“What exactly do you do?”
- I’m an eating disorder therapist.
“Oh, wow. What made you choose that field?”
-Well I’ve wanted to go into counseling since I was young, but it was actually my own struggle with anorexia that pushed me in that direction.
Silence. Sometimes there’s an awkward stare, a cough. A widening of the eyes or a slow nod. Other times there is praise. “That’s so brave” or “I feel like most people who go into these fields have had a history; that’s great that you’re so open.”
I made the decision a long time ago to share my struggle with the world. For years I had kept it a secret, barely talking about it with my closest friends and extended family. My parents knew. My siblings knew. My boyfriend at that time knew. My friends guessed—and relatives knew—that “something wasn’t quite right with Temimah.” But I hadn’t known how people would react. Would they be supportive? Judgmental? Hurtful? Naive? I experienced all this and more in my journey toward reconnecting with the people that I loved.
Then, around four years ago my therapist asked me to speak with her in a Jewish high school around eating disorder awareness. This would mean that after seven minutes of disclosure, the world would know. At first I resisted, but with her encouragement I decided to give it a try. Little did I know how empowering it would be. Little had I realized that days later a student would email me, telling me that my speaking openly about my eating disorder gave her the permission she felt she needed to ask for help from her parents, as she had been suffering for years.
And so, in that moment, I knew. I knew that this subject was generally avoided. That there were some individuals within the Jewish community who shared and inspired, but that overall, eating disorders were taboo, hush-hush and misunderstood. And so I made it my mission to change this, in any way I could.
There are times when I walk into a grocery store and someone approaches and asks if I’m “the eating disorder girl.” Years ago it had felt like my disorder defined me. I had no life beyond numbers and weights and calories and misery. I have grown and thrived and I have reached a place where I can advocate for myself. I made a commitment and had loving friends and family to stick by me in this process. And so it remains a part of my identity, as I continue to speak about it, and work in this field, but it no longer comprises who I am.
Many others are not as fortunate. Many others do not approach their histories the same way, due to lack of support, fear of judgment etc. It must be asked, what happens then? What happens when we, as a community, know of someone’s suffering? Oftentimes her (or his) struggle walks into the room before she (or he) does. I am comfortable when this occurs to me but many others, rightly so, are not. There are questions and even murmurs about what the person must be experiencing, judgments about their future.
For some, this journey takes a lifetime and depending on the type of mental illness it may be a constant process. For others the process can take months or years and then the experience of needing and utilizing this maladaptive coping mechanism lessens and new skills are developed. The person can learn to let go. But letting go takes therapy and cognitive restructuring and pain and discomfort. It is not simple. Yet, it is absolutely possible.
When I walk into a room I feel hopeful about my future. I don’t think that my life ahead of me is limited because of my history. As a fully recovered woman I no longer turn to an eating disorder and this is something I’m comfortable sharing. But for all the others who are not comfortable sharing when they come into a room, I urge you to think beyond the label.
Support. Ask how you can help. Show that you care. Don’t know how? Find out from the person. Meet the person where s/he is. There is more to the person than suffering or a history. So try to learn.
There is a world of possibilities out there. We must work together to acknowledge the pain but also welcome and encourage the freedom. Instead of judging or labeling or whispering let us research and extend a hand. Do not forget about the person under all the diagnoses or the past pains.
Yes, I am Temimah, “the eating disorder girl.” But I am also a daughter, friend, wife, pet owner, Zionist, therapist, movie lover and so much more. When I walk into a room, I hold my head high. I know what I’ve overcome, am hopeful for my future and feel blessed for my present. I am more than my suffering.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW