The role of religion/spirituality in healing

12th May 2008

The role of religion/spirituality in healing

The recent death of Polly Ann Williams struck a chord with a lot of people. Even now, months after her suicide, she remains among the top ten search words leading people here to this site and my eulogy to her remains one of the most visited entries since I began the site last January.

Polly, of course, was one of four women featured in Lauren Greenfield’s Emmy-nominated documentary Thin, which follows the womens’ experiences at the Renfrew Center, a residential facility for the treatment of eating disorders. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the film, although I do have the book it is based on, but many people who have seen the documentary have shared here that they really empathized with Polly and felt a connection, even through television. Polly’s life – and even her death – has left a lasting imprint upon many people.

Polly’s sister commented on my eulogy post here, suggesting that though Polly suffered incredibly in the past year of her life, her family is comforted by her show of faith. One of Polly’s sisters, Staley, has continued to update readers of Polly’s old blog. In her post today, Staley shares some Bible verses the Williams’ family has found especially comforting. She writes:

Although our hearts miss her, we find ways to rejoice. She still touches so many people today. For that, we can rejoice. Polly is no longer in pain–for that, we can rejoice. Polly is finally free of the torcher of the ed. and the saddness, for that, we rejoice. Polly shared her life w/ us for 33 year, for that, we rejoice.

Faith can be a potent and powerful force, one with regenerative healing powers for both mind and body. And when I speak of faith, I don’t mean to always imply a god figure, although many do find comfort in God or Allah or Vishnu or Shiva. Faith can take many forms and while some may find solace in religion, others may choose to vest their faith in something more tangible. Personally, I credit Buddhism as one of the strongest forces leading me to recovery from my own eating disorder. Buddhism’s emphasis on self-analysis and introspect, combined with its insistence on the cultivation of the mind and body to be an instrument of goodwill encouraged me to examine what it is I truly believed in, to discover the inner me, and to treat my body as kindly and compassionately and I seek to treat others. I’m not Hindu, but I also found the Bhagavad Gita to be one of the most inspiring and beautiful things I’ve ever read, and I’m also fond of Khalil Gibran, whose writings I also classify as spiritual in nature. I hope Polly’s own faith provided some semblance of reassurance to her as she made her final decisions.

Polly’s family has made available commemorative bracelets in honor of Polly through the Gail R. Schoenbach Foundation for the Recovery and Elimination of Eating Disorders (F.R.E.E.D.) at a cost of $5. The non-profit organization provides financial support for individuals to seek out eating disorder treatment. To order or make a donation, visit here.

Has Polly’s life and death had an impact on you? Or, has your religious or spiritual faith helped you in eating disorder recovery or body size acceptance? Share your thoughts below.

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This entry was posted on Monday, May 12th, 2008 at 10:32 pm and is filed under Body Image, Eating Disorders, Mental Health, Personal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 23 responses to “The role of religion/spirituality in healing”

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  1. 1 On May 13th, 2008, jane said:

    My interest in religion and spirituality has waxed and waned over my lifetime, but was at its highest when I was starting to recover from disordered eating (and other mental health issues). To me, “spirituality” encompasses a lot that need not be explicitly religious but that is relevant to a lot of people emerging from an eating disorder: Questions about what is important, what we (individually or collectively) are supposed to be doing with our lives, how to make sense of experiences whose sense isn’t obvious. Disordered eating helped me avoid dealing with those questions, or maybe provided a set of answers that was convenient but unsustainable (what’s important is being/becoming thin, etc.), and facing them was a significant step in my recovery. It happens that part of that involved learning more about the religion I was raised in (like many, I was raised in a certain tradition but had never read its texts for myself and really reflected on what I’d been taught), but it also involved independent thought and reflection and “borrowing” ideas from other sources that felt right to me.

    Great topic.

  2. 2 On May 13th, 2008, Jen said:

    Body acceptance for me is less about size or weight than about actual acceptance of what my body needs and wants and how it works. I’m pagan and I place a strong emphasis on pleasure as peace and a part of prayer and ritual. Its’ helped me to know that many goddesses were curvy and fat and that they encourage us to live our lives to the fullest.

