Using Traditional Culture to Recover from Eating Disorders

Often, when we talk about eating disorders, our minds immediately jump to images we see in the mainstream media and entertainment industries – rail-thin female models, living on Diet Coke and cigarettes and throwing up lettuce. The reality is that eating disorders – much like anything, really – can appear in many different forms.

In mainstream psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently on its fifth edition), outlines very specific criteria for the label of “eating disorder.” These criteria mainly center on anorexia, bulimia, over-eating and a generic EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Throughout my own experiences, however, these parameters are sorely lacking when taking certain issues into account. People suffering from disordered eating habits often pass in and out of these labels as disordered behaviors adapt to changing environments (changes in employment or transitioning from high school to college, for example).

Additionally, many (myself included) see disordered eating as symptomatic of something larger. Disordered eating behaviors are addictive, which is why these behaviors become habits, which evolve into full-fledged mental disorders. Many who suffer from EDs also suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as lesser-known afflictions such as exercise addiction and orthorexia (the obsession with eating only “clean” and “approved” foods).

Hopefully it is obvious why Native Americans are quickly advancing to the second-highest risk group for disordered eating. The aforementioned conditions – alcoholism, drug addiction and depression – have practically been force-fed to our communities throughout the history of decolonization. All of these combined create a formidable opponent.

Again, I can only speak to my own experiences, but the biggest hurtle to overcome has been finding and accepting moderation. Addictions function as a black-vs-white, one-or-the-other mentality. Accepting that I might be able to have a cupcake while celebrating (but not four, and not zero) has been one of the most difficult concepts I’ve ever encountered, at least when trying to actualize it.

The problem, of course, is the anxiety this idea can cause and learning to cope with that anxiety in a healthy, positive way that will propel you forward rather than hold you back. For example, having four cupcakes, feeling horrible about it (both physically and mentally) and then having a few beers to drown out the anxiety and numb the stomach pains is obviously not a healthy coping mechanism.

The best possible way I have found to calm myself and refocus on my long-term goals and health has been to focus on my culture and the spirituality of my ancestors. It may sound silly, but even something as simple as reciting the creation stories I was taught as a child, or singing “Happy Birthday” in Lakota, or even just counting or naming animals in Lakota has an incredibly calming effect.

I am an urban Indian, living in Atlanta, Ga., about 1300 miles away from my home community. It’s incredibly difficult – nearly impossible at times – to make it home for the ceremonies or celebrations that help me connect to my culture. Reciting stories and lists in my Indigenous language help foster that connection when I need it most. I also find that reading books written by (not about) my relatives and ancestors can be calming and helpful – I am Lakota, so I find reading Mary Brave Bird’s books Lakota Woman and Ohitika Woman incredibly helpful because it reminds me that I am not alone. And of course, raying to my ancestors, asking them for guidance and strength, and knowing that they are listening is my biggest source of strength.

When going through recovery for any sort of mental disorder or condition – certainly not just eating disorders or addictions – these seemingly small cultural and spiritual details often get lost in the shuffle of mainstream, modern treatment programs. But for Indigenous peoples they are incredibly important and vastly helpful. In fact, these connections are downright essential to healing and returning to the community ready to help others move forward.