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Tisha B’av, meet my eating disorder

Reflections on battling anorexia, and the difficulties and merits of purposely fasting not from an unhealthy place

I hate fasting. I hate it a lot.

But it isn’t for the normal reason that most people hate fasting: hunger…boredom…more hunger. No, I hate fasting because I think it will forever be a challenge for me and the eating disorder part of my brain.

As a survivor of anorexia, it never feels good to purposely restrict food. It just brings me back to a time when I was planning out meals and cutting back on food that I needed to be eating. No matter how recovered I consider myself, or how healthy my brain is now, I am immediately transported back to a different time when I feel those hunger pangs, and know that I am depriving myself of nutrients.

Then why fast? If it is such a – for lack of a better, or perhaps censorship of a better word – “mind-screw,” why put myself through it? There are multiple answers to this question, but first I need to give a little background.

I do not fast all fast days. At this point, I only fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av. Countless young women have asked me whether or not they should be fasting and I always give them the same answer: “It’s all subjective, you need to speak to your therapist and rabbi.”

The first two years after being diagnosed with anorexia, I was told that I needed to do a partial fast. Partial fasts are when the individual can consume 2 tablespoons up to every 9 minutes. This was hell. I was essentially eating every nine minutes on the day of Tisha B’av, completely preoccupied with the clock and timer, wondering when the next 9th minute would be. But this is what I needed to do. This was my fast day.

Since then I have fasted in the traditional way. And while I survive and get through it like the next person, it is not just about the slowness of the day and my need for (insert name of food that people crave on fast days), it is about the psychological voices that interrupt my thoughts during the day. I consider myself healthy and well into recovery – if not recovered – but these voices strike from time to time. What makes me recovered is the fact that I do not answer to them.

I do not entertain the possibility of restricting or over-exercising, or let it ruin my day when my reflection is not something I find pleasant. Instead I remind myself what I have going for me on the inside, how far I’ve come and all the things that make me strong.

But on days like this when I bring myself to purposely fast and not from an unhealthy place (that double-negative was necessary), I find myself confused and angry. Why do I have to fast of all people? Can’t I get a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card on this one? And I know that many people would say yes. They would urge me not to fast, telling me that if it brings me such pain and confusion I should be exempt.

But there are two reasons that I do fast:

  1. I know that I am mentally and physically healthy enough to fast. Most rabbis I know who specialize with eating disorder patients agree that patients who can, really should fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av. I no longer think of myself as a patient and know that I have it in me to get through the 25 hours with only a few complaints and discomforts.
  2. I have found meaning in this fast day. Growing up, fast days meant half-days at school and no homework; they did not have much significance other than knowing that *something* bad happened once upon a time and we would be having cheese curls and pizza to break our fast. Now please, don’t think that I wasn’t educated — I had a yeshiva education and my parents constantly taught us about history and Halacha, but I simply never connected to the fast days. Now that connection exists. I know that when I fast it is about more than me, Temimah Zucker, and my history with an eating disorder. It is about me, Temimah Zucker, and the history of my people. Instead of focusing on the food and how the lack thereof affects my mind, I focus on what we are commemorating. I do not watch “sappy” movies or TV shows as is the custom among some of my friends, but, instead, I watch documentaries on our people and movies which show the tragedies that have struck our nation throughout history. I read Kinot and visit a cemetery to connect to the mourning of the day. This may sound morbid but I believe the day is meant to be somewhat heavy. We should focus on the sadness but with hope for the future. Rather than think about myself, I think about something bigger than me and find a way to connect to the day without focusing too much on the food. I believe that is the key for individuals in recovery who find themselves having to fast, or even for those not having to fast. 

Find a way to connect yourself to the day besides the food! For those who are not able to fast there are often feelings of guilt. What these individuals must realize is that the priority at this time is keeping their bodies healthy; they can take part in Tisha B’av in other ways besides fasting.

We all have difficulty with Tisha Ba’v — mine relating to my history with an eating disorder — and it is not easy, but it is not meant to be easy.

For those in recovery: I recommend that you consult a rabbi and therapist about whether or not you should fast. Additionally, find a distraction to keep your mind off the food that will connect you to the heart of Tisha B’av. For tips and questions please feel free to comment or send an email to the address on my website.

May everyone — no matter what your struggle — have a meaningful Tisha B’av.

About the Author
Temimah Zucker, LMSW is a primary therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in the fields of eating disorders, self-esteem, and mental health. Temimah writes and publicly speaking on these subjects and is also an adjunct professor in NYC teaching on the subject of the treatment of eating disorders. For information or inquiries please see her website.
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