my sister brought me some photographs of myself as a young girl, and I got angry with my grandad for what he had done to that little girl. It took me time to work through that, but the love I'd had for him is still there somewhere. I think he must have been very sick.

Now, I can eat things that are put before me, but anorexia has damaged me so much physically that I have to be careful what I eat. The biggest change is that I don't think about anorexia any more. I have something to eat and that's it. I get on with other things. I now look back on my life and see so much value in it. It has made me who I am and it has formed my relationship with God, which has been such a precious part of my journey to recovery.

'The Silent Struggle' by Sister Marie Thérèse of the Cross (Redemptorist Publications, £12.95) is out now

Saints and slimmers

The link between women's sinfulness and food is made at the very start of the Bible, when Eve's desire for the apple brings about the destruction of paradise. It reached a high point with medieval Christianity, when women literally fasted themselves to death in what subsequent scholars have labelled "holy anorexia". The best-known case is that of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, pictured). A mystic who saw visions of God, she would only eat bread and raw herbs and drink water – she starved to death at 33, the age when Jesus was crucified. She is sometimes called the first anorexic, but Saint Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) has an earlier claim. She worked ceaselessly among the needy of her home city and wrote: "I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor."

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