My 13-year-old Israeli niece is spending her very first summer at a Jewish sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania. When I heard she was going, I was so excited. I’m a Jewish summer camp veteran, having spent more than my fair share of summers at Camp Morasha, Camp Hillel, Camp Moshava IO and Camp Mesorah. For months, I helped her plan and prepare. And, since she’s been in camp, I’ve been waking up each morning to look at the camp pictures posted online. She looks so happy, having fun like a 13-year-old should.
I keep thinking about all of the things she is going to learn, and it takes me back to my own summer camp experiences. I can still remember the songs I learned at Camp Morasha. At Camp Moshava, I learned how to shoot a rifle, and how to build a tent with two blankets, sticks, and rope. And at Camp Mesorah, I learned how to binge and purge.
This summer makes it 20 years since I began my battle with an eating disorder. One of my bunkmates was anorexic, and would spend meal times playing with her food, sniffing coffee grinds, and chatting up the boys. Oftentimes, she would leave the lunchroom and return to the bunk. We all took turns following her back to the bunk, to make sure she was okay.
The air was cool the night it was my turn to follow her back to the bunk. I remember stuffing my fingers into my jeans and picking up the pace as the stars started twinkling over the lake and the pale pink sky was swallowed up by the darkness. Making sure not to let the bunk door slam behind me, I almost tiptoed into the room. I didn’t know what I was looking for — I just knew that I was looking out for something. The toilet flushed and she joined me in the room, not too surprised that I was there. She asked me if I wanted some cookies and I said “sure.” I was never one to pass up a cookie, and we settled onto my bed with the box between us.
We chatted for a bit about nonsense, and then she asked me if I was happy with the way I looked. I was the heaviest girl in the bunk and it was no secret that I was ashamed of my weight. She told me that I had a pretty face, and that if I just lost some of the weight, I could get a boyfriend. I really wanted a boyfriend. I had a little crush on one of the waiters and assumed he didn’t like me because I was overweight. I knew she was right: she was already dating one of the CIT boys.
She told me that I didn’t have to completely stop eating, that I could eat but I would have to get rid of the food. She took me into the bathroom, told me to grab my toothbrush, and taught me how to use it to make myself throw up. She seemed very pleased when I was able to vomit all of the cookies; I was simply surprised at how easy it was.
I began binging and purging, in earnest, that year. I was in good company: my high school was practically full of other girls with eating disorders. The following summer, I returned to camp Mesorah as a junior counselor, and my eating disorder was kicked into high gear. I would starve myself all day, my stomach rumbling and protesting as I took my campers from activity to activity. After curfew, I would meet up with three of my friends, and we would share two cans of vegetables. Afterward, I would lie in bed awake, so hungry that it hurt. But my stomach was going flat and my clothing was starting to get really loose. I felt so satisfied with myself, with the results of my starvation, that I kept at it.
It was easy to keep my eating disorder a secret, especially once I started eating again during the day. My parents would buy food in bulk, so they never noticed when food went missing. A pint of Tofutti here, a bag of potato chips there. The cycle continued throughout high school and during my seminary year in Israel. My parents finally found out when I was in college, when I went to my doctor because I was suffering from horrible acid reflux. She discovered ulcers in my mouth and suspected I had ulcers in my esophagus. During the appointment, I told her that I was binging and purging. I was already 18, so she couldn’t call my parents and tell then herself, but she urged me to come clean. She scared me by saying that my esophagus could burst if I didn’t stop throwing up. She also gave my behavior a name: bulimia.
Telling my parents I was bulimic was just horrible. I was ashamed of myself, of my behavior. By the end of the week, I had an appointment with a therapist specializing in eating disorders. But we just didn’t click, and I convinced my parents that I didn’t need therapy and that I could get better on my own.
I continued binging and purging and got a prescription for Nexium, to treat my acid reflux. With my acid reflux under control, it no longer hurt to purge, and so I continued the cycle. I started working and moved out of my parents’ house, which just intensified my eating disorder. And, all that time, my weight was still yo-yoing. I was frustrated that I wasn’t thin, and couldn’t understand why I was losing and gaining the same five pounds. It made no sense: I was binging and purging every night! But, like a drug, it became an addiction. I literally felt a high every time I purged, and no matter the damage I was doing to my body, I just couldn’t stop.
I finally got serious about my eating disorder when I was diagnosed with rumination syndrome. I was literally shamed into getting help; I could no longer eat anything without it automatically coming up. I hadn’t needed to use a toothbrush or fingers for years, when I wanted to vomit, all I needed to do was open my mouth.
After years of therapy, I’m resigned to the fact that I will always battle my eating disorder. I am no longer binging and purging, and I have survived the rumination syndrome, which was honestly harder to cure that the bulimia. But every single day is a struggle.
Today, I worry about passing my eating disorder onto my children. I know that the statistics are against me. I know I will fight as hard as I can to make sure my children have a healthy relationship with food. But no matter how vigilant I might be, they could very well be exposed to it from their friends. Like I was.