When people learn I suffered from an eating disorder they often are shocked for two reasons: How could such a vibrant, friendly, nice Jewish girl have had an eating disorder? And if I did, how am I able to talk about it so casually?
The fact is, an eating disorder can strike anyone, and it is not something to be ashamed of.
When I entered Queens College in 2008, I was recovering from a brutal social betrayal, dealing with the loss of a grandparent, and facing the fact that I was growing up – something I’d had trouble with since childhood. As a result, my eating disorder, which had been brewing for some time, finally surfaced.
I was not molested, nor did I lose a parent, nor was I a dancer or ballerina – all common assumptions surrounding eating disorder patients. I was simply feeling hurt. An eating disorder is a symptom of a deeper psychological issue within an individual.
When my parents began to notice my weight loss and a deep clinical depression that was developing simultaneously, they stepped in and started me down my pathway to recovery. In the beginning I was in complete denial; when the doctor told me I was anorexic and had only hours before I would slip into a coma, I simply shook my head and said the blood work must be wrong – that I was “fine.”
I was force-fed for a month, all the while refusing to speak to anyone, including my parents and closest friends. It was only three months later, when my father sat me down to show me the Orthodox Union’s film “Hungry to be Heard,” that any emotion seeped through. I watched the movie and when it was finished I turned to my parents, tears running down my face, and said, “I want to get help.”
“Hungry to be Heard” documents eating disorder patients and professionals in the Jewish world and describes the trials and tribulations of such disorders. After seeing that other Jewish young adults also suffer from anorexia, I felt it was OK to finally admit to myself that I had a problem. Why? Because I knew I was no longer alone.
After months in various treatment centers and years fighting with every weapon I had – including an amazing support system, a fantastic eating disorder therapist (Dr. Ellen Haimoff), and a fierce determination – I finally climbed the mountain that is recovery.
It is time our community learned the truth about eating disorders: they are real, they are dangerous, and they can be defeated.
An individual with an eating disorder is in deep pain, and this pain is manifested in a way that can cause danger to the body. The individual does not have to be young, female, upper class or emaciated. An eating disorder is not a cry for attention, it does not revolve around vanity, and it is not a choice.
An individual suffering from an eating disorder needs help and can return to his or her old self with the right support, therapy, and treatment, not to mention a significant emphasis on religion (knowing one can turn to Judaism and believe in something beyond the eating disorder can be incredibly comforting).
However, the first thing that must be addressed is that this issue does in fact exist. Awareness of this devastating illness must be spread and people need to know the truth about eating disorders.
The obsession with thinness and physical appearance must be abandoned, especially in religious circles where we are taught that these traits do not reflect the soul of an individual. While an eating disorder is not truly about the food but rather a reflection of the pain of that person, if we throw a thin ideal out to young girls (and boys) we are strengthening the possibility that this is what they will turn to in a time of difficulty. When one feels awful about oneself, changing one’s appearance – so valued in our society – is a relatively easy thing to do. The problem is that an individual in deep pain will try to perfect this image until he or she is literally killing him or herself.
In order to constructively deal with the growing problem of eating disorders in our Jewish community, it will be necessary to change the perception of body image and to raise awareness. As a public speaker at synagogues, high schools, and colleges I do my best to teach whoever will listen what an eating disorder really means and why it is not something I am ashamed of – I was going through tremendous difficulty and channeled my sorrow and hate inward. But it is your job to learn more as well.