Finding God in disorder

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Allison Dreher became a Christian at the age of 5. It has remained a constant in a life full of upheaval. Through years spent moving from the West Coast to East Coast and in between. Through years of battling a life-threatening eating disorder. Through finding unconditional love with her college cheerleading partner and sweetheart, Jacob. Through the birth of their three children and the death of their three unborn babies. Through leaving her Baptist upbringing and slowly coming to a full understanding of the Catholic faith.

As a little girl, Dreher remembers the colorful, dancing signs on the Las Vegas strip visible from the nearby First Southern Baptist Church. It was there in "Sin City" that Dreher first heard a simple Gospel message and began to believe in Jesus Christ. At 5 years old, she was baptized.

As the daughter of a Baptist minister, Dreher always loved being in church. She loved being with other believers and studying Scripture. She loved teaching others about God.

On pastor retreats with her father in New Mexico, Dreher would go by herself to an outdoor amphitheater and teach behind the stone pulpit. "I would preach to the rocks and talk to them about how much God loved them and what we needed to do to love God back," she said. "I remember having this dream to teach and speak for God. I've always felt that."

In her teenage years, adolescent anxieties came crashing over her. She felt socially awkward and unattractive. She was ostracized by some girls, and when she made the school dance team, ended up ostracizing others. "I was so consumed with my own self that I was not able to see how I was hurting someone else," she said.

After breaking off an unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend late in high school, Dreher felt deeply unhappy and incapable of feeling the peace promised by God. "I didn't like who I was. … (So) I put all of my emotional negativity into my physical appearance," she said. "Very quickly my life spiraled out of control. Anorexia, bulimia - you name it, I tried it."

While attending college at Southeastern Louisiana University, she was able to keep her eating disorder a secret. When she came back from Christmas break weighing 89 pounds, she began to realize her disease was a problem. In March 1997, she asked her parents for help. "I said, 'Daddy, I need you to come get me because I think I'm going to die,' " she said.

Her father sent Dreher to a treatment center and then a half-way house for a total of 70 days. Though she still relapsed for a long time, she was able to maintain control for a little while. She went back to SLU and rejoined the cheerleading squad.

During this time, she began to fall in love with her team partner, Jacob. The one deal-breaker was his Catholicism. "I said, 'I need you to come to my church because Catholics believe some things that aren't true. We need to get you saved," she said. In turn, Dreher visited his parish and met with his priest, convinced she would be able to convert them both. Instead, the priest had answers for everything, though she didn't agree with them.

Although Jacob often doubted his ability to love Dreher through her eating disorder, he found renewed energy after attending Mass. "God would tell him, 'You can't leave, you love her,' " she said. So while still in the midst of her illness, Jacob proposed, and the couple was married in an ecumenical ceremony a few months later.

After getting married, Dreher converted to Catholicism knowing that, "I didn't want to be divided on the thing that was supposed to unite us more than anything else," she said. But the transition wasn't immediate or easy. Dreher went to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults three times before being confirmed.

"They called me the runaway catechumen," she said. "Inevitably every city that we lived in, (the Catholic church) was right next door to a Baptist church."

She felt at ease with many church teachings, like the Eucharist and confession, but felt uncomfortable with others, like the church's reverence for Mary. At the Easter Vigil, "When I stood before the bishop and he asked, 'Do you believe everything that the church teaches?' for the first time I understood the prayer, 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,' " she said.

For the first year of their marriage, Dreher worked as a dance and cheerleading instructor while her husband attended helicopter flight school. Every now and then, he would check in with Dreher's eating disorder. Each time she would lie and say it was under control. Eventually, overwhelmed with guilt, she confided in a friend from work. Dreher said she will be forever grateful to that friend for telling her husband about her relapse.

That night, Jacob confronted Dreher, and she lashed out in anger.

"He picked me up off the ground and said, 'You are the most beautiful and perfect woman I have ever known, and I am proud to call you my wife.' Right then I understood unconditional love for the first time," she said. "I knew instantly that is how God loves us." From that point on, their marriage had a mantra: "I would rather it be hard and honest, than easy and dishonest."

Dreher was a stay-at-home-mom when her first three children - David, Andrew and Sarah - were young. During that time she also taught catechism to children at her parish, where her priest saw her teaching skills and encouraged her to continue her education.

Dreher graduated with a master's in religious education from Loyola University New Orleans just three days before giving birth to Sarah. It was at Loyola where she truly fell in love with the Catholic faith. "That was where I became proud to be Catholic. Before then, I kind of apologized for it," she said.

When her husband became a federal agent with the U. S. Customs and Border Protection, the family moved to Texas. At their parish, St. Joseph Church, Dreher started a women's group. She volunteered with the diocesan catechist certification program. She eventually began teaching religion and science at the parochial school. It was at St. Joseph that a friend encouraged her to read Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae" ("Of Human Life") and St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body.

Initially, she was angered by its message. "What could Pope Paul VI possible know about being married and pregnant and a mother?" she asked herself. "I felt this heaviness of the church's teaching." But the more she read, the more she understood. Dreher felt that God was calling her to have another baby, even if it meant sacrificing teaching for a little longer. "God was asking for the most precious thing - my dream. … I put that dream on the altar knowing that either God was going to take it or give it back to me."

Just a few days later, Dreher found out she was pregnant. But at 17 weeks, they lost Jordan. She lost her next child, Jadon, at 15 weeks but was able to give birth to him at home, and hold him in the palm of her hand. "He looked like he was sleeping," she said. She lost her third child, Gabriel, at 12 weeks.

With Dreher's openness to life and knowledge of natural family planning, her priest asked if she wanted to become a Billings instructor (a method of NFP) and paid for her training. Through her Billings connections, she was contacted by a man who wanted to create a website called CatholicSexuality.com, and he asked Dreher to make the free, instructional videos. The website launched in 2014 and Dreher stayed on to manage it.

Today, the Dreher family lives in Annandale and attends Holy Spirit Church. Dreher homeschools their youngest child and will homeschool all three next year. She feels grateful for everything God has given her and hopes to continue her childhood dream of teaching others about His love, in any capacity He wants.

Find out more:

For more information about natural family planning, go to CatholicSexuality.com., and for info on eating disorders, go to nationaleatingdisorders.org..

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016