Transformed from Within: One priest’s struggle with compulsive eating
These days, when I light a candle at the base of the makeshift shrine in my sitting room, I feel at peace. I haven’t always felt this way. A year and a half ago, I would have been sitting down in a room of similar size but crowded with food wrappers and neglected dirty laundry. I probably would have been wolfing down a carton of Chinese food and binge-watching endless episodes of a Netflix drama. I was 200 pounds heavier, stressed, depressed, unsure about my future in the priesthood. My body was slowly shutting down, and I was inching closer toward being unable to dress myself. Today my life is a much different story.
I knew that I had a problem long before I was willing to accept help. That moment came in September 2013, when I was called into the bishop’s office for a meeting about my health. Getting called to the bishop’s office as a young priest is hard. I am 29 years old and the youngest priest of my diocese. When I was ordained at 26, I was a motivated and zealous curate, and I was eager to begin ministry and to try to touch the lives of people like me. So when I sat down in the bishop’s office, it was hard to hear that I had a problem, but I also knew that I was at a potential turning point.
For a long time I felt sure I was called to be a priest, but I increasingly felt doubt. Facing my problems head on didn’t help. I grew up poor. My dad left my family when I was 4, leaving my mom to raise me and my sister. We had no child support and subsisted on government assistance and whatever income my mom could manage, often from multiple part-time jobs. My mom sacrificed much bringing us up, including taking on school loans so that I could attend a private boarding school in my hometown of Northfield, Mass., as a day student.
I was well educated and was determined to make millions after graduating from an Ivy league school. Instead, God knocked me off my high horse when I went on a youth group retreat and first felt moved by the Holy Spirit. I knew my life would change dramatically when the first thoughts of joining the priesthood entered my 14-year-old mind.
This singular focus guided me through a significant knee injury and a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in my neck just before graduating from high school. I felt that if God was calling me to be a priest, everything would turn out fine. Slowly I gained my strength back after four months of chemotherapy and radiation and entered college at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
A Constant Fight
While at Steubenville, I formed deep spiritual foundations and many friendships. But it also was the place where my weight ballooned to 388 pounds, which at the time was the heaviest weight of my adult life. I made several attempts to keep my weight under control. I started working out. I tried eating healthier. I could lose about 20 pounds, but then it would come back. I would binge on hot wings at a local college hangout, deciding that I could just start again after an upcoming exam or some other excuse.
During my junior year, my grandmother died, and I had to go home and face the fact that I had no nice clothes to wear. I had to go to the big-and-tall section of a store, which at the time didn’t have much in the way of fashion. The picture of me wearing that 4X Hawaiian shirt still haunts me. I graduated from college in much the same shape—although commencement-gown black is somewhat slimming.
Looking at my graduation photos, I felt embarrassed, but I was excited for the road ahead. I was accepted into seminary and motivated to continue towards the priesthood. My weight was increasingly a visual problem, but I saw my vocation as something different, something otherworldly. Even though I was in a program of formation in college, my weight had never been flagged as what seminary authorities would call a “formation issue.”
About a half a year into seminary, with the aid of friends and faculty, I began the initial work of accepting my part in the struggle with my weight. I began a program with a dietician. I had to do weekly check-ins with my seminary advisor to offer updates on my weight. I drank meal-replacement shakes, sweated to workout DVDs and gave up junk food, soda and alcohol. I lost 70 pounds in about four months. I continued to lose weight and maintained it for two years. It looked like I had things under control.
My last year of seminary brought my first real-world experience of ordained ministry. I drove an hour and a half each weekend during my deaconate year to my assignment in western Massachusetts. I began to eat on the run. I encountered a lot of stress as I tried to balance work with the study in seminary. The weight started to come back. Getting used to being a minister was really all I was thinking about at the time. My prayer life from seminary was still strong, though some of the daily routine at the seminary felt tedious.
