Monday, May 05, 2014

Dragon-slaying is Overrated: Treatment, Tradition, and Taming the Tarasque

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. –GK Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy”

 Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “Here be dragons.” In the days of yore (what does yore even really mean?) it was included on maps to indicate the outer bounds of what was known; the dangerous and unexplored territories beyond the limits of the cartographer’s knowledge. In a psychological sense, too, dragons may fill this function in fairy tales, myths and legends: something dangerous, something unknown or unknowable, something that must be battled in order to move on to the next stage of whatever quest is underway. One of the clinicians at the treatment center, in fact, has the GK Chesterton quote prominently displayed in her office. Perhaps that is why, over the last several weeks of my own questing—sometimes frantic, sometimes paralyzed, almost always overwhelmed—dragons, and the beating thereof, have been very much on my mind.

I, like most people I know, am most familiar with the story of St. George and the dragon: this is my understanding of how dragon-beating is supposed to go. Not just dragon-beating, in fact, but dragon-slaying—an important distinction to which we’ll return. St. George came upon a distressing tableau as he was riding through the Libyan countryside: A fell beast arching out of the water, teeth bared! On further examination, the beast was ready to devour a princess who was standing on the shore in all her finery, an offering for the good of the village (from a feminine and feminist perspective: SNORE. Again with the damsel in distress thing? Oy). At any rate, St. George charged the beast on his white horse, lanced it through the side, “wounding it grieviously,” and lo, the dragon was killed. Ta-da! No more princess-munching, no more havoc-wreaking. The dragon had been disposed of, once and for all. 

In our own lives, whether struggling with our own dragons or (as helping professionals) attempting to rid others of theirs, we often adopt this Western, militaristic, once-and-for-all approach; and, I would argue, to our detriment. True, there is something inspiring and intoxicating about the idea that our personal dragons—eating disorders, addictions, depression, etc.—could be slain at one fell swoop, over the course of a single (though no doubt draining and arduous) battle. After a month of treatment, we’re on a meal plan and regaining some weight, so the dragon of anorexia must be vanquished! After starting Zoloft and a few therapy sessions, we’re feeling better, so we have smote depression to the ground and it will never rise again. We’ve abstained from alcohol for six weeks, or six months, or six years. We have a sponsor. Surely the dragon of addiction has been pierced to the heart! 

Similarly, the treatment methods that exemplify modern profit-driven medicine, even psychiatry, are often of this type. Treatment for anorexia, for instance, focuses on behavioral methods (are you eating X calories a day? Are you gaining X pounds per week?) and once these goals are met, even if only for a few days, insurance is unlikely to continue to pay—there is no time for the investigation of the trauma, shame, or perfectionism that fed the disorder in the first place. The dragon need not be known; it must simply be killed (as shown by normalized lab values and vital signs). It is assumed that with normal blood potassium and borderline normal blood pressure comes relief from what is actually the most painful part of the illness—the incessant calculation of calories, obsessive body-checking, endless drive to exercise, the profound and heart-rending self-loathing. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Dragons have a way, like their cousin the hydra, of sprouting new heads and resurrecting themselves in new places if we take St. George’s hit-and-run approach. Yet what other option presents itself? If killing the dragon isn’t the way to peace, what is? 

This past week, leafing through one of the approximately six books I’m currently reading (a bad habit, as I now can’t remember which book I found it in) I stumbled upon the legend of St. Martha and the Dragon. My first thought was, “No, not THAT Martha,” but in fact it WAS that Martha, familiar from the Gospels. The domestic scold, or the faithful servant, depending upon your feelings—was apparently sent out from Bethany in Judea, and ended up (as so many characters in mediaeval hagiography do) in France. She came upon a small village near Avignon where the people were being tormented by a huge beast, part dragon, part bear, part lion, which lurked in the rivers. This monster was known as the Tarasque. It would regularly run ships aground, or sink them and gobble all aboard. Once again, it is interesting that dragons seem to situate themselves underwater or in caves—dark, inaccessible spaces rife with wild and shifting shadows, where they cannot be clearly seen. This is the quintessence of the dragon: in Jungian terms it would be allied with the Shadow self, that part of us that is neither ego (the way we experience ourselves, from behind the various shields of our defense mechanisms) nor the persona (that mask which we present to the world). This is the darkness that stands behind us, yet is attached inextricably to us, the part which not even we—and certainly not our compatriots, if we can help it—fully know.