  3. 3 On May 13th, 2008, Elizabeth said:

    Reading about Polly, and everything. All I can do is sigh and sigh…

  4. 4 On May 13th, 2008, Tari said:

    Really interesting post! Fascinating connection to make.

    I’ve always been a bit of a spiritual seeker, from the first time I recognized the misogyny of the Baptist faith in which I was raised (around age 8 or 9, I think), and started looking elsewhere for connection to the Divine. I studied just about every major religious tradition, and lots of minor ones…basically trying to find the set of values and beliefs that fit the ones I was developing. (I eventually landed on an eclectic form of paganism that connects activism and spirituality in a way I really love.)

    I think the lessons of questioning the status quo and not buying into what I was being told was The Way Things Were served as good models for rejecting other cultural tenets that told me I was wrong or defective or freakish…and helped me stop trying to fit where I didn’t fit. Instead, I started reshaping my expectations and values, rather than (unsuccessfully) trying to change my essential identity. Worked much better in the long run.

  5. 5 On May 13th, 2008, Maddie said:

    I find spirituality to be very important in my healing, largely because it reminds me that there is more to me than my body. Yes, I am contained within it, and it is vital that my relationship with it become a positive one, but when I feel really spiritually connected, that’s when I can actually feel like these obsessive worries I have about something as small as the social value of my body’s appearance are really completely ephemeral, could be destroyed with a breath.

    Clearly, this hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure that a significant part of that is that I haven’t yet found a way to be in body AND in spirit at the same time, if you know what I mean.

  6. 6 On May 13th, 2008, Alice said:

    I once heard the expression: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” It was uttered by a friend with a sincere kind of cynicism, referring to the fact that desperate straits can be a kind of breeding ground for sudden comings to faith.

    I know that I need hope now, more than ever. I’ve been a dilettante in religion but it never really stuck. I’ve been slowly circling Buddhism for a couple of years now, but I’m afraid to get too close, afraid that I’ll be “bad” at it.

    My eating patterns and weight are one small but significant piece of my larger emotional troubles, but I can still see how faith in a larger truth can help when a person no longer has faith in themselves (the situation I often seem to find myself in) in any kind of difficult place.

    I wish OA would have worked for me. But practically everyone was on a diet at the meetings I went to :( .

    Thanks for sharing this part of yourself here, Rachel.

  7. 7 On May 13th, 2008, Marste said:

    This is such interesting stuff, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately. I go to a Religious Science church, where the basic philosophy is that all the gods are one God, and that we are all a part of God (or Shiva or Allah or The Great Cosmic Muffin, if that’s what you want to call it – the name is pretty irrelevant). RS believes the negative baggage we carry around is really a manifestation of outside crap working through us.

    I’ve been really grateful for the idea that my thoughts/neuroses/disorders are not actually PART of who I am; that when those “you’re-not-good-enough” voices start up, I can take a deep breath and tell myself, “This is not part of who I am. I am already fine and whole, and these voices are the echoes of the outside world.” (Ironically, “being part of God” is not always a comfortable teaching, because it forces me to examine my ownership of victimhood and martyrdom and stuff like that. But I figure that kind of discomfort is probably good. LOL)

  8. 8 On May 13th, 2008, Charlotte said:

    When it comes to the faith thing, I believe that God made me who I am and loves me just the way I am. Being fat is not a sin, it’s just one of the many ways God chose to express his creativity in his creation.

  9. 9 On May 13th, 2008, Rachel said:

    Tari – The more I get to know you, the more I am convinced we are twins separated at birth :) I was also raised Baptist and in my late teen years, grew doubtful of the sexist teachings of my church and explored many different religions, trying to find a good fit. I had given up and was faithless for a number of years before I discovered Buddhism via a history class.

  10. 10 On May 13th, 2008, Tari said:

    It is a little eerie, innit? ;)

  11. 11 On May 13th, 2008, Juliet said:

    I joined OA when I was just shy of 21 and found the “higher power” concept the most challenging part of the process. It certainly wasn’t the *only* issue I had with OA. There was a lot of “all or nothing” happening there. If you ate sugar, you were “bad” in many members eyes. That was an issue for me, because “eating plans” that restrict are just another sort of eating disorder to me.

