From the pages of Jewish Action
“Try my chocolate cake, it’s delicious!” These simple words once struck terror in my heart. As a young woman with an eating disorder, I was terrified to eat anything, especially rich chocolate cake. I was a skinny 13 year old when my fear of gaining weight first surfaced. I had just recovered from a bout of mononucleosis, and had lost more than 15 pounds from the illness. Dimly conscious of the fact that I was extremely thin, I had only recently become more aware of concepts such as dieting, calories and fat content.
Gitty’s mother is baking cookies for Shabbat. Gitty and I eat at least 10 each when they come out of the oven. They are delicious. Gitty says something about the cookies being fattening. I ask her whether she thinks I am fat. She says no. But I worry. She tells me not to worry, just to be careful not to eat too much. I feel panicky, and make up my mind to carefully watch what I eat. I’m a shy, insecure girl, dealing with my parents’ difficult divorce, my father’s illness and my brother’s death in an accident a few years earlier. I’m especially vulnerable to the pressures of adolescence. I yearn to look perfect, to be one of the “popular” girls, to fit in. I don’t eat any more cookies that Shabbat.
Throughout high school, I obsessed about my weight. I worried that I was “too fat,” and felt inferior and unattractive compared to my classmates at the girls’ religious school in New York that I attended. I would lose weight, gain it back, panic and lose the weight again. When I graduated from high school, I was a normal size 10 but felt desperate to lose weight.
I attend a prestigious seminary in Europe. I don’t have a good “seminary experience.” I feel insecure, troubled throughout the year. I do well with the class work, and function during the day, but at night I sneak into the kitchen and eat whole boxes and containers full of food. I am worried about family issues, and about the pressures of adulthood. My parents’ divorce worries me; how will it affect me in regards to shidduchim? I fall into a depression, buy huge quantities of food and eat it all in one sitting. I gain some weight, and feel frantic about losing it.
In retrospect, I see that I simply didn’t feel attractive or good enough. All I saw was imperfection and I felt an almost desperate need to “do something” about it.
After my year of seminary, I return to New York where I have a great job and excel at my work. I go on shidduchim, and my fears regarding dating are, for the most part, unfounded: I am set up with really “good” boys. But something holds me back. Although I am proposed to three times, I can’t make a commitment. I contract the measles at age 20 and lose 20 pounds. Anorexia, lurking within for so many years, finds its way to the surface.
After recovering from the measles, I weighed 100 pounds. Proud of my new thinness, I ate almost nothing. To stave off hunger and simulate eating, I chewed low-calorie gum and ate watermelon, cantaloupe, lettuce and other vegetables. At night, I couldn’t sleep because of the hunger pangs. I monitored my social activities, and made decisions based on the demands of my illness – What kind of food would be available at this or that place or event? Would I be tempted to eat the “wrong” foods? My friends stopped inviting me to eat out at restaurants and to Shabbat meals because they knew I wouldn’t come. The eating disorder took up so much internal space that it crowded out everyone else. I could only give a small part of myself to those I was with; I was living half a life.
By the time I was 26 years old, I weighed 89 pounds; I was skinnier, and unhappier than I had ever been before. But I was convinced that if I gained any weight at all I’d be even more unhappy.
I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t let the eating disorder interfere with my ability to have children, have a life. I would stop when I was “thin enough.”
But even when I became anemic and felt like I was dying, I couldn’t stop. It was only getting worse. As soon as I got to one “magic” number, I felt the urge to lose even more.
Ironically, as much as I had originally wanted people to notice how thin I was, it was difficult once they did. My friends and family members began to express worry, but I shrugged them off and told them that I was “handling it.”
