“Separation and loss,” I said.
Then someone else asked why these things are so pervasive and tricky to heal.
“The same thing,” I said. “Because our usual ways of treating food compulsions actually compounds the feeling of separation and loss.”
Eating disorders are typically seen as a problem of one person. So the focus is on fixing or healing the person with the problem with therapy, counseling, and more.
But I think eating disorders are primarily a relational and cultural issue. They serve as a mirror, revealing an emotion phobic, emotion shaming, human shaming culture that fears, subverts, stunts, and aborts the natural grieving process in the face of pain and loss.
Sadly, this is true not only in our general culture, but also in much of the spiritual and self help culture, in our popular myths and stories about identity, wellness, health, psychology, and self improvement.
It is seen in the Western pursuit of happiness, success, personal achievement and abundance and our fear and avoidance of sadness, pain, grief, and loss: our search for perpetual summer, and our eradication of winter, and fall.
We are so afraid to descend, to touch the soil of our sadness. We are afraid of our pain, our cravings, longings, neediness, compulsions, and obsessions. We are so afraid of what they say about us. We are so afraid of what others think of us because of what we feel and experience.
And so we go to war.
We hide, and we cover over, and we pursue good feelings, good experiences, good thoughts. There is no acceptance of “the other,” these holes, our grief, in either ourselves or in others.
We separate life into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” and work to eradicate that which we do not want. That which we can not accept, or invite, or love. This includes things like sugar addiction, and more poignantly, the pain that feeds them.
There is no room for this pain to exist. There is only separation.
The battle ground – and the casualty – of this war is our own hearts, our own soul.
Spiritual separation may be the most excruciating separation of all, because it feeds soul shame: a feeling that who we are – with our human vulnerability and pain and loss and confusion – can not and should not exist. That this earthy ground can not hold our clay feet and hands.
Sugar addiction, binge eating, and body obsession are an expression of our grief and pain, and ultimately of our human vulnerability: of those places where we experienced separation, where we lost pieces of ourself, of our souls. And as such, because they point to and are windows to our tender vulnerability, they have their own beauty, their own mystery and, yes, their own wisdom.
Because of this, they need and ask for our respect, for our deep listening. They demand it with their escalation, with their continued pursuit.
They are not to be pitied, and neither are the people who have them, for they are fierce and noble teachers and have their place in the cosmos, too.
Rather than cutting out the voice of the eating disorder, shaming it, or calling it “not me,” rather than demanding that those who suffer fight against this piece of themselves, the eating disorder longs to be enveloped, invited and integrated. To not be cast out as, “Other.”
It yearns for strength: for a circle of companions to bear witness to its story and to its grief.
It needs to be attended to, born witness to, to be held in love, and to be heard. Its pain needs to be poured out, so it no longer pours out into bingeing, purging, control, fasting, sugar bingeing, starving, and body hatred, but is reborn into beauty, healing, compassion, and a deeper, wider, greater wholeness: a wholeness that includes our pain and our humanity rather than excludes it.
The path to healing – what unwinds the food trance, what heals the compulsion to binge, to control your body, weight or diet, to obsess after sugar, or to compulsively pursue a perfect body – is not to know better or do better or to think better; to be more evolved or more spiritual or more transcendant, but to be – to become, to become fully human, to feel: to face the original loss, to feel the holes, to feel the original pain, and grieve.
In this grief, in our descent, we rise. For in the grieving process there is often a reorganization of our sense of self, a shift in the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, and the emergence of a vaster perspective that brings relief and healing to the soul. We reclaim what was lost, we rediscover our lost souls, and the food compulsion is reborn.
No longer separate, and no longer a cause for separation, it is held and healed in relationship, in love.
photo credit: Edgar Degas (French, 1834 – 1917 ), Horses in a Meadow, 1871, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Fund, National Gallery of Art