“We are willing to send you on a trip to Israel for Thanksgiving. We will pay for everything.” These were the words of my parents almost three years ago, as the summer of 2010 was coming to a close. Most people would be out the door before the word “Thanksgiving,” already making plans and packing months in advance. And yet when I heard these words my heart dropped down to my pancreas because I knew what was coming next: “You can only go, if we know that you can eat on your own.” I was two years into my recovery from anorexia nervosa, and traveling to Israel would be no simple task. In fact, it was the hardest challenge posed to me since the day I had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Most people hear eating disorder and immediately think of “Hollywood It Girls” starving for attention or of immature, vain teenagers – terrible misconceptions. In reality, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. They are not a choice and they are not – in reality – about appearances or beauty. Rather, they are psychological coping mechanisms. While growing up I scoffed at the mention of anorexia, rolling my eyes and thinking that the individual up for discussion should just “get over it.” After graduation from high school (2008) I learned the truth about eating disorders, when I myself was struck by one: I was in an awful place trying to deal with the loss of a family member, brutal social betrayal (we’re talking more than just soap-opera-esque drama) and the fact that I was starting college, moving out for the first time, and separated from most of my peers who had gone to learn in Israel for the year. This combination proved to be lethal and I slowly started eating less. I developed severe clinical depression and after a few weeks had dropped eating almost all food completely. This was not a choice so much as a compulsion.
My parents noticed my change in behavior, attitude, and appearance, and quickly stepped in. I spent months in various treatment settings, withdrew from my semester in college, and attended countless appointments – doctors, therapists, nutritionists, etc. I returned to school as just a shadow of a person: I wore baggy clothes and spoke to very few people. I Skyped all my meals with my parents while on campus, and returned home each night to a life of pain. This was not just a phase or a teenage trend. My eating disorder stemmed from true trauma and loss that led me to feel self-loathing and deep psychological pain. I had grown up in a “normal” family with loving parents, I was not reckless nor did I have a hobby centered on my body (ballet, gymnastics, etc.). I was a typical girl who was just hurting and that’s all it took for the eating disorder to show its face.
By August 2010 my recovery was somewhat stagnant. I was eating all my meals with my parents and slowly starting to see friends, but not really moving forward. That was when my parents offered me the trip to Israel. I adore Israel. I have very, very close friends there and at the time I had a boyfriend who lived there. This seemed like the most wonderful offer and yet the thought of eating independently was terrifying. It meant that I had to be accountable for any weight I would gain. I also knew that lying to my parents would not work – they would eventually notice if I did not eat when I said I did, and this would just put me further behind in recovery. I really needed to work and fight like hell if I wanted to go. My first response was “No, there is no way I can do that.” My parents responded calmly and told me that if I changed my mind they’d be happy to work with me and help me.
What caused me to push myself? The idea that I did not always want to be suffering. The knowledge that somewhere deep inside I wanted to get better. The faith that there was strength somewhere inside me that would push me through. Those three months before my trip were most likely some of the hardest in my entire recovery process. I learned to eat again and pushed through the tears and screaming. I was in no way cured by the time I got on that El-Al flight, (recovery is not that simple and my journey remained uphill) but I knew that I had it in me to overcome my battles.
To me Israel was the point in my recovery when I knew that one day I would get better. I saw my friends and consciously realized that it was not my weight that they cared about; rather, they wanted to see me happy, smiling. Israel symbolized a place where I could be independent and unique because there is a natural sense of belonging. Additionally, much of my life had been about doing everything perfectly and pleasing everyone all of the time. Israel was one aspect of my life that did not involve perfection or pleasing others. It became my safe haven and throughout my recovery I always had something to look forward to: going back to Israel.
As someone who now works in the field of eating disorders, I encourage those that I work with to find “their Israel” – an outlet in life to which they can feel safe and comfortable and that will keep them motivated and moving forward. Recovery is a long, tiresome, painful process but I strongly believe that to avoid stagnation, individuals need to find challenges, whether they be “big” or “small” so that they can constantly be moving forward.