    At that point, I was finally realizing after years of being an evangelical Christian, followed by several years of being an agnostic, that I was simply an atheist.

    Perhaps it’s not what you had in mind when you asked this question, but since my perspective is probably one that’s more rare, I figured I’d share it. I told my therapist that finding out about IE was similar for me to the day I realized I was an atheist. For years, I was indoctrinated by dieting… just as I had been with the Christian church. I thought I was supposed to believe all the things dieting tells us, just as I struggled because I felt I was supposed to believe in heaven and hell and God and Satan.

    On some level, I was an atheist for years before I knew it, and it’s the same sort of thing with dieting for me… for several years, I knew on some level that it wasn’t right for me, and that it was actually causing me harm.

    I’m sure that this is a hard perspective for believers to understand… and if you believe, that’s your personal choice. I don’t begrudge anyone that right and that freedom.

    But for me, religion was toxic, like dieting. For me, both were environments that caused me more harm than good.

  12. 12 On May 13th, 2008, Marste said:

    Juliet, have you had any problems with depression or anything like that? (Honest question, not trying to bash or convert you.)

    I ask because I had a good friend many years ago who converted (or “deconverted”) to atheism from Orthodox Judaism. She said she felt a kind of freedom as an atheist that her religious experience had never given her, and not just because she didn’t have to keep kosher! She said that it took a tremendous amount of guilt off of the table, emotionally speaking.

    After talking to her, I seriously rolled the idea around in my head for a while (I was reading everything I could about different religions, so I figured I might as well factor non-religion in, too), but I found myself getting more and more depressed. Within a month or so, I was beginning to seriously contemplate suicide because if everything I was going through was pointless, I didn’t see a reason to stick around.

    Ahem. I decided at that point that even if there wasn’t a God, I was personally probably better off believing in something! LOL

    But I’m curious to know if you ever struggled with that, and if so, I’d be interested to hear how you dealt with it.

  13. 13 On May 13th, 2008, Juliet said:

    Marste, I think that’s a fair question… and to answer your question, yes. However, a lot of that depression was before I “deconverted.” I actually spent seven weeks as inpatient in a psychiatric hospital when I was 15, and still very much a believer – though I had admittedly begun to have some doubts about Christianity specifically at that age.

    After I left the church I’d attended most of my childhood, I struggled for some time because I missed that sense of belonging. I had a really screwed up home life, and my church family was the only family I really had. Unfortunately, as I was to learn as a direct result of being hospitalized (and it’s a long story), that family was every bit as dysfunctional and capable of betrayal beyond my comprehension.

    When I first left my church, for years I wondered if it was just that church, and I didn’t pin the blame on God, but just on the people in that church not living what they professed to believe in. At a particularly lonely time when I was 20, I contemplated returning to church, but it didn’t feel right. A year later, I understood why… I simply didn’t believe any of it anymore.

    I couldn’t return, because if I did I’d be the same sort of hypocrite that I’d dealt with in my first church. I didn’t want to go back, only to pretend I agreed with church doctrines when I knew in my heart that I didn’t.

    For me, the belief that we only have this life here, this time here on Earth to live makes every moment so much more valuable. Again, to tie it back to dieting… when I was dieting, I was living in the future, dreaming of a time when I’d be thin and all my problems solved. Religion did the same thing to me, only it was living for the time when I’d be in heaven, and all my burdens lifted.

    I’m a firm believer in the need for each individual to find her own path. My path led me here, and it was freeing because I was no longer living life on anyone else’s terms but my own, which meant for me taking responsibility for my choices and actions…

    So my lack of belief never caused me a moment of depression, but it can be isolating when you live in a country where atheists are often seen as “bad” or “immoral” people and are frequently hated for no valid reason. I guess it’s similar to thin people who hate fat people just because they are fat. I don’t hate them just because they are thin, and I don’t hate believers just because they believe, either.