I knew I was playing with life and death but in some horrifying way, death and fat seemed equally terrifying. But after one particularly horrendous bulimic episode that landed me in the emergency room with heart palpitations and a doctor warning me that I was going to die before long, I began seeing a therapist. My therapist – a wonderful and compassionate woman who had struggled with an eating disorder herself – recommended that I enter a hospital that specializes in eating disorders and depression; She and I both recognized that I would not stop the behaviors on my own. My eating patterns had become firmly entrenched, and it would take a lot of work – hundreds of hours of therapy, much self-introspection, and many tears – to relearn how to eat normally. In the hospital, if I didn’t eat my entire plate of food, I was forced to sit in the nurses’ station for two hours. It was a relief not to have to make decisions about what foods to eat; I no longer had to feel “guilty” about eating.
|Center for Eating Disorder Recovery
Mount Kisco, NY
The Eating Disorders Center
Schneider Children’s Hospital
North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System
New Hyde Park, NY
Wilkins Center for Eating Disorders
National Eating Disorders Association
Tafnit: Jerusalem Institute for Adolescents
The Renfrew Center Foundation
The HEED (Helping to End Eating Disorders) Foundation
Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services
Board of Jewish Education/Dept. of Student Help Services
Eating Disorders Initiative
New York, NY
(212) 245-8200 x234
I avoided fashion magazines and the stick-thin models displayed in them. When around extremely thin people, I told myself that they had made a choice to be that thin, and that they probably were not very happy. Being around other anorexics in the hospital was difficult: we all wanted to be the “best anorexics.” When I saw a skinnier patient, I became jealous; I was no longer the best, I could still be skinnier. After a while, I recognized that I needed some distance from others in the throes of an eating disorder, and gravitated towards people who were already in recovery and accepting of their bodies.
Through spending time in the hospital (this was to be the first of three hospitalizations) and exploring issues in therapy, I realized that when I starved, binged and purged, I was expressing pain and self-hatred. During my hospitalizations, I met many people struggling with eating disorders. While we came from different backgrounds and had very different life stories, we shared one thing in common: a lack of self-acceptance. Like many sufferers of eating disorders, I needed to work on feeling okay with myself regardless of what I looked like on the outside.
I tried to come to terms with my unhappy childhood. My father had been physically and emotionally abusive, and left me with many scars. He had given me the message that I was not okay the way I was, that I was not making him happy, and that I was the cause of my parents’ divorce. He nearly destroyed me with his anger. Being deprived of a mother further damaged me. (I lived with my father, who did not allow me to have contact with my mother while I was growing up.) I had a lot of healing to do. In time, I got to know my mother again and today, we are very close. This added a measure of happiness and well-being that helped me along in recovery. As I got healthier, I slowly learned to replace the pain of my childhood with positive people and experiences. Thinness, I slowly learned, was not the answer.
During the recovery period, I read lots of books about eating disorders and found them to be very helpful, especially those written by recovered anorexics and bulimics. I took pictures of myself at my thinnest, right before entering the hospital. This helped me let go of the eating disorder since it was a way to document – for myself and others – how deep my pain once was. Today, the pictures remind me of where I never want to go again.
When I first left the hospital, it was a challenge to continue to eat normally. I began to notice a pattern. Whenever I felt especially insecure, I would revert back to the old desperation to lose weight. I began to recognize that I equated outer appearance with inner worth, and being a successful anorexic with being a successful person.
For almost ten years, my life was ruled by the eating disorder. I am now in my early thirties, have gained back most of the weight I lost, and have allowed my favorite foods back into my life. I have been doing well for a number of years although I struggle occasionally. The road to health has been rocky and painful. But whereas the eating disorder once took over 99 percent of my life, it now only occasionally checks in during times of stress or discomfort to remind me that it’s there if I want it. I don’t want it – that’s for sure. I love the freedom that I have today. I am happy with my attractive body size, and it feels wonderful to fit in with the rest of the crowd once again. Instead of the old tapes in my head that said, “That was too much food. I must eat less next time!” I have replaced them with new ones: “If I eat normally I’ll be able to participate more fully in life, enjoy the company of others, bear healthy children and make a difference in the world.” It took a long time before I could listen to the new messages. But I am listening to them, and am finally becoming that happy person I’ve always wanted to be.
Rina Stein is a pseudonym.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.