Life in Balance

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Repost: Eating Disorders and Fasting

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I broke the fast – and have never been happier

Last Yom Kippur, I ate more than I had eaten in a very long time. While friends and relatives endured parched mouths and grumbling bellies, I shovelled heaped forkfuls of food down my throat at breakfast, lunch and dinner — plus at three separate snack times that garnished my day’s platter.

Why? I had to, despite all my aversions. Willed, on the Day of Atonement, by a hunger for health, if nothing else.

You see, that 25-hour stretch that prohibits Jews from eating and drinking every year also happened to be my first day as an in-patient at an eating disorders unit. And, no, the irony was not lost on me either.

A year later and, difficult as it is to admit, the onset of Yom Kippur sparked strange and conflicting emotions. Although I am now in recovery, fasting was out of the question — mandated by my doctor, but supported wholeheartedly by my “healthy” side. The side that encourages me to stick to food plans and ignore misleading feelings of fullness. The side that guarantees a future.

But then, that niggling voice of menace. The one that whispers through my ear and down my gut, promising mercy, delivering anything but. As friends and colleagues fast around me, she challenges me to join them.

I struggle to explain the notion of sobriety when it comes to eating disorders, even to myself

“One day won’t hurt,” she bluffs and barters. I refuse to listen.

According to the Jewish Association for Mental Illness (Jami), people who are in recovery or are still suffering from eating disorders should follow their doctor’s guidelines when it comes to ritual fasting. Yet there is little specific support provided for those who may grapple with the dilemma, even if given the medical green-light.

For some, it may challenge their traditional observance or make them feel less pious. For others, it may trigger the addiction that they fight against three times a day, especially when others around them are “indulging” in the one thing they are denied.

Anorexia or bulimia, on their darkest days, can be the only friend their victim knows. While relatives beg them to “just eat normally”, their captor tightens the noose around their stomach. Anxiety turns to indigestion and they promise a way out, down the rabbit hole of starvation or bingeing.

Of course, by the time their prey cottons on to the scheme at hand and frantically looks for an exit, it is too late. They are inch-long insects and the doors are 10-storeys high.

I struggle to explain the notion of sobriety when it comes to eating disorders, even to myself. Unlike an alcohol or drug addiction, you must not abstain. Indeed, if anything, you are abstaining from abstinence, redefining food so that it is no longer your weapon or coping tool against anxiety and depression, but your habitual means of sustenance. Habit, therefore, is essential. And just one day of fasting can obliterate years of hard work.

But challenges abound when faced with a day when “normal” is reset. When synagogues are full of empty stomachs and, even on the secular side, talk among Jews focuses on food, or lack thereof.

I tend to avoid social media on the day, as status updates from hungry friends are confronting and can provoke unwelcome responses. Jealousy, no. But frustration — both over my ill past, and the fact that, even now, even better, every new day can still present its challenges.

In the UK alone, 1.6 million people are affected by an eating disorder, and that’s only those who are diagnosed. Thankfully, we are slowly but surely breaking the taboo of mental health.

Celebrities including Geri Halliwell, Nicole Scherzinger, Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato have all spoken of their own struggles with eating disorders, helping to normalise the conversation.

Meanwhile, charities — both inside the community, like Jami and nationwide, like Mind and Beat — work tirelessly to remind us that mental illness is insidious and epidemic. And it does not discriminate. But more can and should be done to offer support and understanding to sufferers, especially when it comes to festivals, rituals and traditions.

I think of the alcoholic, who must pass on kiddush wine, on a weekly basis, as casually as he or she can muster. Or of the OCD-sufferer, who can never quite get their kitchen clean enough, not least for Pesach. And I truly feel for the person in recovery from an eating disorder who, on Yom Kippur, must choose whether to fast or feed. Only they can make that choice.

By the time you read this, Yom Kippur will have come and gone for another year. For most people, their spiritual growth will have been achieved through fasting and mournful contemplation. But for others, myself included, theirs will have come through just the opposite. Through fighting another day against that slowly but surely dampening voice of trickery that promises one thing, but offers quite another.

By doing something so simple, so normal, as sitting down to eat.

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