Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Celebrating Religious Freedom: How Do Food Practices Fit Into Recovery?

By Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN, CDE
I was raised in a Catholic household that practiced several food-related restrictions during the holidays. Even though the symbolism behind these practices was discussed in religious education classes, this was skewed by the weight loss talk of the adults around me. At the beginning of every Lent season, there were discussions about who was giving up certain foods during those forty days, with the hopes of losing some weight. Once those forty days were over, everyone binged on those forbidden foods. When I was in high school, several of my friends who fasted for Ramadan would continue this practice once the celebration was over because they had lost weight. Most of my friends following Jewish practices fasted on Yom Kippur and numerous other days that were days of religious observance. 

Maybe these scenarios sound familiar to you or perhaps there are other food-related practices unique to your religion. For those with eating disorders, participating in these meaningful, but sometimes restrictive practices, may pose a threat to the recovery process. This month at The Awakening Center, religious freedom is being celebrated. Food restrictions are often a part of one’s religious beliefs, but what should one do when recovering from an eating disorder?

First, I challenge you to look at all the food-related practices of your religion, and consider the symbolism behind each. If you honestly do not know why these practices are important, do some research! For most of my clients, the true meaning behind their religious practices are lost because they are followed with the intent of controlling one’s weight and/or intake.

Second, consider where you are in your recovery. If you are thinking about participating in celebrations that involve fasting or restrictions, would you be able to resume your recovery eating plan upon the conclusion of the event? For my clients who are in the beginning stages of recovery, they usually are not ready to partake in this part of a religious celebration because of struggles with their meal plan.

Unfortunately, whether self-imposed or from others, guilt for not following these practices often sets in. One of my clients verbalized that her parents were upset with her for choosing not to eliminate meat from her meal plan during Lent. Keep in mind that others who are not going through the challenge of restoring mindful eating and behaviors may not understand why you cannot risk relapsing.

When deciding if you are ready to participate in food-related religious practices, discuss the pros and cons with your therapist and nutritionist (if you are seeing one!). Also, speaking with an empathetic leader of your place of worship may be helpful. In most cases, those with medical conditions are pardoned from these practices.

Most importantly, do what’s best for your health and recovery! There are other fulfilling things you can do during a season of celebration to honor your beliefs. I myself no longer “give up” something during Lent. Instead, I try to do at least one act of kindness towards another person every day of the season. So celebrate your religion, and honor the religions of others with an open mind!

Michel Harris a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and serves on the staff of The Awakening Center. She believes in the mindful approach to develop a peaceful relationship with food and exercise in the recovery process of eating disorders. To find out more or to set up an appointment with Michel, call 773.929.6262.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Written by an Awakening Center client who wishes to remain anonymous. We thank you for your vulnerability and admire your creativity.

I know what it’s like.

To run, to hide, and be full of shame, and you think you’re the only one to blame.

I know what it’s like, to hit rock bottom and spiral back into the pit of fire that you’ve been trying so hard to drag yourself out of.

You’re empty and cold.

You think that there’s nothing left, so you sink—deeper and deeper.

But soon, things won’t be the same. I can see it.

I know what it’s like, to crawl out of the embers, even as the walls get steeper and steeper.

The only choice that’s left is to pick yourself up, and watch as the fire dismembers.

The fire’s crying for your oxygen, but you’re finally breathing for yourself.

I know what it’s like, finally, to become a phoenix.

I’m renewed and I’m burning like a fire. I refuse to be consumed. I will no longer be misunderstood, misused, and abused.

So, trust me. I know what it’s like when I say that you too, can finally become a phoenix.

There’s fire in your eyes, waiting to escape. Let your wings be free.

Let your voice be heard.

Don’t let your heart be tamed in times of pain and tricks.

People are waiting to see the magic that has yet to unfold, because, you too, can become a phoenix. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Religious Freedom and Religious Tolerance--Not the Same Thing

By Julia A. Maher, LCSW
“We have to respect others and we have to understand and not discriminate on the basis of faith. … When you mix politics and religion, you get the worst of everything.”

--Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founder of The American Islamic Congress
One of the values that makes the United States such a beacon of hope to those living outside our borders is our commitment to religious freedom. In fact, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees our right to the “free exercise” of whatever religion (or lack thereof) we choose. Although anyone residing in the United States is protected by this right, our religious freedom is not always respected or even tolerated.

