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Using 'Hallelujah' to Explain My Eating Disorder

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In his 1984 single, “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen considered that “hallelujah” is a many faceted term — throughout our lives we experience hallelujahs of all kinds. With hundreds of versions sung since his original rendition and several lyrical interpretations (some holier than others) it has become a world renowned classic.

Lying in my bed at my eating disorder treatment center, as I overheard a fellow patient play the piano and beautifully sing, it struck me at my core how deeply my life and my illness intertwined with this song. In my interpretation, the song flips in a Virginia Woolf style, from one speaker, or thought rather, to another with no sign of change but the feeling in the words. The song is the battle between my eating disorder self and my true, untainted soul.

Losing the Way

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music do you?

The chord is some version of happiness, self-love and awareness. The eating disorder is the darkness within myself that steers away from those graces. In the beginning I knew that the behaviors I engaged in were wrong, I knew they conflicted with my values, and I think my Wise Mind knew they would not bring eternal happiness. I had a chance to head toward a happiness, a freedom — the secret chord. I knew I could find the beautiful, righteous hymn. In some ways I almost had it. I held on tight but my grip grew weak with doubt — the doubt I had in myself — the doubt that whispered, follow me. Doubt comes in all forms — for me, my eating disorder. I held a key to the secret chord, but my demons said, “Put it down and come my way.”

Well it goes like this; the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The Baffled King composing, hallelujah

We are the kings and queens composing our own lives, sometimes we orchestrate it with jubilance, sometimes with sorrow and sometimes confusion. I am the baffled king. I am confused by polarizing thoughts, sometimes frozen in my path questioning which way to turn. I try composing my life with refining notes, but choosing which notes will bring purified happiness is perplexing. Some instruments and melodies are laced with deception.

Biting the Bait

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

I had every ounce of self-confidence that I needed, I knew I was capable of doing great things, but self-confidence is not self-esteem and my self-esteem was wavering. I found myself in doubt, getting lost along the way. Am I right? Am I deserving? Somebody give me a sign! The doubt I had in myself was my lack of proof. The doubt made me easy prey. After grappling with confusion and choices, I knew the right choice. I knew it all along. But who would be there to show me? What proof did I have?

You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

This beauty is the version of myself that the eating disorder conned me into believing. Calling me like a mythological siren disguised as an utterly beautiful, dreamy, unobtainable version of myself, I was distracted. If I follow the song of the siren, I would turn into a beautiful, romantic, breathtaking me!

She tied you to the kitchen chair

And while the siren grabbed my attention, ED came slashing forward and locked me in chains. One moment of uncertainty, one promise of perfection, one false hope and the siren song lures me in with her beautiful, mesmerizing, irresistible sound. I’m trapped.

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

Sirens sing you to hypnosis all the while allowing you to believe it leads you to something glorious and beautiful. But once the sirens have you, they wreck you. Once you let your guard down, the eating disorder grips tightly and destroys the pieces of your soul that make up who you are.

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

And slowly, sucking the life out of you, the eating disorder turns you into an empty shell.


Baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room, and I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you

I’ve been down this road before. I know what it offers, what it doesn’t and the pain that it causes. I know the comforting companionship, poisonous as it may be. I know the abusive dominating role of the eating disorder, and the safety net it provides.
After a few months of phony recovery, ED slipped back into my life. I used to live alone, I used to be Liv — not Liv with an eating disorder. There was a time, long before I knew you, that I was happy. I lived alone. Independently. With strength, dignity and respect.

And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

I know why I choose you. It’s why I go back to you. The flag. The victory. If I keep trying hard enough, if I just do better, I can earn that flag, unobtainable may it be. I’ve seen the flag and I’ve climbed for it, but you can’t climb a marble arch. You will slip, maybe even fall. But the high of starvation keeps you grasping and trying and climbing. The flag is a mirage, forever out of reach.

