Why I wear purple

I remember the first time I heard about Anorexia. I must have been around 13 years old and I overheard some relatives talking about Mary Kate Olsen. All I remember thinking was, “Why doesn’t she just eat?”

Little did I know that 5 years later I would be plagued by Anorexia, an illness that escalated quickly and almost took my life.
Little did I know that eating disorders are not quite so simple.

The final week in February is “Eating Disorders Awareness Week” as promoted by the National Eating Disorder Association. This year’s theme, “I had no idea” is one that resonates with my core.

I had no idea what an eating disorder was.
I had no idea that I had an eating disorder.
And others had no idea that I was suffering.

When I speak in schools I am sure to make a few things very clear: an eating disorder is not a choice, an eating disorder is not a phase. It is a psychological coping mechanism. It represents the fact that the individual is in pain. It is a raw, biting mental illness that robs the individual of joy and life.

As part of NEDA Awareness Week, three unbelievably strong young women, Erin Casey, Natalie Kate, and Lizzie Elsberg have created The Purple Project. This project asks individuals to submit pictures while holding a sign which explains why they wear purple.(“I wear purple because I am worth more than a number on a scale”, “I wear purple in honour of my best friend in recovery”, etc) The idea is to promote awareness and support for the entire month of February leading up to NEDA Awareness Week.

The following is a piece that I wrote recently explaining why it is that I wear purple: 

My reasons for wearing purple have evolved over the years. 

Five years ago I found myself at an inpatient facility to address what everyone told me was a life-threatening, mental illness. I was still holding on to some sense of denial, telling myself that what I had wasn’t real, wasn’t serious, and that I definitely didn’t look like my peers. I couldn’t truly be Anorexic.

Had I been asked to wear purple at the time, I would have done so for my friends; for the strong women I met in various treatment centers who deserved health and happiness. They were my supporters, my kindred spirits who showed me that I was not alone in my pain.

But I would not have worn purple for myself – for in my mind I did not deserve or need to wear purple in honour of my own journey. 

After some time I found my voice. I returned to college where I had withdrawn for “medical reasons.” I was still a shell. I was an empty person who bit her tongue when she felt the desire to laugh, because she did not merit such joy. I went back to my studies and re-entered the pool of life, but did so on a raft outside the water, where I knew I could not drown. 

It took years for me to enter the water fully. I dipped my toes in slowly: it began with finding the best treatment team to fit my needs. With the help of my therapist I took my first step into the cool waters. I reconnected with friends. Slowly.

I began to open up to my family, letting the people who supported me come and hold my hands as I stepped in deeper.
I soon saw that I was tired with living on my raft: tired of living in constant anguish, tired of counting, tired of letting cruel people define who I was…and tired of being too fearful to take the risk to live my life. 

I let the water embrace me. At moments I took steps backward, I reached for my raft and brought it into the water with me.

But after tears and strong determination I dunked my head below the surface and let freedom wash over me. 

Had I been asked to wear purple 2 years ago, I would have done so for me. I’d have worn purple and proudly showed off why I deserve to live, why I am worth more than a number or a shape. I’d have worn purple because “I deserve a full, happy life replete with mistakes as well as joy. I deserve health.” 

I learned to swim but I continued to practice. After many months I felt that I was no longer  “in recovery” but rather, “recovered.” And I knew immediately that I had a mission. I could not sit back and live my life, putting my Anorexia in the past when I knew that so many others were still struggling. I needed to help. 

I first got involved in the field as a volunteer for the NEDA helpline. I was determined and excited and wanted to make a difference.
The doors opened for me. Soon after, I began speaking in schools in my area about my own recovery, telling my story and talking about eating disorder awareness. 

But this was not enough, nor was it right.

I realized that my involvement had been from a purely selfish place. I recovered and so I should show others that they can recover too! While this is an admirable mindset, I knew that it would not work for me. Instead I needed to put myself out of the equation. It was no longer about the way my recovery could inspire others. Rather, it was about the other peoples’ journeys and the chance that perhaps I could help.

I pushed forward: I spoke in schools on awareness and body image, but spoke minimally about myself. I do believe that my story can show others that there is hope – an extremely important message, but I do not let this drive my work.

I got involved with different organizations, I met families in my home who needed guidance, I began writing on the subject of eating disorders. I started working in a treatment center, I created my own support group, I worked with individuals as a mealtime mentor. And then I was given the chance to create my own non-profit to provide support to those suffering in the Jewish community. 

I did not sit back and let these opportunities happen. I fought for each and every one of them because my role has shifted; I no longer desire to help others, I must. This has become my mission in life. Being on the other side has brought me an incomparable, liberating existence. I am no longer triggered. At times I am reminded of my own struggles which can allow further empathy, but it is not about me. It is about the person I am supporting.

At the same time, working in this field has also been selfish. It has helped me stay motivated and allowed me to learn more about myself and my needs in the process 

This year I wear purple for the friends I met in treatment – their support was and is immeasurable.
I wear purple for my family, loved ones (including my dog!), and friends who showed me that all they wanted was for me to smile and come enjoy the water with them.
I wear purple for myself, for the full life I intend to live.
And I wear purple for all those people still suffering. I write this with tears in my eyes knowing that you are experiencing such pain. I had once been hopeless; I never imagined that I could recover from this illness and overcome my demons. I could not imagine that I would be able to one day breathe without judging and counting.
You deserve a life without numbers and a life without ED.

I wear purple for you.

There is too much ignorance that exists in the world – specifically in the Jewish community – and there is too much unnecessary shame surrounding eating disorders.
I share this piece in the hopes that as a community, we work together to spread awareness and support.

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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