I stopped eating when the rockets started.
This sentence will stay with me for a long time.
How can I describe the situation? Long sleepless nights filled with thundering noises, panic and chatter about the inevitable war that was bound to begin soon.
The less control I felt about what was happening in the world around me, the more control I craved and the less I ate.
I was never a picky eater. The opposite: I loved all foods, especially the cheesy, dough-y kinds. I must have baked thousands of cookies over Thursday nights and weekends with friends, dancing in the kitchen at my parent’s home in Jerusalem. I had dreams of going to pastry chef courses and making tall, beautiful layer cakes.
The cumulative effect of the reality I was facing living in Sderot, where I’m a student at Sapir College, did not become clear to me for a few months. With rockets coming in simultaneously while I was studying for end-of-semester exams last summer, I threw myself into my studies. Twelve-hour days spent huddled in the mamad (our missile-protected safe room) even during a quiet period, passed quickly and effortlessly when food wasn’t an Issue.
Slowly, the healthy meal-planning and kickbox-class-loving girl was fading into a shadow of anxiety and fear.
I began obsessing over numbers: numbers on the scale, grades on a test. My grades were good, but not good enough for me. Nothing was.
The obsessive cycle went on and did not let up. Every time I felt I might be getting a grip, another round of sirens would go off. The only comfort I felt was in hunger.
Weird, right? Hunger is a feeling we don’t usually tolerate. We immediately try to make it go away. But for me, it was finally something I could control. It allowed me to test the limits of my body, to push the boundaries of how desperately I wanted all the noise to stop.
I pulled away from friends, angry with them for not checking in enough, but also angry with myself for not feeling stronger in my mind and body, and mainly just angry. That’s what hunger does to you: it makes you angry at the world.
And, boy, was I angry.
When I finally said the words, “I think I have an eating disorder” to my husband and my parents, it truly was a low point for me. I felt like I’d let the terrorists win. I’d let them into my mind and I couldn’t stop it.
On some level, I didn’t want to.
It took months of treatment with a lovely and caring nutritionist and a wonderful therapist until I was finally open to signing up for an 8-session workshop in mindfulness meditation, offered through the psychology center on my campus.
I expected a group of students, all somewhat post-traumatic and spiritual. But instead, I met a group of 25 individuals and couples, mostly 60+, who grew up and stayed on the Gaza border, living and raising their families there, and who were all looking for exactly what I was: a break for the neverending, spinning, anxious mind.
In the mandatory introduction circle, I learned about the strength, love and commitment it has taken for these people to live here for so long. But more importantly, what I found – for the first time in a long time – was legitimization: for my fears, my anger, my pain, my inner conflict. I found the courage to look inside and say, “It’s okay, you’re doing so good.”
This semester, I began preparing months in advance for finals. I worked on how to build a schedule of meals that would be healthy and balanced, and I made sure to stick to the detailed charts I’d written out.
I studied with friends from school and not alone, making sure to take breaks throughout the day and to go to workouts in the evenings. I even initiated a spontaneous dance party in our student dorm one night, helping myself and many other students let loose from a high-pressured study period. That night, I remembered dancing in my kitchen growing up and I truly felt I was coming back to myself.
As I write this now, after receiving my final grade for the semester, I am proud to say that I succeeded. Not only that – I excelled. This afternoon, I spoke to the head of my department and she told me I’ll even be eligible for a merit scholarship at the end of the year if I keep up the good work.
Besides that, I quit my job, giving me more time and energy to spend on myself and practice my breathing, moving ever so slightly away from the persistent perfectionist I had been for so long. I was also able to show kindness and compassion during a conflict at work, and to strengthen friendships where I was needed and I didn’t even know.
As I reflect, I see that I did all this because I finally understood the goal. It’s not getting the perfect grade, achieving the perfect weight or being perfect in any sense. The goal is balance. It is seeing all the colors and the grey in-between, not just the black and white. It is looking in the mirror and saying “Damn, I look great today!” with no regard to a number on a scale.
All this success came because I finally allowed myself to eat; I nourished my body and my brain and the results are beautiful. I’m softer and less critical of myself; the fears I had about failing because I saw life as all or nothing have begun to clear away.
Do I worry that when the next round of rockets falls, it will all start again? Absolutely. But I hope and believe that the support I have received from others and the care I have invested in myself will be enough to keep me sane the next time, and that the journey that’s brought me to live in this scary place has a higher purpose after all.