When I think back to the years when I suffered from Anorexia images of numbers crowd my mind. I counted almost everything: calories, steps, exercises, smiles. My life was barely lived. Instead, I calculated; my existence was devoted to my weight and appearance, and to pleasing the eating disorder voice in my mind.
Generally I now avoid counting. I cannot stand the notion of measuring any aspect of my life. I detest the idea of living each day as if everything must add up, assigning worth to quantity rather than quality. Rather, I strive to enjoy each day and revel in the joy and work past the sorrow. And yet, this mentality comes to an abrupt halt each year: The seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are devoted to counting. We begin counting the second night of Pesach and count up until Shavuot. There is also a component of mourning during the first 5 weeks of the Omer. As I’ve tred to remove myself from counting I have had to grapple with this commandment. I’ve thought about this concept and have finally come to a place of understanding and appreciation, rather than dread and frustration.
When I was sick I used to count up. I added and calculated to achieve a certain amount of exercise each day and limit myself to a certain number of calories. This was the way I defined myself at the time, by the number of the day, just as the time leading up to Shavuot is defined by the day of the Omer. Lag B’aomer, or the 33rd day of the Omer, acts as a milestone or marker, as most people return to celebrations and Smachot (celebrations) after this day. This has always reminded me of achieving my weight goals, and the markers I made for myself at a time when Anorexia controlled my life.
So how do I manage my emotions around these 7 weeks? How can I transform this act of counting in my mind so that I no longer have the association to my eating disorder? By keeping in mind the purpose behind the counting of the Omer.
Sefirat HaOmer is a time of counting down, although it manifests as an accumulation of days instead. Though we add up each night, in reality we are counting in celebration toward what is to come rather than the days behind us. There is a unique excitement as we approach Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah at Har Sinai. And while I experienced an excitement regarding the personal goals I made in my eating disorder calculations, there is something inherently different about the counting. It is not simply that the counting up to Shavuot revolves around something of deep value. Rather, it is the nature of the counting that involves the Jewish nation, rather than the individual.
When I lived in my world of numbers, I was alone with only the company of a demonic voice in my mind. I had personal, unhealthy goals that led to my demise, rather than to any form of celebration. The reason I am able to participate fully, and wholeheartedly in the Sefirah process is because of the nature of community; this Mitzvah reflects the countdown to the celebration of the unification of our people. When we received the Torah we became a nation unified by a set of laws and values as well as a common history. I am able to count because I know that the counting is beyond just me. It is a Mitzvah that reflects an important milestone in my history as a Jew. Instead of staying stuck in old memories and patterns I am able to reflect on my use of counting and now turn it around for something positive, like this Mitzvah.
I share this personal narrative to reflect the manner in which we can transform negative associations, into positive and meaningful outlooks. I often look back on certain holidays, dates, and foods that have negative associations bringing me back to the time in my life when I suffered from the pain of an eating disorder. But rather than let these associations rule my mind, I find meaning in the difficulties and create new memories. Counting has returned to what it should be – a meaningful Mitzvah to welcome the excitement surrounding Shavuot. I have learned that I can let the negativity define me and define holidays and practices, or I can push beyond the negativity and create new meaning for myself. This applies not only to personal memories, but to Jewish practices that are even more special to me as a recovered individual. It is my hope that with any tragedy you may face, you are able to rise above and push through knowing that you are connected to the Jewish community, a notion that continues to instill strength within me.