Written by Ulla Mia

I’ve got this lovely tattoo on my left arm—one I got because I wanted it to become my life’s goal. Four words, placed by a cross and adorned with a little heart: “My Heart His Beat.” When I came up with this catchphrase, all I wanted was for my heart to match the heartbeat of Jesus Christ. And yet, I hadn’t fully grasped what that meant.

Growing up, I experienced many harsh, traumatic events that shaped my world through fire and tears. These experiences created open wounds in my heart that I couldn’t hide and damaged my mind in ways not many people could understand. I saw the school counsellor twice a week until graduating high school, but somehow those visits never seemed to touch the core of my struggles. My entire identity was tied to past events: words that were said and harm that was caused. These events were too painful to speak of, but impossible to ever forget.

Whenever I looked in the mirror, all I saw was my stomach and my thighs—so thick to my eyes they made me feel far from beautiful. When I fell asleep at night, I was often haunted by dreams reminding me of my past. When I sat in class, I was a fish out of water. It was as though I was a lost soul, disoriented by the storms all around me, with no place to go. This led me to become quite the actress, building a mask based on memories of who I used to be. The person I wished I still was.

Along that road, I came to depend too much on certain companions. They were my self-proclaimed bad influences; I knew it, and so did they, but I didn’t care anymore. Once you’ve lived in pain long enough, it doesn’t seem to matter how you ease that pain. Before I knew it, I was that girl you see in every bar scene—booze in her hand, cuts she placed along her arm, and tears in her heart.

I also began focusing on my looks. I tried every fad or crash diet I found online and devoted myself to exercise. I did intense workouts for 30 minutes to an hour six days a week, and went on long walks—some lasting four hours. No matter how far the scale went down or how I started to look, I was never good enough. At least, not in my eyes. But thank God He didn’t share my thoughts of myself.

Fast forward a few years. God led my family to move to a new city—against my will might I add! In that city I became part of a church that taught me the meaning of the tattoo I would later get. At first, I worked very hard to hide my struggles. In fact, it took nearly a year for me to begin opening up to one person in my church.

He had no idea what he could do for me, besides hear my words and give me a safe place to speak. So, he reached out to the staff at our church, and one of our pastors worked with me to seek healing. He adopted me as his honorary niece, and I’ve come to call his daughter my sister. She now walks with me through my recovery.

The patience and genuine concern these people showed me was surreal, like the type of people you read about in old tales but never actually meet. I soon took a discipleship course offered by my church where God began to break the mask for my community to see. At first, that terrified me and hurt like illness infecting my heart. I expected judgment for my bleeding wounds and my inability to clot them.

Yet, all that I was given was warmth and love by a group of people who welcomed me, even in this mess.

A lot of time passed, and a co-worker—also a dear friend—recognized in my behaviour and conversations the symptoms of an eating disorder. I felt defeated and ashamed, as if once again I let everyone down. Let myself down and let God down. I began to fall victim to this once again, eating less and less. Throwing up when I was “kindly pushed” to eating more then I felt safe to eat, and panicking if the scale didn’t consistently go down.

I was losing weight, always exhausted, and utterly ashamed. I went to see my medical doctor upon advisement, and was diagnosed with moderate depression and severe anxiety. I always knew this was true, but somehow having it on paper made it feel more real. Something I couldn’t just shrug off and pretend wasn’t there. Surely my friends at church would get fed up now!

Wrong. My community never gave up on me, no matter how much I expected them to. The more they saw me sinking, the more they drew closer. Never-ending prayers and words of encouragement were sent my way like letters straight from Heaven.

When I told one friend about my new diagnosis of depression and anxiety, his words to me were: “You have a whole community and family around you. And we will stand by you through all of this.” Never have I heard anyone say something like that and actually live what they say. But my Bible study community did just that. They offered me the prayers and words of encouragement I needed. Somehow, they all seemed to have more faith in my recovery then I did.

It was their faith that sparked that same faith in my own heart. When depression fell over me like a brooding storm or anxiety pierced my heart, I start to pray almost every time. Even when I’d panic and throw up, this community who consistently and earnestly prayed for me helped me turn to God. I could feel His presence pull me away from places of anxiety, and give me strength to stand up when I fell down. It was like nothing else I have experienced before.

Over time, I gained back some of my lost weight; I am learning how to rely on God and my community in the hard times. Once at a church potluck, I told a friend, “I’m not sure I can eat tonight and I’m scared everyone will notice.” He assured me that the job of a community is to accept me wherever I am in life and to love on me through it.

Somehow his kind smile and encouraging words helped me choose to eat rather than giving in to anxiety. Maybe it was because I could see his genuine concern for me. Whenever I can tell him, “I ate this much food!” his eyes reflect the joy his words convey. He gets more excited than I do! Family celebrates with family.

Truthfully, I’m still on the journey of recovery. I’m still learning about God’s love and grace for us. I’m still learning to accept my body as it is. I’m still learning how to pray amidst moments of strong depression and severe anxiety.

But one thing I do now know is that God has been walking with me through all of this. I’ve never been alone in this fight, and I’m not alone now. Time and again, my church has shown me the meaning of my first ever tattoo. Community is meant to stand together no matter what, expressing the love and grace of God in the good times and especially in the bad times.

This is also something I learned: nothing is wasted in God’s economy because He works all things for the good of those who love Him. This is why we’re here. God’s call is to love our neighbours as ourselves. We were made for relationships, and that means opening our hearts to the people around us. My tattoo says I want my heart to match Jesus’s heartbeat. That means bringing His love and grace to a world that so desperately needs it. As I see it, that is our call as His church.