Fifteen years ago, a girl asked me if I thought that keeping kosher had contributed to my eating disorder. She was a fellow patient in the eating disorder facility where I’d been hospitalized several months earlier after my weight dropped precipitously.
“No, there’s no way.” I answered quickly and confidently. I was new to secular culture and had gotten used to fielding such ridiculous questions about Orthodox Judaism.
For the first 15 years of my life, my only exposure to secular culture was through books. Everyone in my life dressed, talked, and acted the same way that I did, so being hospitalized was the culture shock of my lifetime. Everything in my life that had been effortless — keeping kosher, dressing modestly, keeping Shabbat — because burdensome and strange.
Like every other underweight patient on the unit, I was forced to gain approximately a half a pound per day. Unlike every other underweight patient, I had to do it by eating kosher airline meals. My parents had diligently asked their rabbi how I should approach mealtimes in the hospital and this had been his decision. Never mind the fact that I was literally dying from malnutrition, the rabbi wanted me to keep kosher. So that’s what I did. At the start of every meal, I’d go through the ridiculous charade of unwrapping the complicated package which usually contained three items, one properly cooked, one overly cooked and one undercooked.
It wasn’t easy being religious in this setting. I was uncomfortable in my modest clothes. I didn’t feel the slightest desire to pray. Keeping Shabbat was miserable and depressing because I couldn’t do anything to take my mind off how I felt. Still, I had a strong sense of Jewish pride so I maintained that I was happy with my religion and wouldn’t change a thing. When therapists suggested that there might be a correlation between my rigid, religious upbringing and my tightly controlled eating disorder behaviors, I brushed them off. I’d been warned that they might suggest that. They didn’t understand Orthodoxy. I bought into an us vs. them mentality, and refused to take spiritual advice from anyone who wasn’t an Orthodox Jew like me.
When I started 11th grade at my local Bais Yaakov, I was leaving school early every day to participate in four hours of outpatient therapy. It was during dinner one evening when that girl asked me if keeping kosher had caused my eating disorder. I remember how dismissive I was, how completely unable to I was to even consider that Orthodoxy was anything other than divine, flawless, and correct.
Hebrew school by day and treatment by night was a mindf***. My religious friends had no idea what I was going through. They didn’t understand that my time in the hospital had opened me up to a world that made sense to me — a world that gave time and space to pain and suffering and rejected fakeness and superficiality. My family didn’t get it either. When I wanted to call my friends from the hospital, they’d say, “Those aren’t your real friends,” because in their minds, how could I have friends who weren’t Orthodox like me?
That year, I became close with one of my teachers, a rabbi who was young and progressive. I told him that sitting through my Hebrew classes felt like torture. I’d spent the past few months bonding with girls who were dealing with the most horrible life circumstances and unimaginable levels of pain. Watered down Bible stories with questionable lessons were filling me with resentment that was bordering on rage. These classes felt pointless. He rearranged my schedule so that I could completely skip those classes and use the time to catch up in other subjects that I’d missed from my time in treatment. I was so appreciative of his willingness to find a creative solution for me, but at the same time, his plan of action felt like an admission that those classes were, indeed, pointless.
I was blessed with some incredible teachers and mentors. They’d ask me — frequently — if I was angry at God for the situations I was experiencing. I was too afraid to say that I was. At that time, I firmly believed that if I spoke badly about God, he’d make my already challenging life much worse, and that wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.
I desperately wanted to go to seminary in Israel. I was tired of feeling different from everyone else and just wanted my life to proceed smoothly on the only path that was available to me: high school, seminary, shidduchim, marriage, family. I was told that if I relapsed, I wouldn’t be allowed to go to Israel, so I stayed at a stable weight although my mindset was far from healthy.
I struggled in Israel. There were times when I felt intensely connected to God and other times when I was secretly furious at him for making me suffer so deeply. I couldn’t act on my eating disorder because I was being weighed weekly. I tried to buy in to what my teachers were telling me. I let myself be lured into their way of thinking, hoping desperately that if I fully committed to a strictly religious way of life, God would reward me with happiness and a calm spirit.
But my spirit was anything but calm. I snuck out of my seminary at night by climbing over a barbed wire fence and wandered the streets of Jerusalem, occasionally wiping tears from my eyes. I cracked the password on the computers in our dorm so I could go online and chat with my friends from treatment.
When I left seminary, I had achieved a certain level of thoughtlessness that allowed me to state that I wanted to date a religious man and live a life dedicated to spirituality and a Torah lifestyle. I came back to America and threw myself into college, finishing my bachelor’s degree in the following year, as did most of my friends.
