Two weeks ago there was an incident at the Friday night Shabbat dinner table.
Just after the soup had been cleared and the kugels and grilled chicken were served, I cried into my white napkin, while food and laughter were exchanged around me. My small dog had her paws up on my chair, nudging me with her nose, wondering why I hadn't yet fed her, my niece and nephew complaining of their upcoming bedtime.
I was cutting up a hot dog. A measly, slightly burnt hot dog was the source of a steady flow of tears.
My mother noticed and gave me one of her looks, a look of shock and alarm and questioning. After looking down at my plate she gave me a knowing smile, one that reached her eyes and offered sympathy and understanding.
My hot dog had ended up in slivers. I was cutting it up into minuscule bites to feed to my poodle, whose tail was still wagging in an overexcited motion as all this transpired. I was being transported back to five years earlier when I was still suffering from anorexia nervosa and cutting up my food was one of my many eating-disordered habits, one that became instinctive and natural.
When I was first diagnosed with anorexia I knew nothing about the mental disorder. In my mind an eating disorder was about vanity and appearance and attention, a simple phase that one could choose to "get over." My knowledge of calories, exercise, and food rituals was non-existent. I knew I was in pain -- that was all. I felt lost and hurt and undeserving and utterly alone. I denied any diagnosis. I believed that I was managing. That I would be "fine."
I was wrong.
Like most eating disorders, mine grew and spiraled and invaded every aspect of my life. It seeped into my relationships, my behavior, my thoughts and reactions. My fears about death, recent social betrayals, former emotional abuse, and my sensitive nature and history all contributed toward the growth of this illness.
It felt as if the eating disorder had a mind of its own. After months of kicking and screaming, hurdles and detachments I finally came to some acceptance that I did in fact have a mental disorder.
Admitting there was something wrong was a difficult, giant leap that was followed by the expectation that things would magically get better, that this cloak of an eating disorder, this veil of depression would slide off my back and the healthy, vibrant young woman would return. In reality, this was only the first step. A step that left me feeling naked and vulnerable in a body I detested. A body that housed a soul that felt unfamiliar and weak. But it also brought forward an ounce of light into my otherwise darkened world.
Understanding that I suffered from anorexia led to the gateway of my recovery. "I need help." These words meant that I was expected to get the help, and speedily. My family and friends wanted nothing more than to see me happy and healthy and my admission seemed to be a sign to them that I would return to my old self in no time. In reality, my uphill battle only grew steeper.
Because not only did I have the goal of recovery: of smiling and singing and eating without feeling any hate or fear... of being comfortable with my body, of letting my spirit shine... but I also needed to educate those around me, to show them that an eating disorder is not simply a phase or an immature cry for attention. It is not something that will pass in one month, or over the span of a few episodes as it is represented on television. Rather, an eating disorder is painful and haunting and leaves a person emotionally exhausted and clawing for a world without hate and suffering.
I was blessed to have a wonderful family, fantastic boyfriend, a killer treatment team, and some pretty top-notch friends. But this did not make my journey easy, and most of the sweat had to come off my own brow. My determination and motivation were tested, and while they seemed absent for much of my process, they appeared when I realized that there is so much more to life than sadness and calories and regret. Even then, this fight was not an easy one, and I feel blessed every day that I can say I am recovered, that I no longer live with an eating disorder. My career pathway and life's goal have become to help others suffering from this debilitating illness, to create awareness of its true nature and stab all the misconceptions that exist among both men and women, young and old.
My soul cried when I looked down at that poor excuse of a hot dog because I ached thinking of the girl that was once so consumed by food that she missed out on life and love. I was saddened by the years I lost to an eating disorder, devastated by the number of people I know still suffering.
But I was also relieved to know that the only one who will need food cut up into tiny bites is my puppy. That I can live my life focusing on joy and health and at times sorrow and rejection. But I have learned to breathe after these experiences take place and to appreciate life and this body of mine for all it has to offer.
And so I lowered the meat onto the ground for my eager, whining dog. And I exhaled and took part in the feast of life.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.