Yesterday’s New York Times had a really interesting article in its Health section called In Orthodox Jewish Enclaves, an Alarm Sounds Over Eating Disorders. The article, exposing the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox Jewish community wasn’t particularly news to me. In fact, I didn’t even think the statistics were particularly shocking, and I was slightly confused as to why the paper found now as the right time to run the story. As someone who battled an eating disorder for 15 years, I guess I’m just jaded by the news.
My battle with bulimia started at Camp Mesorah, when I was a CIT. There was a girl in our bunk who I will call Molly, who was anorexic. When we would all eat breakfast, she would sniff cups of coffee grounds. Forget about lunch, she usually just drank water and chatted with the boys at the other table. And, come dinner time, she would pick at her food and then excuse herself to go to the bunk to the bathroom. We took turns following her to the bunk to make sure she was okay and, one night, it was my turn to follow her back to the bunk. When I got there, she was coming out of the bathroom, and we decided to just sit on my bed and chat. She told me that she was my friend and she wanted to help me. I was always a chunky kid and had about 10-15 pounds to lose, and I desperately wanted boys to like me and I really wanted to have a boyfriend, so I listened.
Molly told me that I had a pretty face, I just needed to lose some weight, and that she could help me. I was eager to shed the pounds, but just didn’t really know how to do it. She then showed me how I could throw up using my toothbrush. It was surprisingly simple and didn’t really gross me out, and thus began 15 years of purging.
At first, I did it sparingly. I would throw up if I ate too much junk food, or if my jeans felt a bit tight. I wasn’t losing any weight, but at least I had stopped gaining, and that for me was enough. When summer camp ended, I entered 11th grade with new friends and a new hobby.
My high school was replete with girls suffering from eating disorders. We pretty much knew who was battling what, since there are very few secrets in an all girls high school. The girls who were on laxatives were in the bathroom during first period. The ones who were anorexic spent their lunch period hiding out in the library, while the bulimic girls were in the bathroom right after lunch.
It was easier outing the anorexic girls since it was pretty obvious that they weren’t eating. And then, one day, our High School invited an eating disorder specialist to speak to the school. I don’t remember his name but I do remember him mentioning that, girls with eating disorders would often eat bran muffins. I remember girls a grade lower than me taking fastidious notes during his speech and then, I noted with amusement, the number of girls who brought bran muffins to school the next morning. The eating disorder specialist wasn’t at all effective, if anything, he gave us tips on how to continue the behavior.
I continued to purge sparingly until graduation, and then I stopped once I was in Seminary in Israel. That is, until I gained 25 pounds and ended up going home unexpectedly for Pesach. My Father freaked out when he saw me and told me, as I waited for the plane ride back to Israel, that I wasn’t allowed back into the house until I lost weight. My cycle of purging began again in earnest as soon as I got back to my dorm room at Michlalah.
Fortunately, I was able to lose the 25 pounds I had gained at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, I managed to catch mono and was pretty sick the rest of the summer. At least my Father let me back into the house.
I amped up my cycle of binging and purging in College as the academic stress now combined with the stress of finding a Shidduch. I also started going to the gym and working out with a trainer and, for the first time in my entire life, I was finally within my BMI and looking great. And purging was also no longer a chore, in fact, I had been doing it for so long that I no longer needed a toothbrush or my fingers to throw up. Now, all I had to do was finish eating, walk into the bathroom, open my mouth and throw up. I had managed to reverse my peristalsis.
Binging and purging also felt really good. It was something I was able to control and, like a drug, I would get a high after every puke session. My family hadn’t a clue; I was extremely calculating and secretive about my habit.
Friday nights, after Shabbat dinner, were my favorite times to binge and purge. I would wait until all the family went to sleep and then I would raid the refrigerator. Often, I would go for the sweet highly caloric stuff. My Dad liked to buy Tofutti ice cream in bulk and I would count the number of pints we had in the freezer and, if it was a high number, I would take one down to my room in the basement. I liked the chocolate cookie supreme, it was my favorite flavor. In the dark of my bedroom, I would sit by the light of the bathroom, read a Fashion magazine, and consume the entire pint. Once I was done, I would just purge in the bathroom, drink some water, and go to sleep.
But, my binging and purging took its toll on my body and, pretty soon, I was battling terrible heartburn. I went to my Dr. and, after an examination, she discovered ulcers up and down my esophagus. I had to come clean, and she urged me to come clean to my parents. Because I was 18, she couldn’t tell them herself, but she told me that if I didn’t stop throwing up, I was at risk of my esophagus bursting (and other horrible side effects of being bulimic).
I remember telling my parents about my problem and them being absolutely stunned. They couldn’t believe I had been throwing up for so many years, and that they had no idea. I was immediately sent to a therapist in the City who was ineffective. After a few sessions, I stopped going and told my parents I would just deal with it myself. I parred down my binging and purging, but was never fully cured.
