Eating disorders are not confined to race, sex or religion, and with the stigma of mental illness making so many sufferers unwilling to admit to eating disorders, it is harder still to reach out and help.
The Jewish community may be just as susceptible to such eating disorders as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa as the rest of the world, and no amount of sheltering by family can truly shut out the prevalent social pressures to be perfect and thin. Though very few studies have examined the rate of eating disorders among Jewish communities, there are a rising number of cases. Food plays a prominent part in Jewish culture and many religious holidays involve food during celebrations, in addition to the weekly Sabbath meal.
Brooklynite Stacey Prussman, a 44-year-old Jewish comedian-actress who speaks on eating disorders at campuses nationwide, said she doesn’t get stage fright: “No. I get life fright.”
At age 10, Prussman auditioned to play Annie in the Broadway musical of the same name, but an agent told her, “You need to lose weight.” She was put on a strict diet, and the next 15 years were filled with cockamamie attempts at weight loss, including pill ingestion, starvation and extreme exercise. The result? Depression, anxiety and bulimia. After being sent to an emergency room, Prussman was told she had an eating disorder. The realities of her condition finally sank in and inspired Prussman to fight for her recovery. Now she speaks to help prevent others from going down the same self-destructive path.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, with 86% reporting the onset of an eating disorder by the age of 20. Campus Activities Magazine named Prussman one of 2014’s Hot Speakers for reaching out directly to these women to tell her story with humor and brutal honesty. The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Prussman to hear about her arduous journey to recovery.
Dorri Olds: Can you describe your eating disorder?
Stacey Prussman: I would exercise every day for three hours and try to count calories as I was exercising. The technical term for that is “exercise bulimia.” I ended up gaining 35 pounds in my freshman year. I was eating and wearing sweat pants and baggy clothes.
Did your family understand you were having problems with food?
I don’t think they realized anything until my 20s. When I was over-exercising in high school, nobody thought it was a problem. I wasn’t doing anything bad, like drugs, so exercising seemed like a good thing.
Did you know then that you were exercising compulsively?
I don’t think I’d realized it yet. I did experience an ulcer in my senior year. I had really severe pains one day. I was screaming and yelling. They thought I took drugs, but I didn’t. It was anxiety. They recommended therapy for my anxiety.
Was anybody close to you picking up on the problems you were having?
The school didn’t pick up on the eating problems, just the stomach problems. I wasn’t a closed-up teenager. I was pretty open, but I had trouble connecting my feelings. Either I wouldn’t allow for feelings or I would hide them, mask them. My issues in terms of the eating disorder came from my poorly developed coping mechanisms. I’m still currently working on that in therapy.
Were you a workaholic?
Yes, sometimes. In my 20s I was in a hit off-Broadway show, a Jewish play called “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral.” I had a lead part and never took off a day. It was a big break for a 23-year-old actress. I was in good shape even though I was drinking and drugging. My body slimmed down from working out a lot, but I was around other actors who were taking laxatives and diet pills. I began doing the same things, and I starved myself all day and then worked out. I’d have a coffee and an apple and then go to the gym, then go do my show, then I’d eat dinner. I partied at night, drinking alcohol, which is now called “drunkorexia.” I also had to wear a very sexy costume, so I never wanted to feel fat or bloated when I performed, which was another reason I didn’t eat until afterwards.
When you looked in the mirror, did you have a distorted body image? Did you think you were fat when you weren’t?
There were women in my show that were so thin. I wasn’t fat, it’s just that everybody else was so thin. Big butts weren’t in style. I just felt like a fatso. I couldn’t get rid of the boobs, and my butt was always the last place I lost any pounds.
Were you a normal weight?
Oh, yes. Totally! That’s where it gets crazy. I’d go to the gym drunk at night. I’d be on the treadmill wasted and in heels. I’d work out with weights while filled with beer. I’d take the gym bag on dates with me and leave the dates to go back to the 24-hour Crunch gym. I’d work out for hours, and this was after I’d already worked out in the day. That’s called “exercise bulimia.” Then I got “food bulimia.” I’d feel guilty when I ate. One night I stuck my toothbrush too far down my throat and made myself throw up. I thought, “This is easy!” so I kept doing it. I was drinking a lot, too; you could call it alcoholism. Even though I wasn’t nauseous from the alcohol, I would tell myself that I was but really I was throwing up to get rid of food. There was a connection between the alcohol and the bulimia for me. That’s common, and I talk about it in my lecture.
Everything got bad after college. When I went into the show and continued with drunkorexia and bulimia, it kept exacerbating. The diet pills, the laxatives, the food controls. The show closed, and I was a mess. I didn’t know what to do. I’d been in the show for years; it ran from ’93 to ’98. I got really shaky. One day I almost passed out, so a friend took me to the hospital. I was having a panic attack, too. It was really scary. I was told my electrolytes were very low, my potassium levels had dropped, and I was starving and dehydrated. The doctor asked about my eating. I said, “Sometimes I don’t eat when I have auditions.” A social worker happened to be in the emergency room, so she came and spoke to me. She said, “I think you have an eating disorder.”
