By Molly Groo
What is a Spiritual Life?
When trapped in the world of distorted mirror images, charting numbers on the scale, and measuring–constantly measuring–it’s easy for spirituality to wither away along with the body of the eating-disordered individual. Spirituality is a very broad term for the most personal of human experiences. It has as many definitions as there are souls in the world, but certainly, a large part of it can be simply defined as a connection. By nature, eating disorders disconnect us from the people and places around us, the soul, god, the Spirit of the Universe, the energy that flows from each living thing, nature, the power of collective human intellect–whatever you choose to call the underlying force that lends to a sense of order and purpose.
Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and deception. The ongoing running script required to put on a show of health when the mind, soul, and body are starving shatter any chance of connection. How can we develop deep relationships when we are lost in counting calories and lying about trips to the bathroom; when all of our mental faculties are directed at the constant stream of thoughts regarding our image, our weight, or food? There is no room for the vulnerability and openness that is the bedrock of connection with other people.
Some people believe that God is simply the essence of each individual person we meet. When our illnesses build walls between us and the people in our lives, we are in a sense walling off God. A disease centered in self-obsession leads to aching loneliness. The loneliness so many people feel as a result of their eating disorder is a symptom of a stunted spiritual life fueled by the secrets that keep our disease healthy and our bodies and minds sick.
Curing Toxic Shame
Dr. Brené Brown is the famous researcher who studies vulnerability, connection, and the things that block us from attaining them. In a TED Talk she delivered in 2012, she talks about the power of shame in blocking connection by using the metaphor of a petri dish; shame grows in the dark, fed by “secrecy, silence, and judgment.” The cure, says Brown, is empathy. Shame is often intertwined with mental illnesses, addiction, and eating disorders. It is shame that keeps us sick. Empathy is the penicillin, but we are open to receive empathy only when we share our story. That requires honesty and intimacy and vulnerability and a spiritual connection to something or someone in our lives. The act of fighting shame with honesty is also deeply spiritual because it is a part of self-care. And in a society that delivers the message that women are not worthy of human dignity and care–especially those marginalized because of their sexuality, race, economic status, or because they suffer from a mental illness–self-care is a radical form of resistance.
Triage for the Soul
Recovery from eating disorders is a multi-faceted, lifelong process. One aspect of it is developing a spiritual life that allows us to spend less time in our own heads (as they say, it’s a bad neighborhood in there) and more time connecting with our higher selves, the people around us, and whatever we believe to be a source of power and direction in our journey. Our physical and mental health absolutely need to be addressed when we begin to recover from an eating disorder, but it’s about triage at first. We have to put out the fire before we begin to sift through the wreckage and look for structural damage. After the acute crisis is over (this can be sparked by anything that constitutes a “rock bottom” like hospitalization, intervention, or just exhaustion so profound it leads us to surrender), the work of examining and repairing the structural, foundational damage begins. The foundation of human beings can be found in what some call the “soul”. Working on our spirituality or relationship with a higher power and purpose allows us to heal.
The Personal Nature of Connection and Spirituality
The greatest thing about spirituality is that it is intensely personal. For some people, it involves meditation and prayer. My prayer looks like muttering to myself in the shower, yours may look like kneeling at a pew, someone else’s may look like keeping a journal that allows their thoughts to flow freely into the world. The definition of prayer has been so narrowed throughout history to be religious in nature, but I propose that we redefine it to mean an honest communication about our feelings, thoughts, and physical state. A status update of sorts that allows us to examine ourselves and to ask for help from whatever source of power we choose, be it God, a friend, nature, a family member, or even our cat.
Meditation is as broad a concept as prayer. If prayer is asking and talking, meditation is listening. A friend of mine in recovery from addiction meditates by chain smoking cigarettes and pacing in circles. It clears his mind and gives him a moment to listen for insight. I like to listen to YouTube guided meditations before bed and drift off to sleep while imagining myself on a beach or the mountains. Another friend of mine does her make-up, slowly, and deliberately. It clears her head of all thoughts as leaving her to focus on the task at hand and relax into the ritual. For me, spending that much time looking in the mirror is dangerous. That’s the beauty of it, though, a spiritual life looks different for everyone. It means being willing to try new practices like nature walks, religious ceremonies, support groups, yoga, writing, listening to music, having a deep and or honest conversation with someone you trust. When you find the spiritual practice that works for you, you’ll be able to connect and move on from the secrets and shame of your disease into the honesty and vulnerability of self-discovery and eventual recovery. Having a spiritual practice is about making choices that allow us to discover the world beyond the petri dish of our illness.
In another TED Talk, Dr. Brown talks about her personal struggles, her need to control and predict in order to quell the anxiety and shame caused by her own internal monolog. For her, she says, vulnerability was the answer, and connection was the cure. In other words, the development of a spiritual life based on honesty and trust. In the midst of this talk, Dr. Brown talks about the original definition of the word “courage” stemming from the Latin word “cor,” meaning heart. Courage, according to its original definition, is to “tell the story of who you are with your whole heart,” says Brown. Developing a spiritual life may seem scary, dull or even impossible. But a connection rooted in spirituality helps to wash away the shame and secrecy of living with an eating disorder, allowing us to live each day in recovery feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally whole. Recovery based on commitment to a spiritual life and to the entire process of healing begins with the courage it takes to be vulnerable enough to connect; to share the story of who you are with your whole heart.
Author Bio: Molly Groo is a content writer for Willow Place for Women, a women’s recovery center that provides treatment for eating disorders and addiction. As a recovering individual herself, she believes in spreading the message that healing is always possible for anyone suffering from these disorders.