College ended and I moved out of the house, taking my bulimia habit with me. I was working in PR, a job that was all about image, and I was surrounded by beautiful men and women who dressed well, went to the gym, and were very into their physical appearances. But I was finally free of the food restrictions I had at home and I ate with abandon. A typical breakfast came from Pick a Bagel, and included a large hot chocolate, a toasted sesame bagel with olive cream cheese and a slice of tomato, and a chocolate chip muffin. Lunch came from Light Delights across the street, and was usually a large fruit salad, a burritto and a cappuccino muffin. I would have my 4:00 p.m. sugar fix and go to the card store on the corner and come back with bags of yogurt covered nuts and raisins, or chips and cheese doodles, and then I would indulge myself back home with heaping bowls of butter slathered pasta and hamburgers and french fries.
I started smoking, went out drinking with my work friends, and stopped working out at the gym. My weight ballooned and I was no longer fitting into my size 10-12 clothing, I was pushing size 16-18 and feeling lousy about myself. One day, I noticed that I wasn’t getting some of the client opportunities some of my slender colleagues were getting, and I realized that my weight was hindering my climb up the corporate ladder. I also wasn’t dating and avoiding men like the plague.
But my zeal to make it in the corporate world was far greater than my desire for food and I started binging and purging again. This time, I started purging at the office, and I no longer feared that my roommates or my colleagues would catch me. I also joined a gym, took up boxing, and began smoking 2 packs a day. My weight got back under control, thanks to the bulimia, and I started feeling better about myself.
I was bulimic for years and years, jumping from job to job, dating guy after guy, and yo-yoing between two dress sizes. I started taking medication for the heart burn since there was no way I was going to give up on my binging and purging, it was working for me and aside from the heart burn, I felt great.
It was a while before I actually realized that I had developed another disorder known as Rumination syndrome. In fact, I didn’t even notice it until my brother pointed it out to me one night. It was Friday night and I was home for Shabbat. After a delicious Shabbat dinner, I was reading a magazine in the living room when I suddenly found myself chewing. My brother looked over at me and asked me what I was eating. I honestly didn’t know and I just brushed him off. That’s when I started paying attention and I realized that now, after every meal, I was bringing food up, chewing it again, and swallowing.
I was literally like a cow. I was chewing my cud. And this was disgusting to me. I can’t explain why being bulimic didn’t disgust me, but ruminating was the last straw. I didn’t mention anything to my parents, or my friends, and I sought the help of an eating disorder specialist. With more than 2 years of intensive therapy, I managed to get the bulimia under control, but I wasn’t able to stop ruminating.
It started getting embarrassing, and I stopped going to friends apartments for Shabbat meals. At this point, I was living alone on the Upper West Side, and spending a lot of my time as a hermit in my apartment. If I did join my friends for Shabbat meals, I didn’t hang out afterwards, afraid someone would see me chewing hours after the meal ended. I wondered how I would ever be able to get married, how someone would even date me when I chewed my cud like a cow. The stress made me miserable and I sunk into a bit of a depression. I started binging and purging again, and I would go to the supermarket on the corner and buy boxes of Entenman’s, pints of Ben & Jerry’s, bags of BBQ potato chips and sit on my bed in my apartment, watch TV, and consume everything in its entirety. I would immediately throw up and feel better about myself.
This was my life for years and years until I moved to Israel in 2006. At that point, I had been bulimic and suffering from rumination syndrome for 14 years. And then I met my now husband and he loved me for who I was. He found me attractive at the size that I was, he wanted to commit himself to me and to marry me. That’s when I realized that it was time to kick my eating disorder once and for all.
I’ll admit that the first year of marriage was the hardest. I spent the year in therapy dealing with many issues, but for the most part I was there to stop ruminating. It was a long and difficult process, that included both emotional and physical therapy. Fortunately, my DH was supportive from day one, and he was the first person I ever told about the ruminating. It was a very humbling experience to tell him about my secret, I still never told my parents or my siblings about the rumination syndrome.
It wasn’t until we started trying to conceive that I was finally “cured” of both the bulimia and rumination syndrome. But, my desire to have children gave me the strength to conquer a 15 year eating disorder. And today, I look at my two daughters with such thanks, for their very existence helped rid me of a terrible, terrible disease.
I’ll be honest, I gained a lot of weight during this last pregnancy and the scale has not been kind. It’s tempting to quickly go back to the bad habits, but I’ve decided to lose weight the old fashion way. Fortunately, my DH is extremely supportive and we are going to go on a diet together. We also invested in a treadmill, and will be working out as a family.
I don’t blame anyone but myself for my eating disorder. I don’t blame Molly for teaching me how to purge, and I don’t blame the stresses of the Orthodox Jewish community or the pressure of being thin so that I could find a husband. I don’t even blame my parents for the pressure they put on me to lose weight – and believe me weight has been a family issue since I was pre-pubescent.
I was practically an adult when I started purging, and I finally stopped when I was 31 years old. I knew exactly what I was doing to my body and my health. I also knew that, when I was ready, I would stop. Fortunately, I had the resources and the money available to help me end my vicious cycle with the eating disorders.
And now, I just pray that my two daughters never battle with an eating disorder. To that end, we are very careful about how we deal with food in our home. We do not reward with food, we also do not soothe with food. We don’t weigh ourselves in front of the girls, but we do promote exercise and activity by exercising, going to the park and walking instead of taking the car as much as possible. Hopefully, if we start our daughters on the right track from the get go, we can ensure they have a healthy attitude towards food.
Have you battled an eating disorder? Do you have any friends/family members who you suspect is anorexic or bulimic? Let us know how we can help!