Life Beyond Anorexia: One Woman’s Personal Journey
As a child, life was relatively happy and uneventful for Temimah Zucker. As the youngest child of three (an older sister and a brother in the middle) in an Orthodox Jewish family, the rich traditions of her faith meant frequent religious observances involving meals and many practices involving food. The daughter of a rabbi, Temimah found comfort in celebrating with family members, deepening her understanding and appreciation of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.
The loss of her grandmother when she was 16 deeply affected Temimah. She began to see a therapist to deal with the painful emotions. She then experienced some difficult social situations and a difficult transition after high school.
By the time she left home for the first time to go to college, things drastically changed. Temimah developed an eating disorder, specifically, anorexia, that devastated the young woman and her family, none of whom had a clue anything was wrong.
Here Temimah shares how she first became aware that her eating habits were both dangerously unhealthy and potentially fatal and how she made the long and sometimes painful journey to recovery. Her reason is simple: so that other young Jewish women struggling with an eating disorder know there is hope.
In the Beginning
Although she describes her childhood as normal, she didn’t really feel like she had a place in the household. “I felt a lot of loneliness as a child that never really got in the way of eating but I also noticed when my mother and sister would talk about dieting and weight loss. I think things were pretty much okay but all of these factors stuck to me rather than dissipating over time.”
She also recalls that no one in her family had an eating disorder but some extended family members were very weight conscious – and she noticed these things.
“My eating disorder developed when I went to college,” Temimah recalls. “I started restricting. I really didn’t understand what an eating disorder was. I didn’t do it with any intention of losing weight or for any sort of superficial reason. It was a way to deal with all of the emotions. At the time, part of what I felt was that I was unworthy of a happy life. I felt sort of psychosomatically full all the time because I was full of shame and self-loathing and all these things. I didn’t want to eat.”
But she spiraled very quickly. Temimah admits she had no idea how an eating disorder worked, so it wasn’t like she figured things out and looked it up. “I didn’t eat when I didn’t want to and that spiraled and escalated to a point where, two months later, my parents had noticed a severe change, not only in my eating behaviors, but in my mood.” Severely clinically depressed, she had cut herself off from her relationships. Her academic life, which she had been very meticulous about, was suffering.
Her parents also noticed her weight. This isn’t always the case, as Temimah explains: “With anorexia, it is possible to notice it, but with the nature of eating disorders, you can’t really judge someone and the severity of their suffering by how they look – which is a very common misconception to say, you’re only really sick if you’re emaciated.”
The long-term therapist Temimah had been seeing advised her parents that the eating disorder would just go away on its own. Temimah’s father would have none of that. He knew that eating disorders do not just disappear.
A visit to the doctor and extensive blood work revealed just how serious the disorder had already gotten. Temimah was days, if not hours, from a coma and her health was very much in jeopardy.
Thus began the refeeding process by her parents, who took it upon themselves to ensure Temimah received food on a regular basis. Although they didn’t know it at the time and were relying on intuition about what was best for their daughter, their actions were similar to the Maudsley method. This is where parents, according to a certain curriculum, take on the feeding process in adolescent patients.
Living in Numbers
Because she was unable to function living by herself in an apartment, Temimah moved back home. Although she continued going to school, she wasn’t really “there.” Instead, she was just the shadow of a person walking around by herself. She also admits that it’s hard for her to remember that time. “My brain was checked out, I was so malnourished,” she says now. “I know I was dizzy. I had trouble forming cohesive thoughts. I don’t remember being in pain. I never felt hunger. Through this crazy process, I had turned off my hunger cues. It’s very possible that someone else could have been in severe hunger pain.”
Emotionally, she felt so broken, alone, ashamed, unwanted. She was also severely depressed. At the same time, her eating disorder voice was saying, no, you’re on top of the world, you’re doing great, which was what she tried to present to other people who were concerned. “With time, that chipped away because I just couldn’t lie anymore. I was not great. I was hardly functioning.”
As to her mindset, Temimah reveals that it was never about control. “People often think of anorexia as wanting to control, but that word never really came into my mind,” she says. “I was so sad and my eating disorder became like my best friend. It acted as something that could really understand me. It was this negative voice that was egging me on to do these dangerous, destructive things. I believed that it continued to numb me out and support me.”
Her social life was in a shambles. “I no longer was social with anyone, not even my parents whom I lived with,” Temimah reflects. “I placed a lot of blame on them because they were trying to get me better. I was suffering. I was in such denial about the nature of an eating disorder that I wasn’t admitting to myself that I was in pain.”
Months later, she’d go to school and count calories. She refers to this time in her life as “living in numbers: counting my weights, counting steps, counting everything.”
Then her father brought home a film that was produced by the Orthodox Union called, “Hungry to be Heard,” about eating disorders in the Jewish community.
“When the film was over, for the first time, I realized that I had a serious issue. That spark of understanding came from the fact that I knew I wasn’t alone,” Temimah recalls. “In the Jewish community, everyone knows everything. Eating disorders are so hush-hush and misunderstood, and I myself didn’t know what anorexia or bulimia was. I never thought that I was normal, but I thought that it was so taboo.
“Seeing this film, where individuals in recovery spoke up – it dawned on me that I really wasn’t alone in my suffering and that other people, especially in my own community – my next-door neighbor was in the film – were suffering as well. I could admit that I had a problem and that I needed help.”
A New Way of Life Begins
Temimah entered treatment, going first into an outpatient day treatment program and then being referred to a higher level of care at an inpatient facility where she remained for about a month. Then it was back down to partial hospitalization and subsequently an outpatient program.