I applied to social work school because it made the most sense. I had an inborn desire to help people and while I didn’t know if I could save myself, but at least I could try to save everyone else.
I hated being a single girl in the frum community. I felt like a piece of property being auctioned off via a shidduch resume and that made me feel powerless and small. It also made me lose respect for those that fully bought into the system and perpetuated many of the elements that are damaging to young people. Still, even if I didn’t like the system, I didn’t have any other options. Throughout these years, I stayed at a healthy weight, because when I met my husband, I needed to be able to say I was fully recovered. How would I get married otherwise?
Then I graduated from college and joined the real world. I had my first job and joined an indoor rock climbing gym because it was a sport that lit my adventurous side on fire and gave me tremendous joy. I developed wonderful friendships with all sorts of people and began to fully understand that non-religious people could be lovely and genuine and moral despite not living by the Torah. I felt more at home in this world and started to build a life that felt right for me. I took off my skirt and started rock climbing in leggings and a tank top. I felt amazing.
When Rosh Hashanah came around, I got really sick. For three days, I was flat on my back with a migraine that persisted despite various medications. Alone with my thoughts and in a world of pain, I decided that God was punishing me for my behavior. I had tried to live my own life and he must have been furious. I cut my newly found freedom short and threw myself into religious life with fervor. Within the year, I was married to an Orthodox, Jewish man.
In order to go from being an independent-thinking, rock-climbing warrior to a religious housewife, I needed to shut down the best parts of myself. I had to stop being honest and inquisitive. Self-introspection was dangerous. But the seeds had been planted and I couldn’t stay dead inside for too long. A year after I was married, I was divorced, recognizing that I’d made a huge mistake, and no amount of couple’s counseling was going to make this marriage a good idea.
After my divorce, I was in uncharted territory. None of my Bais Yaakov or seminary teachers had prepared me for this. I had veered off the path that the frum community wanted me to take, so I now had the exhilarating, yet terrifying, freedom to create a life completely for myself.
First, I relapsed, falling headlong into my eating disorder that had been dormant for nearly 10 years. For so long, I’d stayed in recovery for the wrong reasons. First it was seminary, then it was marriage, then it was for my career. Along the way, I’d believed people who told me that if I had a better relationship with God, I wouldn’t struggle with an eating disorder and depression. At times, I even swore to God that I’d never relapse again, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.
When I realized that my weight loss had gotten out of control, I went back to treatment, this time, halfway across the country. I knew I needed distance from everything I knew to really put my life back together. Over the next few years, I really figured myself out. I got to the root of my eating disorder and battled my way through memories and feelings and heartache and core beliefs and kept eating throughout it all, even when all I wanted to do was starve the pain away. I didn’t bother bringing skirts to treatment and the only measure of kosher I kept was to stay away from pork and cheeseburgers.
I agonized over my belief system. I’d been told for so long that my eating disorder was a barrier between myself and God. But what if God was really the barrier to recovery from my eating disorder? Or maybe it wasn’t God, but actually my community, the rigid structure, the often nonsensical rules, the superficiality and judgement and the callousness towards other people who didn’t fit the mold?
When I came back from treatment, I hated food. My eating was mechanical, purely to maintain my weight, and mealtimes terrified me. So I set out to find the joy in eating. I began to dine out with friends, experimenting with cuisines and foods that I’d only heard of, always making sure that the company was top notch. These experiences allowed me to make positive associations with food in a way that I never had before. I stopped keeping Shabbat. Suddenly, the weekend doubled in possibility and opportunity. I started rock climbing again. I began taking circus classes. I went to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. I lived the life I wanted — the life that made me feel whole inside.
* * *
Let me just say that I know religious people will find my story threatening. They’ll be quick to say that I traded a structured, religious life for one of pleasure and selfishness. That’s okay. Several years ago I would have said the same thing about myself. Now I know that’s not the case. I traded a life full of shame, self-flagellation, and conformity for a life of congruence, wholesomeness and connection. I haven’t thrown off my values; I still very much live by them. I’m a damn good person. I live my life to help other people find wellness and meaning.
I don’t know if I believe in God, but I know I believe in kindness and connection. And I believe that I deserve to be healthy, to feed my body in a way that is necessary and enjoyable. I don’t fast anymore because deprivation only fed my disorder. Sometimes I think back to that question, 15 years ago, about whether or not keeping kosher made me anorexic. I don’t know if being religious created my eating disorder, but I do believe that staying religious — long after it made sense for me — kept me sick. I couldn’t really recover until I was living a life of genuineness and because of that, I believe I’ve said my final goodbyes to both Orthodoxy and anorexia, and said hello to a life worth fully living.