When I was ordained a priest, I was assigned to the parish I had served as a deacon. While I was initially very happy and zealous, my relationship with my pastor was not very strong, and the stress started to take its toll. In addition to regular parish duties, I was suddenly responsible for the needs of our Hispanic community, the adult Christian initiation program, a budding youth group and maintaining office hours at our parochial high school. I loved the parish, but I never quite felt at home, even in the rectory. Ironically, that is where I isolated myself. I made efforts to get back to a gym, but a back injury and some personal issues convinced me to give up. The weight continued to pile on. I asked to be moved, but that would not happen for another six months. I was depressed. I was dying.
I prayed for help, I asked for help, but nothing seemed to be materializing. I felt angry with God but also realized that this anger was not doing anyone much good, especially since my job was to help people to love God. I entered counseling to deal with the stress. My established prayer life became nearly nonexistent. My academic strengths could no longer hide the fact that I was profoundly unhappy and needed a dramatic change.
A New Life
I began working at a new parish in April 2013, ministering in an inner-city parish with very little money and lots of need. I poured myself out with my new pastor, who was a good friend to me. Despite being happy to be in a new place, I could not keep my weight under control. I weighed 464 pounds. In September of that year, after seeing that my health was not improving, my bishop asked me to enter the Damascus Program, a compulsive eating treatment program for clergy and male religious at Guest House in Rochester, Minn.
I accepted this request, and when I arrived in Minnesota I hit the ground running. The real game changer for me was finding other people were were going through the same thing. I suddenly was living with other priests and religious who were caught in the midst of addictions. I found a 12-step program. I got a sponsor, made friends, went to lectures in our program, participated in truly valuable counseling and group therapy and started swimming and working out at the gym. I accepted and surrendered to the fact that I had a food addiction.
Although our food was prepared for us, I needed to start to learn what a portion was and what my body really needed. I had to change my entire environment and behaviors and prepare for what my life would be when I returned. I received cognitive behavioral therapy, and I started telling myself that the little things I could do to make changes were better than nothing at all. I began to log all of my food with a popular app from MyFitnessPal.com. I used a wristband fitness tracker. I started seeing dramatic results in the gym.
It wasn’t easy. Stress was increasing back home. I didn’t know where the Lord would take me. I didn’t even know if I would be returning to ministry. I saw others return for their second or third stay at the treatment center. I grew to understand the reality of addiction. I at least had one thing: I knew that I could die if I let this newfound way of life go. I could not accept, after all I had been through, that this would be the way I would go. This motivated me to turn to God more than ever.
My spiritual life, which had largely left me, was steadily coming back. I wanted to pray again. The brothers noticed it in my Masses. There was a new visible energy in my eyes. People remarked that I looked comfortable with myself. I felt as though for the first time in my life I could be truly honest with the Lord about every single issue that lay hidden in my soul.
Another blessing was that I finally felt that I could be open about this with other people experiencing addictions. Twelve-step programs talk about a “spiritual awakening,” and this is what occurred in me. I could be utterly powerless over food and the circumstances of life, but I knew that God and my support network were the power over them. This was not some abstract theological concept. There was a real higher power behind this change.
After five months in Minnesota, I had lost 102 pounds. I returned to my diocese healthier and happier than I had been at any time in my priesthood. I celebrated three years since ordination just after my 29th birthday. My eating habits and workouts have not been perfect since my return, but I have worked through my mistakes and leaned on my support system. God has been good to me. Since returning, I moved into a new parish and established a healthy pattern of rectory life. I started to blog about my journey. Through training weekly and a daily regimen of diet and exercise I have lost 200 pounds. Sharing my personal story has given me the chance to participate in a new ministry within the ministry of the priesthood. I have had the chance to speak with others about God’s power to transform us from within.
I know that God is the power that enables me to live my recovery one day at a time. Over and over again, I tell myself: Just for today I do not need to overeat. I can keep to my new eating habits. I can call upon a support network if stress gets the worst of me. Writing this story is part of my recovery. I am a priest with an addiction, but I am also a priest in recovery and with a great reason for hope.