What Makes this Holiday Different? (Eating Disorder Support and Passover)

With less than 3 weeks until Pesach (Passover) I think of all the things that this holiday represents.

Slavery. Freedom.
Journeys. Leadership.
Plagues. Signs.
Commandments. Traditions.

This is a fundamental holiday, a celebration of all the events that led up to God liberating the Jewish people from Egypt, which we recount each year as a reminder that if this had not happened — we would still be slaves today.

Pesach requires preparation as these 8 days exist in somewhat of a bubble; we change our entire lifestyle during this holiday as we cut out any Chometz (leavened bread), engage in the Sedarim (ceremonial meals the first two nights with the retelling of the story of Pesach) and departing from the typical routine.

This experience can be particularly challenging for those in recovery from an eating disorder. The change in meals, foods, the time spent with family/friends, the large, long meals eaten together — it all constitutes a major change for individuals that typically shy away from change due to the anxiety is can bring about. Below are six tips for those in recovery, as well as their supporters, as we approach Pesach.

  1. Remember what this holiday is truly about. Passover is not truly about the food. It isn’t actually about the foods that become restricted or the recipes or the meals. Much like an eating disorder is not actually about the food itself but about the underlying issues and feeling states that contribute toward food being used as a coping mechanism or way of communicating. Pesach, in reality, is about the embarkment of the Jewish nation upon the journey of  being taken out of slavery and adopting the Torah. The commandments and traditions that follow are incorporated to support, remember, and commemorate the process. Just as we become engrossed in thoughts and behaviors, meal plans, food, etc. we can easily become engrossed in the food aspects of the holiday without taking a moment to pause and recognize the reality of why we observe. This will not remove the realities of all the different types of food and the potentially overwhelming nature of the meals. However it can offer a space to connect with the observance and relate to the themes and process to allow for a deeper understanding and perhaps a different approach.
  2. Talk to your team. There are often many questions around what accommodations can be made when an individual is in recovery and observing Pesach. This can become especially complicated when an individual is any type of treatment facility though complications can occur no matter the setting due to the need for sensitivity around food and the meal plan. It is essential to include all members of an individual’s team together: the individual him/herself, the therapist, dietitian, doctor, psychiatrist, supporters/family, and rabbi. There are often questions concerning whether someone who normally does not eat Kitniot (legumes) can do so, or about the amount of Matza that must be eaten, etc. It would be inappropriate to give a “blanket statement”-type of answer as this is always particular to the individual. The entire team must be involved, including the rabbinic authority, so that all information — including the state of the individual — is considered in order to make a supportive and informed decision. It is also important to find a rabbinic authority that has an understanding around eating disorder or can consult a colleague who does. Having this type of discussion will allow for those in recovery to feel heard and for all members of the team to come together in a meaningful collaborative way. The individual, can hear the recommendation and (utilize the next step) to then plan accordingly rather than wonder if any accommodations could be made or feel guilty if this had not been discussed with all the relevant individuals. This also allows for everyone to be on the same page; at times the eating disorder voice can be sneaky and having collaboration does not allow for any “he-said, she-said” should some individuals struggle with this.
  3. Make a plan. However the holiday is observed it often includes a break-away from the norm. Create a plan of how to ask for support, meals, coping skills, and what to do if struggling. Creating a plan can be helpful, but even more-so when a holiday includes different foods, large meals with family/friends, no use of technology, and at times a different setting should the individual be traveling, going to family, or in treatment. Creating a plan for approaching the various aspects of the holiday can be useful as this allows for the overall eight days to feel less overwhelming. It also leaves less room for questions when a plan has been formed and shared; creating the plan is step 1, sharing the plan with supporters so that they may help and also provide accountability is step 2 and just as important as the inception of said plan.
  4. Ask for help. As always in recovery, asking for help is a crucial part of the process. Eating disorder thrive on secrecy and asking for helping can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. Additionally, asking for help means that there is an admission of the problem which can feel overwhelming and even dangerous at times, as eating disorders thrive not only on secrecy, as mentioned above, but on denial. To ask for help means that the individual is taking a brave step toward involving others in the process. As a supporter, acknowledging how hard it is and then being open to providing help will further enable a supportive environment where the individual feels heard even if, as the supporter, you are unsure how to help. Simply being willing to help and asking how to do so can be more meaningful than you can ever imagine.
  5. Pack your tool box. Coping skills are a necessary part of recovery. As a therapist when I mention coping skills I’m often met with eye rolls or the statement “I’ve tried them, they don’t work!” or, “But what skills do you mean exactly?” Coping skills have various intentions. Processing, pausing, breathing, distracting, tolerating distress, etc. Creating and identifying skills for each of these intentions, and being thoughtful about categorizing can help in the moment when experiencing distress. For instance, if during the Seder one is feeling overwhelmed, knowing some mindfulness activities that can be done without leaving the chair or even needing to involve others (feeling your pulse, finding colours in the room, counting to 10 as many times as necessary, etc.) can make all the difference! But there must be an openness to trying these things, and trying many of them. Otherwise, the help they can offer will be overlooked.
  6. Know that this is temporary and be open to the experience. This holiday will not last forever. You can and will get through this, whatever should happen. It will require breathing, communicating, self-care, processing, identifying, and so much more. Remember to take it minute by minute and be open to the fact that perhaps it will go differently than expected. Overall, being attached not to the results but to the process and how you go about taking care of yourself and making hundreds of choices toward recovery will be more lasting and meaningful than any other approach. Additionally, if you are a supporter, read the above sentence slowly: hundreds of choices. Create space, as a supporter, to give support and also to receive support and be open to your own process of communicating.

I left treatment, years ago, two days before Pesach. I remember feeling, intensely — so much so that I thought I would burst. I remember the food and the crying and the anxiety. And I also remember smiling for the first time in months when my brother did funny movie impressions and sitting with my sister in silence as she offered to just be with me. I remember all of it, not just the food and the tears and the internal voices. Being open to all of it and doing it thoughtfully, with connection, can allow for these memories that will someday simply be that — memories.

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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