During this process, Temimah was learning how to listen to herself again. “I was so broken from my eating disorder,” she recalls. “I was taught how to eat again.” When she entered treatment, she wasn’t eating meals without being told every bite to eat. In treatment, she also learned that she had worth and met some “amazing” women who truly supported her and whom she could also support. She was social again for the first time in months.
When she left the program, it was at Passover, a time her family traditionally goes to Florida. Temimah was scared. Not only was she leaving treatment, she was also entering back into her home life, her religious life. “I needed to make choices about my treatment in connection with both of these,” she says. “That was the beginning of my journey. People often think that you go into treatment and that you’re all better. This is so far from the truth. But it did give me the skills I needed to climb the mountain of recovery.”
Learning How to Reconnect
Temimah began participating in an outpatient program led by a therapist who was a modern Orthodox Jewish woman. “This was important to me because I wanted someone who understood all the cultural idiosyncrasies. She really helped me reconnect with not only myself, but with my religion, as a factor that could come into play in my recovery.”
The therapist worked with Temimah and her family. Part of therapy involved setting up goals. Temimah recollects that she started meeting certain goals for about a year, but was very much stagnant in her recovery. She was still restricting, still exercising in secret. Nevertheless, she went back to school, Skyping her meals from school, and started seeing friends again and reconnecting very slowly. “This was definitely a step in my recovery process, but I just felt like I was stuck,” Temimah says.
After her therapist suggested approaches that were very challenging but ultimately helped Temimah get “un-stuck,” the young women realized she was gaining valuable skills. “There were steps up and steps down and it was a very long process, but at the same time, I constantly had a goal and something I was working toward.”
She also got a dog, one of the recommendations, so that she’d always have support.
A big turning point for Temimah was a trip to Israel her parents offered her – with the condition that she’d be able to eat a meal on her own. Her boyfriend and close friends were living in Israel and Temimah ultimately decided this was something she really wanted to do. “I worked very hard and by the time I got on the plane to Israel, I was by no means recovered, but I was able to eat without being held accountable to anyone else.”
The trip to Israel proved to Temimah that couldn’t lead a full and meaningful life while having an eating disorder. Her boyfriend and friends didn’t care about what she looked like. They cared if she was happy. “And I couldn’t be happy while having an eating disorder. From there, I had such motivation to conquer this illness and to keep moving forward.”
Challenges on the Path to Eating Disorder Recovery
Although Temimah now considers herself fully recovered, reflecting on the challenges she faced after returning from Israel, she says the biggest was dealing with negative body image.
“Learning to tolerate and appreciate my body was such a foreign concept,” she explains. “I really couldn’t stand being in my body and looking at my body. That took a bit longer for me. At first, it was really just about conditioning, say, stop telling yourself that and keep moving forward. Eventually, it became ingrained; thinking about my body and body checking would never get me further in life. If anything, it was taking away from other things that I could be doing.”
Another challenge was getting back into some of the Jewish cultural practices that Temimah hadn’t really abandoned but that had lost meaning. For instance, Sabbath, Shabbat, was very difficult. “There’s so much food, so much talk about food. These two very large meals, there’s often company. I really shied away. I’d have my meals but I’d eat them in my room with one of my parents when we had company. During a meal, I had to have a major distraction like a magazine or something or a board game to keep me from over-thinking.”
How Faith Impacted Her Recovery
Having grown up an observant Orthodox Jew, when Temimah first entered residential treatment, she was confused about how she’d keep Shabbat, which was such a “complicated process.” She decided she’d just go through the motions and, for the first year of her recovery, she did just that.
Then, with the help of one of her therapists, who introduced her to the 12-Step concept of a Higher Power, Temimah realized that there was this “other thing in my life that I had always been so connected to and, although I felt very disconnected from life, I could try to reconnect to my religion and my spirituality.”
She began praying three times a day, which is the more observant custom. In the beginning, she’d pray for her peers in treatment, but later she began praying for herself. “I believe in God. I could leave a little bit of faith there to say that I need help, to reach out for that and that there was a plan and something bigger than me.”
She also found meaning in Jewish customs, including those around food. “Rather than be angry, I tried to connect to them. When we said blessings about the body and body functioning, rather than dismissing them because I hate my body, I thought, I’m really going to try to connect to this prayer that is thanking God for my ability to see. With time, it became a source of support and inspiration for me.”
On the topic of stigma surrounding an eating disorder, Temimah is very vocal. “This is a truly horrific thing and I know how difficult it was for me to overcome the stigma and shame, especially in the Jewish community.”
She reflects that more and more Orthodox Jewish teens are struggling with eating disorders. “Everybody knows somebody and yet there’s still a lack of understanding.”
Her message to others is simple: “Not everyone will understand, and not everyone will say the right thing. But I believe that to change stigmas we must all try to use our voices. When I work with clients I never tell them they need to come out with their eating disorder, but I explain that it can be liberating to not be carrying this around alone. And yes, focusing on the present as well as the end goal can be helpful in saying ‘who cares about the people who don’t react well, I’m doing this for myself.’”
Trying to Get the Word Out
Temimah is far from finished trying to help others struggling with eating disorders to find hope. Currently a graduate student studying social work who hopes to work as a clinician in a treatment center, she’s also a public speaker on eating disorder awareness, body image, and self-esteem.
A fellowship from Presentense will allow her to build a non-profit, called Tikvah V’Chizuk, which means Hope and Strength in Hebrew, to provide support to the Jewish community. Temimah envisions it will primarily be an online platform to provide resources, information, forums, and articles.
*Temimah Zucker was not a client at The Ranch and asked that her full name be used. At The Ranch, we follow all established national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information.