    Hope that answers your question!

  14. 14 On May 13th, 2008, Rachel said:

    But for me, religion was toxic, like dieting.

    Me too. That’s why I identify today as a Buddhist atheist :) I don’t really consider Buddhism to be a religion, especially since there is no god worship. It’s more a way of life for me.

  15. 15 On May 13th, 2008, Juliet said:

    Rachel ~ my husband (also an atheist) was a religion major and his focus was on Eastern religions (especially Hinduism) and he’d be inclined to agree with you on Buddhism. :) I see value in the beliefs, too. Just not sure it’s a good fit for me personally.

  16. 16 On May 13th, 2008, Marste said:

    Juliet, I appreciate your answer, and it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. :)

  17. 17 On May 13th, 2008, Tari said:

    I don’t really consider Buddhism to be a religion, especially since there is no god worship. It’s more a way of life for me.

    This is exactly why I think it’s important to distinguish between “religion” and “spirituality,” because I think they are entirely separate things. (And I don’t just mean in that “I’m spiritual, but not religious” kind of way.) To me, religion is about having my lifestyle dictated…and spirituality is about living by the dictates of the values I choose.

    Of course, I also believe that knowing something is a psychological construct doesn’t actually make it any less powerful….so ymmv and all that.

  18. 18 On May 13th, 2008, Meowser said:

    If you like the idea of a 12-step program but find OA to be too diet-oriented for you, you might want to check out Eating Disorders Anonymous. It’s still a relatively small program compared to OA, but they say “Balance — not abstinence is our goal,” and eschew rigidity with food plans and so forth. I’ve not been to any of these meetings but their Web site does not focus on weight loss as any sort of marker for recovery, which looks promising.

  19. 19 On May 14th, 2008, Sarah said:

    Thank you, Meowser. I am a member of AA, and the 12 steps are an important part of my life, but the abstinence focus of OA set off alarm bells for me. I, personally, have not been able to safely eliminate food types. I’ll check out EDA.

    Spirituality is a big part of my recovery. For me, the idea that there is something bigger out there — that something made me just as I am, and loves me just as I am — is so critical as I learn to love and accept myself. I also am learning to trust in a higher power. I try to do the “next right thing” and have faith that the outcome, which I can’t control, will be as it is supposed to be.

    Great post as usual Rachel.

  20. 20 On May 14th, 2008, Eating Disorders, Religion and Spirituality « Take Up Your Bed and Walk said:

    [...] 14, 2008 by Marste Well, yesterday I wrote a post inspired by Rachel’s post and the comments to it, but frankly when I was all done with my post, it was just really annoying [...]

  21. 21 On May 15th, 2008, katie said:

    interesting what you said about Buddhism helping you to heal. i’m wondering if you can share how you went about that, any helpful books or practices. i’m trying to attack this problem from all possible angles and am exploring every possible option right now, so i am always hoping to read what has helped other people to recover.

  22. 22 On May 16th, 2008, Lorelei said:

    Thanks for your words. People don’t realize that food addiction is a killing disease. I grew up inside of it and later married an alcoholic. The crazy way of life is very much the same. I’d love to have you visit my blog about second hand addiction

  23. 23 On May 22nd, 2008, Angiegirl said:

    Hello all,
    I am so sad and so sorry to hear of the abuse and rejection you felt at the hands of those who profess to love Jesus Christ. You see
    I found a very private, relationship with him. My eating disorder was about my feelings of total unworthiness, and absolute rejection. I found through the Bible that God actually created me in His image. Psalms 139 says I am fearfully and wonderfully made… then to find that He wanted a personal relationship with me, where he loved me and accepted me just the way I am was truly an overwhelming experience (a first in my life). My relationship isn’t about following rules or getting it all perfect. I agree people get that messed up all the time. It is about my spirit being truly nourished with extravagent love. I truly don’t mean to preach I just feel broken hearted when I hear others have found nothing but pain and judgement. As I read the Bible I don’t see that is what Christ asked us to do for one another. My prayer for each of you is that you may know how truly precious and valuable you are:)

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