St. Martha went to the people of the town, who promised to convert to Christianity if she could rid them of this danger. With this charge she strode out to the dragon’s lair armed not with a shield and sword, but with holy water and an armamentarium of holy songs. She did not go on a dashing, ethereally white steed, as St. George is so often pictured; she walked, connected to her earthiness, at the Tarasque’s level. She sprinkled the Tarasque with holy water, fended it off with the sign of the cross, and calmed it with her mellifluous voice. Thus becalmed, the dragon allowed her to wrap her girdle around its neck like a leash, and she walked it back to the village, tamed. This is the more feminine, Eastern, approach to beating a dragon, a counterpoint to the martial Western method exemplified by St. George. The dragon is not slain, but rather tamed; it is not hacked to bits, but is coaxed and seen and known. 

Though this method of beating a dragon—taming rather than slaying--is not the one we are most familiar with, I believe in the long term it offers the best chance for true healing and change. Violence against the shaded, reptilian parts within us is still self-inflicted violence; hating hate does not lessen it. Rather than charging bloody-mindedly at our injuries and addictions with lance in hand, perhaps it would behoove us to sing to them, tame them, get to know them. Note that this is not the same as agreeing with the dragon’s agenda. St Martha didn’t go to the Tarasque and say, “All right, let’s go eat some more fishermen. And how about attacking the village? You haven’t set fire to it in several weeks, from what I hear.” Rather, I imagine her saying, “I know you; I see what you are. I see what you’re doing, and why. However, you still have to get on this leash. You can’t hurt people anymore.” Similarly, our own dragons require understanding if they are to be tamed. What is a person struggling with alcoholism actually thirsty for? What is she trying to forget or numb? And most important: what non-drug experience could provide her with that same sense of heady intoxication, or comfort, or release? From there, the roots and functions of the addiction can be parsed, and healing can begin. What is a woman with anorexia really afraid of (mayonnaise, let’s be honest, is not inherently frightening)? As she begins her second hour racing around the track, what is it—in her past or in her present—that she’s running from? If her motivation is to have ironclad control, what in her life has been out of control, and how can that be addressed? If her motivation is self-punishment, what does she believe she needs to be punished for, and how can compassion and forgiveness replace that drive for self-destruction? 

In a way, St. Martha’s path is more difficult than St. George’s. The splatter and shimmer of a single, epic battle is replaced by the far more fraught work of dialogue and contemplation. It is a process rather than an event. It is (sigh) a journey. It is relatively easy to stay on a white horse, slashing at those parts of us we have labeled ‘the enemy,’ never bothering to learn their stories or their names. What requires true courage is venturing into the shadowy glade by the river, barefoot and afraid, and meeting the dragon eye-to-eye.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I am NOT pro-abortion. No one is.

I happened to have the afternoon off on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision this year. Hooray, you say, afternoon off (and so did I)! Then I made the mistake of going to the gym and parking myself on the treadmill stationed in front of the TV that is perennially tuned to Fox News. Oh no, you say (and so did I)! Maybe subconsciously I wanted to watch something that would enrage me and make me anger-run faster; I don't know.

In any case, over the course of my workout I was treated to an endless parade of pundits discussing the evils of the 'pro-abortion' movement, and it was all I could do not to snatch the earbuds out of my iPhone and lob it through the TV (instead I increased the speed on the treadmill a tick each time something new and enraging was said; I nearly set a personal record on one of the mile repeats). Because here's the thing: I am as staunchly feminist as anyone I know, and I move in a sphere of other powerful, kick-ass women fiercely committed to reproductive rights--and I am NOT pro-abortion, and don't know anyone else who is. I would venture to say, in fact, that NO ONE  IS--at least no one who is sane, and passionate about women's autonomy and well-being. What I am, as the bumper sticker on my Prius proudly proclaims, is "Pro-Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice."

In a perfect world--the world I would wish for--abortions would happen rarely, if at all. Everyone who didn't want to get pregnant would use contraception 100% of the time, and it would be 100% effective (right now even the most effective methods, like IUDs, have a ~1% failure rate). Rape would never happen, nor would incest. All pregnancies would be healthy, with no life-altering fetal anomalies; no woman would ever suffer complications that made continuing the pregnancy damaging or life-threatening. However, in case it's escaped your notice, we don't live in a perfect world (I personally was alerted to this by the fact that I was not kissed awake by Mariska Hargitay this morning). Fifty percent(!) of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. One in four US women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Condoms break, pills fail, women develop life-threatening complications of pregnancy, some fetuses develop without brains or with life-limiting genetic illnesses that would make even their short time on earth a maelstrom of pain. At that point, in that place, there must be a choice; and for one in three US women, at some point in their lives, that choice will be to terminate the pregnancy. Do you know three women? Six? Nine? Unless you have lived the entirety of your life in a monastery (and maybe even then), you know someone who has had an abortion.

