The Role of Faith in Eating Disorder Recovery

Posted by on Oct 9, 2015

I’m in a weird place right now, experientially. I’m feeling — a lot. It must be a good thing, because all these feelings of late are born out of my doing fairly well across-the-board: eating regularly, following nearly all of my meal plan, spending fewer days in a refuge of inebriation.

That’s great — of course it is. And it’s not as though feeling emotions is new for me. Emotions came back over a year ago, resuscitated along with the rest of my starved being. I suppose the difference now is that I understand them more. I know what they are and, more and more, why they are triggered. I can even anticipate some now and prepare myself accordingly.


From my alternate Instagram account, @rendering_crazy

And — surprise, surprise — what all these emotions have been suggesting to me is that this world I’ve been avoiding for the last 13 years is profoundly fucked up.

I learned that on an intellectual level years ago. But now I FEEL it. Now I hear of tragedies or witness friends suffering and my heart breaks in unison. For goodness sake, I had to turn off an episode of “Planet Earth” earlier this week because I nearly had a meltdown watching a polar bear get mauled by a walrus. (Seriously.)

In retrospect, moments like that are kind of hilarious. But in the moment, not so much. It seems like I live on the edge of tearfulness these days; the gentlest breeze can push me over.

The role of faith in recovery

That’s what got me thinking about faith. For weeks now, I’ve been having the “but when?” conversation with my therapist. I’m eating, I’m taking my medications, I’m talking about my feelings — so when does all this work come to fruition? Have I been struggling all this time just for this laborious, lachrymose lifestyle that I’ve settled into?

No, she has assured me over and over again. You’re not there yet. There is still more work to do. This will get easier. Things do get better.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to settle for having faith in her promises. There is literally nothing I can do to expedite this traipse forward. Moreover, constantly questioning it (which reiterates to myself that I’m not there yet) sinks me into a crippling frustration. And that frustration almost always begets hopelessness.

I’m realizing that faith —faith in the better, more emotionally stable life that we constantly hear about from our therapists and recovered friends — is not just a helpful tool in the recovery process — it’s a must. Mind you, it’s not necessarily a religious faith that’s required (although that does have a role, and I’ll come back to that in a moment). Rather, it’s the act of trusting or having confidence in something, whether or not you have evidence of its existence. One must trust her treatment team, and have confidence that she will reach recovery one day (probably without even realizing it).

The key in that definition, I think, is the word “act.” An abstract or intellectual understanding of the belief isn’t enough to constitute faith. It won’t do much to passively believe that recovery exists for some people and maybe even for me. One must act on that belief.

What does this mean for eating disorder recovery? This means taking the path that bends toward recovery rather than relapse. It means eating the meal plan even when (especially when) you don’t want to. It means attending support groups, being open with your team, taking medication (if that is part of your treatment). It requires you to act as if you are moving your way into the very thing you’ve been promised exists.

But that doesn’t actually do anything for me, you might protest. “Acting as if” is just the cognitive behaviorists’ version of “pretending.”

Yes — but therein lies the challenge of faith. You have to do it even when it seems pointless or ineffective, and you are blind to whatever it is that awaits you down the road.

Religious faith

This isn’t a new idea, of course. Many recovery programs reference some faith or another. Alcoholics Anonymous (and most 12-step programs) encourage faith in a “higher power,” whether or not this “God” as it is traditionally understood. Monte Nido embraces the idea of a “soul self,” that is, the you-as-you-really-are, the unique being that animates your physical person.

Even at Renfrew, though faith and spiritual were not explicitly taught, we had an optional “spirituality track” in residential, which allowed us to discuss faith-related topics openly and consider the role they play in our recoveries.

faithHigher powers and soul selves are all members of the faith family, because neither are things that you can point to or prove. Their existence — along with the idea that we are intended for more than dying of a mental illness — is taken on faith.

I mentioned that this doesn’t have to be religious faith. I can attest to that, because I’m not a religious person (not anymore, at least), yet I have faith nonetheless.

Mind you, I’m not “against” religious faith whatsoever. In fact, I’m currently in graduate school to study how faith and spirituality can facilitate personal meaning-making amidst (and out of) suffering. I’ve seen that religious faith can be a very helpful resource in the midst of recovery. Many of my friends in treatment found solace, as well as meaning and purpose, in their religious traditions.

My Jewish friends in treatment, for instance, didn’t let hospitalization stop them from celebrating Shabbas. On Friday evenings they would dress nicely for dinner and then gather around an electric menorah to pray. Prayer connected them to one another and grounded them in something other than their illnesses. They fought through their urges to self-destruct because they understood that the bodies their God had given them were sacred. They believed that each of us is divinely imbued with purpose, and thus they vowed to embrace these God-given gifts instead of their talent for starving themselves.

That said, religious faith can also be problematic. I’ve met more than one person in treatment whose religiosity exacerbated and even caused the hypercritical, moralistic Superego that fueled their eating disorders. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. Too much of a good thing can be just as harmful as too little.

It pays off?

I assume that a person further down the road than I would end this musing on a guarantee. She might assure us that recovery does exist, a happy life is possible, and that faith really, truly does pay off in the end. I imagine she would promise that, after a long time and much effort, faith gifts us with the thing that is most hoped for — recovery.

I’m not the person who can write that paragraph, though. I’m still here in the middle ground, where every day is taken on faith. At the very least, for all of you who have taken the leap and are now in those terrifying moments of free-fall, I hope you know you aren’t alone.

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