The Word in the Wings
Home to live in my body: an interview with Deanna Pfau (Part II)
By: KAYA PRASAD
This summer, The Word in the Wings will feature stories of how the work of Glorify Performing Arts addresses problems with the ways our culture often views the human body. In the 21st-century US, even at times within the church, it is common to discount, abuse, or idolize the body. But in GPA’s work of creating professional, empowering, Spirit-inspired dance productions, we aim to value the body’s God-given capacities for meaning-making and beauty. We aim to protect the body from exploitation by the art and industry of dance, and we orient the body’s efforts toward the glory of God.
As part of this series, I interviewed Deanna Pfau, who has been an audience member and volunteer at GPA events since November 2021. In the first part of our conversation, Deanna told the story about how an eating disorder inhibited her from fully living in her own body and about how God led her onto the road of recovery. In the second part of our conversation, which you’ll find below, Deanna and I discuss the role relationships play in recovery and why personal, physical healing is an important part of the Church’s mission.
Deanna: One reason why I really love the twelve-step program is because it’s anonymous. No one cares what church I go to. They don’t know my last name. They don’t care what I do, how much money I have.
That’s really hard when you have something so shaming; in church, who are you going to tell that to? Especially if you hold a position within the church. But there’s no hierarchy in the rooms, and I thought, “God, I really, with all my heart, wish there was something like this in the church.”
Kaya: On some level, the church is supposed to provide that. We’re supposed to hold each other accountable and we’re supposed to bear one another’s burdens. Maybe there’s an aspect of what you’ve found with twelve-step recovery which is the church extending beyond the Sunday morning worship gathering. Maybe that’s one of several redemptive aspects of your story: for something that isn’t quite working in church spaces you’ve been in before, there is still a space in the world where you can find God at work for that purpose through faithful people.
Deanna: I’m grateful that God put me where I needed to be to get better. There are many ways people recover; some people recover by going to rehab or outpatient therapy or counseling.
God uses any and all means to help us, including the church, but sometimes I know that there are people suffering silently because they’re just going through the motions of church, but they aren’t really connecting like they would like to. I tell my husband, “Sometimes I feel like when I’m in the rooms I’m really at church, and when I’m at church I’m just playing church.” And I’m being honest about that.
Kaya: Would you say that the Overeaters Anonymous group gave you more of a safe space to build the relationships you needed for recovery?
Deanna: Yes. I remember telling Melody and Angela that when they look at me, they’re looking at a host of people behind me that made it possible for me to give them that message. The twelfth step is, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to compulsive overeaters and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
The first step is, “We admitted we were powerless over food–that our lives had become unmanageable.” That’s the first step: “I’m powerless.” Not helpless, but powerless. And then as I move all the way through the twelve steps, once I’m recovered, just as in Christianity we’re duty-bound to share Christ, in the twelve steps I’m duty-bound to share my recovery with other people.
If you study the Twelve Steps, their basis is Christian. They’re formed from principles of the Oxford Group, a Christian-based organization.† I believe that because it’s Christian-based, the twelve steps work because they are biblical. I can lay out each and every one of them and find Scripture for them, and they’re all very powerful.
The Twelve Steps say we come to know God by our own understanding, and I know a lot of people who come in that are atheist or agnostic. I sponsored a girl who’s recovered now who was totally agnostic, and now she talks about her relationship with God in a deeper way than a lot of Christians I know. I wonder, what’s up with that? There are so many mysteries. You become less judgmental when you’re in the rooms because you see people from all walks of life.
You went to a secular university, do I have that correct? So you know what I’m talking about.
Kaya: I do, for sure. I definitely identify that as one of the mysterious ways that God is at work. Often when I’m reflecting, “How have I seen God at work recently?” it’s “So-and-so, who doesn’t even say they have a relationship with Jesus, is talking about these ideas about God, and God is working and building understanding.” You can sometimes see how people are journeying towards God in those spaces.
Deanna: But they’re unconventional. If you always live in the box of your own understanding, the way you’re brought up, the way your parents do church and the way you do church, and you just live in that little space, it’s really confining in there. God likes us to break out of the box that we put ourselves in.
Kaya: As you talk about your healing process, I also think about stories of healing in the Gospels, where Jesus’s acts of healing are tied up in how the message of Jesus bringing God’s kingdom is spread. Even when Jesus tells a man he heals of skin disease, “Don’t tell anyone, just show the priest that you’re healed,” he goes out and tells everyone (Mark 1:40-45). I hear that drive to share in your story, too.
Deanna: You have to! Why wouldn’t you? I’m a walking miracle! This disease is so insidious. The Big Book calls it “cunning, baffling, and powerful,” and all addiction is at its core is shame and isolation, which is the opposite of what God has for us: love and light and fellowship.
The reason why fellowship works is because it’s not a “me” thing; it’s a “we” thing. There’s power in numbers, which is why we need the Church and we need each other, to build each other up.
Kaya: That’s really important to recall as we live out our faith: we don’t just go to church on Sunday morning to sit in a chair and be alone with God. We go to participate in the body of believers, and as the body of Christ, each one of us is only a part of it. We rely on each other, on the whole, for our own individual survival and thriving, and we also rely on each other for engaging fully in the work of God’s kingdom. Each of us can only do the function of an ear or a foot; one of us can’t do all of it.
We’re part of a work that is much bigger than ourselves, and that also is tied up in that idea of community. That goes back to the need to support each other, because if the foot needs healing, the ear can’t do its work to the fullest. We have to seek healing for one another for the sake of every member and the sake of the whole.
You’ve mentioned how before your recovery, obsession over eating and body image can take over your life. I’m curious how being in recovery changes that. What are some things that you are able to experience, enjoy, and engage in now that you are more free from that obsession?