Life happens. I wish abortions were never necessary, but sometimes they are. I wish all women had access to the financial, medical and social resources that would make preventing an unplanned pregnancy possible, or carrying to term an emotionally, socially, and spiritually viable option, but it's not reality. Not right now. And until and unless you are the one staring in dismay at the positive pregnancy test while trying to imagine how you'll feed another person, you don't get to make that decision. Until you're the one doing the mental math and realizing that yes, it's been six weeks and the emergency contraception failed and your rapist made you pregnant, you don't get to make that decision. It's not your body. It's not your life. And the best thing you can do, as a person whose choice it ISN'T, is to compassionately and humanely support the person whose choice it IS.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Food, Faith and Flesh

Of late, in the process of trying to vanquish the demons of body-hatred and self-negation that have once again reared their ugly heads (strange how they can slumber, or appear to, for months or years, then resurrect themselves at a moment's notice), I've been looking at the ways in which eating disorders are not just emotional or psychiatric maladies, but spiritual ones. Some of my thoughts--more or less coherent--follow.

I grew up in a church where "the flesh" was shorthand for all the evils of humanity's fallen nature. In our teen Bible study we read Galatians, where Paul exhorted us, "Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its desires..." and "Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are immorality, impurity, sensuality..." Simultaneously, of course, I was teetering on the cusp of adolescence, with all its associated bodily chaos. For a variety of reasons I was intensely, painfully self-conscious, and my body especially frightened me. I was able to keep the rest of my life in order; I made straight As, played first chair flute, captained the  volleyball team. My body, however, resisted my attempts to force it into line. Of their own volition (and it seemed specifically to spite me) my hips spread and my thighs thickened. Flesh appeared where none had been before, complete with untidy appetites and shameful desires. Struggling in an unwinnable fight--but no less valiantly for that!--I tried to bring my body, "the flesh," under control through epic deprivation and exhausting exercise. My body shrank, true. Yet the hunger, that base desire, that fleshly weakness, persisted. I could never be good enough; I could resist temptation, but I could never not want, never not need. This is the self-flagellating attitude of false piety and misguided contrition that I think drives many eating disorders, especially among those influenced by Western Christianity. The idolization (a carefully chosen word) of self-abasement and starvation--particularly for women--has a long history, particularly in the church. St. Catherine of Siena, for instance, starved herself to death and routinely forced herself to purge with an olive branch. St. Angela Foligno and St. Margaret of Cortona both subsisted on little more than Communion.

However, this idolization of self-punishment, of restriction, of penance, is just that--a false lionization of our own power. It is based on an assumption that we have to be good enough to be loved, that we have to save ourselves, that we have to earn grace. In fact, not only are none of these things required, they are impossible. If humanity could attain salvation on its own, a Savior would be superfluous. Grace, by its very nature, is extravagant--it is not earned. In theory, this relentless pursuit of self-negation (in the presumed service of piety) places us at the center of the universe rather than The Divine. We imagine that we can suffer our way into acceptance or into Paradise. Like the mirror image of the narcissist who declares himself a VIP because he feels secretly, deeply inadequate, we--in our abject self-loathing, our desire to make ourselves holy, to make ourselves good--have strayed dangerously close to hubris.

 And speaking of hubris, there is something to be said for eating disorders--whether they manifest as over- or under-eating--as sin. Not 'willful' sin, not intentional misdeeds, not something more to feel guilty about, but as a marker of profound alienation: from Divinity, from others, and from ourselves. I remember a long-ago conversation with a Jewish friend who stated that smoking was a sin. Curious about his particular perspective (and hoping to compare it to the reasoning I'd grown up with, which could be summed up: If it's fun, like drinking, dancing, smoking or sex--it's probably a sin), I asked why. "It's an abuse of the body God has given you," he said. "Your body is entrusted to you, but there is an expectation that you will cherish it and use it to do good in the world." Not castigate it, not starve it, not engineer its destruction one calorie at a time--Cherish it! Imagine that.

Beyond that, Christianity, or the Episcopalian sect to which I belong, is in fact a powerfully embodied faith. Jesus was incarnate--"enfleshed"--as human. He ate and drank (quite a bit, in fact; he was decried more than once as being a "glutton and a drunkard" in the Gospels). We use our bodies in worship, kneeling, standing, crossing ourselves. There is the spicy-sweet smell of incense in our nostrils as we pray, and hymns and chants echo in our ears. Most important, the beating heart at the center of it all--the center around which everything holds--is a meal. We come together as a family around a table to share freshly-baked bread and experience the dusky tang of wine on our tongues. It is difficult to lose yourself in the Paschal Mystery if you are wondering how many calories are in a mouthful of bread. It is difficult to reach out your arms and enter the embrace of that family when you are clutching your private, painful secret to your chest. It is difficult to come to the table for solace or strength when the very phrase "come to the table" fills you with panic. Yet it is for precisely those reasons that it is essential to lose oneself, to reach out. It is for the healing of ills just such as these that we come to the table of grace.

Intellectual understanding is one thing; living it is another. To quote Paul again, "For I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me."