By Linda Shanti McCabe, MA, PsyD, Guest Contributor
When I first got into recovery for my eating disorder 19 years ago, I had three guidelines for spiritual practice:
1) Do it every day, at the same time.
2) Do it no matter what you are feeling.
3) Make it about the process not the product.
My spiritual practice changed throughout the years. For a long time it consisted of writing three pages in the morning (Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” from her book The Artist's Way are a daily practice for many recovering people) and meditating every evening. Then it evolved into daily art/collage in my journal and movement as a meditation practice. Just like recovery, my spiritual practice had to evolve with me.
Enter many years into recovery and pregnancy. Enter the practice of morning sickness interferes with morning pages. Exit morning pages and enter saltine crackers in bed prior to arising! This was the beginning of learning how to creatively fit self-care and spiritual practice in with the reality of becoming a mama.
And so I picked affirmation cards at work, made a belly cast of my growing body, and journaled during the day instead of the morning. This was hard. The perfectionist part of me was not OK with breaking rules number 1 and 2. I had to start to learn the art of being in the rhythm of flow, of going with things in their natural rhythm, rather than directing and controlling things the way I wanted them to go, at the same time, predictably, every day.
Pregnancy and motherhood are a constant surrender of control: the size of your body, your hormones, your appetite, and your sleep. After baby, the opportunities to surrender control are limitless! This is the ultimate spiritual practice for someone recovering from an eating disorder.
Going With the Flow
In her famous book Eating in the Light of the Moon, Dr. Anita Johnston has a wonderful metaphor for recovery; she likens it to a log in a river. She writes:
Imagine yourself standing in the rain on the bank of a raging river. Suddenly, the water-swollen bank gives way. You fall in and find yourself being tossed around in the rapids. Your efforts to keep afloat are futile and you are drowning. By chance, along comes a huge log and you grab it and hold on tight. The log keeps your head above water and saves your life. Clinging to the log you are swept downstream and eventually come to a place where the water is calm. There, in the distance, you see the riverbank and attempt to swim to shore. You are unable to do so, however, because you are still clinging to the huge log with one arm as you stroke with the other. How ironic. The very thing that saved your life is now getting in the way of you getting where you want to go.
And so, very slowly and carefully, you let go of the log and practice floating. When you start to sink, you grab back on. Then you let go of the log and practice treading water, and when you get tired, hold on once again. After awhile, you practice swimming around the log once, twice, ten times, a hundred times, until you gain the strength and confidence you need to swim to shore. Only then do you completely let go of the log.
Like the log, your eating disorder is the thing that once saved you that you now have to learn to float and swim without.
I would like to add another possibility here: A NEW log. What if your spiritual practice becomes the thing--the log--to which you cling? And then, as your recovery evolves, a different log?
There are lots of other places we can go with this metaphor as well. We could look at how those moments might be when you are letting go of the old log, and haven’t found a new log. We could look at how it is to be in the water (often associated with emotions) without the log. We could look at what kinds of logs are helpful to cling at what times and what kinds are going to take you down into the rapids and drown you. We could look at how logs that float are symbols that show you it is possible to not be overwhelmed by emotion and drown. Those logs show you can trust and listen to your body and you won’t drown in feelings.
We could look at when to stay in the water and float (surrender control and go with the flow), when to swim (make regular and consistent effort toward a goal, even when it feels difficult), and when to get out of the water!
We could look at what “the shore” represents and if you ever arrive. As spiritual practice is just that--a practice--it is less about arriving somewhere and more about returning to the process, again and again.
Spiritual practice can help you navigate the challenges and tidal emotions of recovery and motherhood without drowning. It is not about which “log” it is, whether it be meditation, journaling, or art making. You might not be a journaler or a meditator. Your recovery may call you to dance as your spiritual practice or pray or read recovery literature. It might be taking three breaths and asking for help. It might be doing yoga practice.
One thing I know for sure: your recovery and becoming a mommy WILL require you to grow and change you resource yourself on a daily, moment-to-moment basis. It is not actually about what practice you use, it is about using these tools so you can come back to, return to, and recover the authentic, joyful you that you always were and are.
This is the practice: coming back to that self, again and again, for as long as it takes.