Deanna: Recovery is a lot of work. It’s simple, but not easy. But the obsession goes away when you do the hard work of turning the mirror, fully looking at yourself. I don’t mean from a body-image perspective; I mean from an ego perspective. We are really good at hiding from ourselves.
The fourth step is, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and step five is, “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” What that entails is a rigorous honesty to look at all those things in your life that you are resentful of and that you’re bitter about.
I didn’t think I had any resentments…I had forty! I had to write them down, whether it be a person, an idea, or an institution. You have to do the rigorous work of not just forgiving them but forgiving yourself, and that takes time.
The reason that obsession went away is because I did that inventory. I gave it away to my sponsor, and further down the line I made a list of the people that I’d harmed, and I went to them and I made amends.
In one incident, I remember abusing my time on my job. I would go out at my lunch break and buy a bunch of junk food. Between classes I was eating all this food and surfing the internet. Part of my amends was to go to my boss and tell her, “I wasn’t using my time wisely. I wasn’t fit for the job in the sense that I was making myself sick. I wasn’t fully present for my students.” She was very forgiving and understanding, but I know other people that have done some really tough amends with people.
Another one that I did was this: I used to babysit, and I would steal food from the people I was babysitting for. I would eat so much of their food. This was about thirty years ago, but I called her, and she said, “Oh Deanna!” She laughed it off, but I was like, “This is really important to my recovery. What can I do? Can I make a donation?” She said, “Our church is having a food drive.” So I went out and filled a big box with food, and I took it to her house and left it there [for the food drive].
Now on a daily basis, I do steps ten and eleven. Ten is, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it,” so at the end of each day I ask myself a series of questions. It’s called a nightly review. Was I resentful today? Was I irritable, restless, or discontent today? Did I pause today? How did I help other people today? What did I do well? I try to do that every day because then I’m keeping a short sin-account, and things don’t build up. For the addict, whatever the substance is, we use it to avoid a buildup of unwanted emotions. To address them, I go to meetings, I tell other people, or I call my sponsor.
Kaya: It’s interesting what you’ve said about turning the mirror fully onto yourself. As you share more, I hear aspects of it that are about self-awareness and being willing to engage with your own emotions, but that also leads into a different way of engaging with other people. Instead of focusing on however they’ve affected you, becoming more self-aware leads you into interactions where you’re seeking forgiveness. Recovery for yourself comes through reconciliation. In a way, it’s beautiful to hear how your personal healing is tied up in relational healing. You can’t have one without the other.
Deanna: You cannot have one without the other, and I think believers, myself included–I duped myself into believing that it was okay to confess it just to God. But why aren’t you confessing it to other people, especially if you hurt them? You have to go that extra step.
We know all these things from the Bible. I feel like the twelve steps gave me a real roadmap to the true treasure of Christianity. It’s a very practical way for me to engage my Christianity, and it’s the most I’ve engaged my Christianity. I’m 59, and I was saved when I was 6, and it’s only in the last three years that I feel like my faith is vibrant. I’m more engaged with my faith than ever before.
Steps ten, eleven and twelve are considered the “gymnasium,” the “workout” every day. If you’re a true addict, you have to be very proactive. Even if my food is fine, that doesn’t matter if I’m doing something else compulsively. If I’m shopping or on my phone too much–it’ll come out in other ways. We’re all like that in some way, though; you don’t necessarily have to be an addict. We have this God-shaped hole in our soul that we must fill with something.
Kaya: So it’s important to have disciplines that bring you back to encounters with God because of course only God can fill that and sanctify us to be whole in that way that we’re being renewed towards, as you alluded to earlier in the conversation.
I’d love to hear a little bit more on how you’ve made that journey toward inhabiting your body–even it’s an ongoing journey still.
Deanna: I joined the gym this year, and I always had a love-hate relationship with the gym and saw it as a shaming thing. It was not easy for me to do that. Right before I met with you I went to a class. I joined a gym for people my age because I didn’t want to go to the gym and be comparing my body. I love the gym that I’m a part of because it’s for our age group. I see older women there taking care of their bodies, and they’re laughing, engaged, and happy.
I’m really proud that I’m going to the gym. I took a class this morning called “Fun Fit,” and I told the instructor, “Are you sure this shouldn’t be called ‘Foolish Fit?’ Because I was a fool to take this class!” I was dying! And there’s women in there saying, “Aren’t you staying for the next one?” And I said, “No, I have an interview.”
Kaya: Glad I could give you an out, haha! That’s really great, that you’ve been able to take that step of growth.
You started off by sharing how you were touched by seeing Label: Beauty, so I wondered if you have any thoughts to share about how dance and the performing arts could speak to people who have gone through experiences like yours and the value you see in art with that kind of form and that kind of message.
Deanna: I just think you should go and enjoy it! From the perspective of an admirer and a viewer, it’s so healthy and honoring of the art form and the body to have appreciation for it. I have such respect for what dancers put themselves through, considering the injuries they incur and the things they have to do to maintain their artistry.
It’s hard work, and it should be honored and applauded, not just from a human standpoint but the fact that God gave them that ability, and they’re putting it out there to honor God. It’s not easy to put your body on display when you inhabit a body you know is not perfect, and you’re dealing with a culture that demands perfection. It takes a lot of courage to do that.
Kaya: Thank you so much for sharing your very personal story. It’s good to hear that our work is inspiring and encouraging to you as you journey with God. It’s my prayer that others will also come and see beauty and be encouraged and empowered by God’s Spirit through that. Thanks for being a part of our ministry, Deanna!
† You can read more about Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and how he developed the Twelve Steps in the TIME archive.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder, you are not alone, and help is available. Access a support hotline and other resources at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.
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