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The Power of Mythology in Mental Health: Overcoming the Dark Goddess of Eating Disorders

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Worshipped paradoxically as the queen of the underworld and as a youthful maiden, Persephone is a myth that gives us a glimpse into the eating disordered mind. With her unique curse committing her to both light and dark periods reflected in the change of seasons, she is a haunting portrayal of the cyclical pattern of recovery and relapse a person may spiral through as they heal. Buried deep within this myth is the greatest secret; the wisdom permitting escape from this endless cycle.

Her story begins one blustery spring afternoon while picking wildflowers and noticing an astonishingly beautiful narcissus blooming in the middle of a field. As she bends down to pick it up the earth cracks open and Hades, the god of death, kidnaps her to be his bride in the underworld. Upon learning about her disappearance her mother, Demeter, sends Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, to the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hermes rescues her, but not before Hades feeds her a handful of enchanted pomegranate seeds, ensuring her eternal return to the underworld for two of the four seasons.

Persephone's passive acceptance of Hades' pomegranate seeds is the proverbial biting of the apple in the eating disordered mind. Her unquestioning consumption of the seeds manifests in real life as the obsessive habit of needing to please. This thirst for approval slowly transforms her personality into one so malleable to other's interests that her own identity becomes foreign. Actions and decisions are made with the goals of feeling wanted, needed, and good enough, weaving an invisible thread of self-sacrifice through a dark world where her innermost needs are abandoned. Even so, the promise of approval keeps her in Hades' layer, taking responsibility for her unhappiness and attempting to sacrifice and transform her deep sadness and disappointment through food, exercise, and extreme detoxing, all of which receive accolades from the Gods.

A woman enters the underworld of the dark unconscious when she begins an addictive continuum of cloudy decision-making with food. Whatever she chooses to eat now will influence her choice later through compensation or restriction. Dizzied by the confusion of endless choices, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to keep relationships in harmony. She's tested during the holidays when she eats out of expectation or at dinner parties or at restaurants where she eats to quell any suspicions, if she doesn't cancel altogether. No matter what the circumstance, the sprinkling of pomegranate seeds has been triggered, yet she still avoids thinking about the significance of where the seeds are coming from. When she does, tiny painful memories arise and she feels too much, causing her to freeze and cling to what feeds her in the underworld rather than sort through her emotions that can guide her to above ground. She does not yet realize that she must look within herself to provide the spiritual food she has been seeking from external sources for so long.

Persephone doesn't do well in relationships either, especially codependent ones, which are her specialty. Here her partner is the one feeding her the seeds. The intensity of her emotions are so overwhelming because she feels as though she can never fully possess her partner -- that is, she never feels fully in control of the relationship, her partner's approval, or their feelings. Deep within her unconscious, food symbolizes people the way a mother symbolizes food to a newborn.* This mysterious link enchants and humanizes all Persephone eats. Confused by her inability to be everything to the one person she loves, she turns again to extreme behavior to feel possessed and be possessed by whatever she consumes. Of these, food, detoxification, and exercise are the most transformative because they become her.

The role we often miss with Persephone is her innate power to act as the goddess of metamorphosis. When a woman becomes aware of the Persephone archetype operating within her, all enchantment is threatened. Distorted perceptions of herself and unhealthy relationships can be cracked open as the earth once was with the help of a guide. In the myth, Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, comes to her rescue. In real life, we see this as developing the ability to articulate long lost feelings and complicated emotions. We also see this as polite "little" Persephone finally allowing herself to get angry and say "no," shattering the cocoon of approval and acceptance she's so carefully woven. Old habits of lying, deceiving, and manipulating in effort to preserve the image others have of her are abandoned each time she asserts herself.** As the myth foretells, she is called back to the underworld for two of the four seasons; but what holds her there now? Perhaps the most useful interpretation of this is the chance of relapse during her lifelong journey of recovery and the old habits that will beckon her back into the underworld. Even so, by exploring her fears and experiencing the transformative power of self-assertion, she understands the consequence of depending on others to feed her when she can independently feed herself.

References

* Bynum, C. (1987). Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

** Bolen, J. (1984). Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women (p. 217). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.