Religious tolerance--the idea of which would seem to be embedded in the text of the First Amendment--is an ideal that we continue to have to strive for. In today’s fractured political environment, candidates are often identified by their faith and not necessarily their experience. As we saw in our last election cycle, there are divisions--even within faith traditions--as to what is “right” and what is “wrong.” When people’s beliefs are challenged in a way that is not respectful, it can become hard to listen to an opposing view.

The first step towards religious tolerance is to remove the idea of “the other.” At times, we can be afraid or suspicious of someone who is not like us--whether it is their religious faith, the color of their skin, or the person that they love. And when you think about it, this “othering” creates many of the obstacles we face as we try to be tolerant. If we can think of our differences as qualities that make us unique (and not “the other”), then we will have demonstrated respect and civility.

The second step toward religious tolerance is to remember those “red flag” words that Sheana described in a previous post. Avoid using always, never, and should (with the exception of “I will always love you”). We can be certain of some things; however the vast majority of our experience here on earth is not that assured. For example, we may decide to have oatmeal for breakfast tomorrow morning--although we told a friend we always have cereal.

And finally, remember that saying, “walk a mile in their shoes”? Try it! Every human being here on earth has challenges that we may know nothing about. When someone wants to talk to you about how their religious faith is the “real” one, suspend your “other” thinking and give them a listen. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Julia is a Staff Therapist at The Awakening Center. She works with individuals and families and is fluent in Spanish.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Awaken to Action: Celebrating Religious Freedom

By Nancy G. Hall, MA, LPC

Happy New Year! Last month, our director introduced The Awakening Center’s commitment to becoming the change we wish to see in the world. As she explained, each month we will focus on a particular topic and explore how to create understanding and acceptance about this quality. January’s theme is Religious Freedom.

Such a complicated issue. Religious organizations have and continue to do so much good work in the world. Many of the most significant responses to oppression have started within religious organizations. However, many use religion to commit unspeakable atrocities. They cherry pick lines of holy texts to embolden others. Amid the suffering that this causes, there is backlash.

As humans, we’re all capable of marginalizing others. When scared or threatened, we hunker down with what we think of as “our own kind.” We start to believe the worst about “other” faith practices. Walls are built. Division and suspicion rise.

Hate-speech against religions have reached new heights in recent years:
  • Last March, then-candidate Donald Trump told Anderson Cooper “I think Islam hates us.” Throughout the campaign we heard his hateful speech against the Muslim community. Even before he declared his candidacy, he continuously made the false claim that Muslims in New Jersey were “celebrating” the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
  • Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, ran a website known for its anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In a 2007 sworn statement, Bannon’s ex-wife claimed he didn’t want their children to attend The Archer School for Girls because of “…the number of Jews that attend.” She claimed that he said he didn’t “like the way they [Jews] raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats.’”
  • Pew Research found that some of the most populous countries throughout the world are increasing restrictions on religion. For example, in Egypt in 2014, a Christian woman was attacked after she was seen with a Crucifix in her car.
  • Last month, in Shelton, Connecticut, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) won the right to place a sign celebrating the Winter Solstice. The sign also included Atheist language, such as “There are not gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.” Two weeks later, the sign was slashed by vandals.
So let’s join together to push back against intolerance. At our core, we all just want to live our lives in peace. We want our loved ones safe, and we want to feel that our presence on this planet matters. For some, faith practices are inextricably linked to their core values. Others create a life credo and sense of morality without organized religion or even a deity. For them, morality and order are found in nature, the goodness of people, and the importance of the here and now.

During January, here’s how you can take action:
  • Look to our Facebook page for challenges that relate to celebrating religious freedom. Whether you have a faith practice or not, we can all grow from learning about the beliefs and practices of others.
  • Challenge your preconceived notions. Look deeply within to begin to reckon with your own biases. Do you believe all Christians are anti-LGBTQ? Do you flinch when you see a woman wearing a Hijab? What goes through your mind when you see an Orthodox Jewish man walking to Temple on the Sabbath? Do you believe Atheists are bitter and hopeless? Do you think Buddhism is just about sitting around and chanting?
  • Visit The Awakening Center in Lakeview and pick up Celebrate Religious Freedom resource sheets.Learn about and observe various holidays throughout the month:
                    Jan. 6: Epiphany (Christian)
                    Jan. 12: Mahayana New Year (Buddhism)
                    Jan. 14: Pongal (Hinduism)
                    Jan. 28: Chinese New Year (Confucianism)

Learning about other belief systems does not undermine your own. In fact, it enriches it. Open your mind and heart! Challenge yourself to celebrate religious freedom!

Nancy is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she facilitates the adult DBT group and the Eating Disorder Therapy Group. Like her on Facebook and subscribe to her personal blog.