I was like, “Me?” I never thought of myself that way — like one of those emaciated movie-of-the-week stories on the Lifetime channel. I didn’t have a body mass index that was too low. I looked normal and healthy. My behaviors were eating disordered, but I thought the only people with eating disorders looked like bone-thin ballerinas.
Did anybody close to you ever notice?
No. I’m an only child and could eat when I had to at the dinner table. I was managing, like a functional drug addict. I was a functional person with an eating disorder. All the girls I knew talked about diets, and who had skinny legs and who didn’t. When I didn’t get a part, I thought I wasn’t skinny enough. That would take over my brain, but all of my friends were like that, so I thought it was normal thinking.
When did you admit you had an eating disorder?
I was 28, and after a bad breakup I went into therapy. This one schlubby therapist said: “You’re pretty. You’ll meet someone else.” So I found another therapist, who helped me. I realized I’d been living most of my life depressed. When I started to talk about it I stopped throwing up. I recovered in my early 30s, when I got a nutritionist and started doing stand-up comedy. That career switch was very healing. I finally had my own voice. It didn’t matter if I was fat or skinny; I was just telling jokes and making people laugh. Writing and verbalizing was a huge step.
What did you do for recovery?
I had to re-evaluate everything I’d been doing for three decades — disordered eating, dieting, drinking. I had to stop and ask, “What was I doing and why?” I went into deep treatment with my therapist, therapy groups and Overeaters Anonymous. I learned other people didn’t live like this and that what I thought was normal wasn’t.
Are you motivated to speak about eating-disordered thinking to help people know what’s not normal?
Yes! That’s why I went public. Eating disorders used to be called a “white girl’s disease,” but it’s not anymore. It’s in the black, Latino, Asian communities. It’s everywhere, and more males now. In 2006 I spoke at a military academy, with 90% men. The women were concerned, so they brought me in. The whole academy had to attend. After I spoke, male cadets were coming to me in droves, telling me about their issues and their stress. They were overtrained, overworked. They could get kicked out if they didn’t maintain a certain weight.
In 2007 there was a [New York Post] Page Six article about my eating disorder. I’d never had any press that big. A lot of people wrote to me after that article. It really is a disease. People on TV look like skeletons, and we don’t know who is hiding a heroin addiction or an eating disorder. People go to work and you don’t see if they’re suffering with a disease underneath. I say to students: “I will be a mirror to you. If you see any of these behaviors or these thought patterns, you can recognize that you have a disease. An eating disorder is not just about the behavior, it’s about the way your mind works, like with any addict. You’re obsessed with what you want to eat or what you’re going to eat or what you’re not going to eat or how you need to exercise and control your urges. That’s where the disease lives. If your mind is in that place — even if you don’t throw up or starve yourself — that’s still the disease.”
If I can reach students when they’re in that mindset, before they’ve done anything self-destructive, then I can give them life tools to avoid developing an eating disorder.
Does helping the students help you stay centered in recovery?
Yes, I consider it doing service. When I do my tour and I’m speaking, I feel whole. It’s like cutting myself open and saying: “Look at me. Here’s what I went through. This is who I am. This is the way I thought then and how I got help. This is the way I think now.” You’re like a mirror for people to see themselves, and it feels very vulnerable but also very centering.
Do students come up to you afterward and confide that they have an eating disorder?
Yes, and that’s the best part about it. I stay in touch with many of these students. Some of them I’ve known for over 10 years. I’m in my 10th year speaking, so those students are now grown. Some of them have families. They thank me. They say they have lives now. I think: “Wow. Really? My one lecture really helped you?” That feels great.
It’s an up-and-down battle. You don’t get better the next day; you really have to work at your recovery. You have to stay in treatment like therapy or whatever you find that works for you. Even nowadays I have to be really conscious about eating. I can just drink coffee and not eat. I don’t have urges to vomit anymore, but sometimes during a panic attack that thought comes to me.
Do you think that as people develop more self-esteem through therapy they begin to feel it’s cruel to treat their bodies so badly?
I like that point of view. I still have issues valuing my body as much as I should, even though I try really hard to take care of it. I see residual effects of my eating disorder. Luckily, my teeth are okay. That’s a big problem with bulimia, because of stomach acids.
I can’t overwork like I used to. I get tired easier. My body has a different threshold. When I got divorced I had a relapse. I stopped eating. Food just seemed disgusting to me. I lost a lot of weight because I was only eating 800 calories a day. As I lost weight, people kept complimenting me. I had to work hard in therapy and go to 12-step meetings to get back on track and start eating again. When I started eating again I gained 3 pounds and felt freaked out. It’s really crazy. I still struggle with eating what I need to eat, but I do it. I work my recovery even more now, because I see how insidious this disease is. It comes back. It doesn’t go away. It’s something I have to work at for the rest of my life.
This interview has been edited for style and length.