Tantalus, in Greek mythology, starved and thirsted in his afterlife as punishment for his wrongdoings. For eternity he stood in a pool of water with a fruit tree just beside him. Every time he bent down for a sip of water to alleviate his dying thirst, the water disappeared. Every time he reached for fruit to ease his roaring hunger, the branches lifted just out of his reach. Worse, he couldn’t die of thirst or of hunger because he was already in the afterlife. Just like Tantalus, the need, the victory, the desire is only delusional — a tantalizing tortuous fantasy used to punish ourselves. But, for what?

And love is not a victory march
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

To truly love myself is to turn away from you. Starving myself fails persistently to bring happiness. Once wrapped in this vicious illness, it takes agony to fight back to a life of happiness. Choosing recovery is not for the fainthearted. It’s no glorious victory march. Choosing recovery is painful and difficult and it takes place in a bloody battlefield. There is no knight in shining armor waiting to protect you — this battle you fight on your own — only you can fight your demons.

To fight for yourself is a noble undertaking. It’s a Hallelujah. But it is not the kind of hallelujah set with cheers and whistles and horns blowing and crowds clapping, rays of sunshine beaming from the sky as the sun sets on your sweet victory. You are not tossed above cheering crowds in your victory chair. No. It’s the kind of hallelujah that hurts. It’s wildly painful, but it’s a hallelujah because it is your salvation.

Hope for Recovery

Maybe there’s a God above,
but all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

I’ve never doubted God’s existence or even blamed God for the struggles I have endured. I have retained unwavering faith. But somehow, through all my years in Catholic schools learning that we are all God’s children, I somehow thought I was the exception. I was not worthy of love. There is always someone prettier, funnier, cooler, more endearing, less burdensome than simple plain me. Never feeling deserving of love, in many ways I found myself on the offensive. If I don’t love myself first, than you can’t have the satisfaction of not loving me! You cannot accept love if you feel you do not deserve love and you definitely can’t accept it if you don’t love yourself.

I’ve never let my guard down. I’ve only protected myself from pain, embarrassment or shame. I’ve built a shield around my unworthiness and my heart that makes it impossible to let people in. Finding that cure and staying in recovery is not just for people in self-help books who come out of their illness roaring and ready to fight again. For me, recovery is a bitter sadness. It’s a feeling of loss, but a hope of redemption.

And it’s not a cry that you hear at night,

The cries of suffering are victories. They are the symptom of turning away from your eating disorder. The cries of uncertainty and fear exist because I am taking the step forward to slay the monster. So be not mislead into believing that tears and struggle make me a victim. The struggle signifies a winning battle. A fight. The tears are my fight song.

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

The warriors in recovery, or fighting for recovery, didn’t wake up one day and say, “Today is the day!” No. It’s a difficult process. Many times you begin treatment unwillingly and very much unsure. A warrior is not a warrior because she saw the light and bravely marched onward! Outside of fairytales, a warrior is one who merely found a dark grey among the blackness, and with a leap of faith, a Hail Mary, and maybe simply no other choice, she chose to walk, crawl or even inch along toward it. There is no “ah ha!” moment — no glorious, “This is the day, let’s fight!” There is only a heavy hearted, uncertain hope.

Recovery is a cold and broken hallelujah. It’s beautiful because hallelujah is beautiful. But it hurts, and it’s messy, and getting to that hallelujah brings out the very worst in you. It brings out the liar, the cheater, the one only sustained by unconditional love. But it also brings out the best in you. The best in you is the part of you that can fight tirelessly for something you are so unsure of. It’s your only hope to break free of the imprisoning cycle in which you are trapped.

Hallelujah is joy, sadness, redemption, forgiveness, faith, hope and love. It’s beautiful, messy, agonizing, relief and resilient uncertainty. For me, treading, swimming, fighting for recovery is a cold and a broken Hallelujah. But it is a Hallelujah.

Lead image via Leonard Cohen’s Facebook page

Originally published: December 3, 2018
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