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On Yom Kippur, My Eating Disorder Haunts Me

Is Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement, or the day of Post-Traumatic Stress? For me, a “recovered” anorexic, it’s both.

Liturgically, Yom Kippur is powerful, a day characterized by introspection, asking forgiveness, profound considerations about how to right wrongs and improve oneself. It makes sense it’s a day of self-denial, including 25 hours without food. But deliberately starving myself terrifies me.

My first year in college, doing so became a macabre game. Today, I fast only one day a year, but every fall I fear the slippery slope back down into my disorder.

At the beginning of freshman year in college, I rapidly gained the Freshman fifteen. The cookies and ice cream were abundant in the minefield of a dining hall where the rest of the food was pretty gross. I remember going through the lines where the hot, prepared foods looked — and smelled — like those from my elementary school cafeteria. And in Southern California, where fresh fruits help define the region’s pride of place, I was disgusted to find rotten plums and tasteless oranges in the produce baskets.

The thick chocolate chip cookies and bowls of coffee and chocolate ice cream filled the hole — and puffed up my waistline.

My clothes from high school started to fit poorly, tugging at my rear and straining at my middle. My face rounded out. My thighs got dimples. My periods became regular and very heavy. I felt stumpy.

I was so glad when Yom Kippur 5751 arrived. I’d already made a few Jewish friends, and we attended High Holy Days services together, at the church near campus whose crosses were artfully concealed with organza. I looked forward to break-fast that evening with my new friends, as well as to fulfilling my pledge to lose weight and gain greater self-control.

Throughout that Yom Kippur day in 1990, every rumble of my stomach and my increasing hunger made me happy. At last, break-fast arrived and a big group headed into town to a popular Italian place. It was very well-known for its fresh, dense, perfectly round, steaming bread rolls. Our table of hungry penitents consumed baskets and baskets of them.

I ate a few rolls but kept them to a minimum. I’d fasted — I’d done it! — and I decided to always maintain a modicum of hunger; a growling stomach meant weight loss, and weight loss meant a return to proper self-control and my pre-college body.

The next morning, I went to the girls’ bathroom and stood in front of its sole full-length mirror. I pulled down my waistband beneath my navel and gleefully observed that my stomach looked flatter, tauter. I made eye contact with myself and smiled.

And thus began my perilous weight-loss journey, the memory of which haunts me every Yom Kippur. As a young college student, my anxiety, perfectionist tendencies, and obsessive-compulsive habits manifested into anorexia, though I didn’t realize at the time that would be my destination. After full-blown anorexia had me in its nasty grasp, instead of merely restricting my food intake, some days I went without any food at all.

They weren’t that terrible, really; they just felt like Yom Kippur. There would be a meal at the end of the day, and the next day I was skinnier. And happier with myself.

But I wasn’t actually happy. The more I restricted, the hungrier I got, and the more I fantasized about food and, especially, the items I couldn’t — wouldn’t — allow myself. I began dreaming about fluffy waffles drenched in syrup, dense cookies, satisfying pasta.

When I’d eat an apple, I even ate its core, for need of something to chew on and send down to my twisted, begging stomach. A friend once said, “I’ve never seen anyone eat an apple like that.” Embarrassed my behaviors were becoming obvious when I only wanted to disappear and be invisible, I started to hide habits like this one and become more solitary. That way, I could go by myself to the University Center and sit near the cart selling moist slices of zucchini bread so I could be close to the taboo while proving I didn’t need to ingest the no-no food.

Between fall and late-spring of freshman year, I turned 19 and went from about 130 pounds on my 5’6” frame to a perilous 103. I’d stopped menstruating 10 pounds prior. My libido flagged; my appetite was ravenous. I shook with cold even on warm days. I often was lightheaded. My growling stomach could be heard across a room and turned heads. Every day was Yom Kippur.

Two loyal friends confronted me that spring and gave me an ultimatum: Either I march myself to the counseling office, or they’d march me there. I marched there solo. Slowly, I started along the path to a long recovery.

Today, 28 years later, I struggle still. I’m pretty sure I altered my brain chemistry, its response to starvation. When I fast, outwardly I demonstrate that going without food is no big deal; that’s how I dealt with self-starvation, duping myself and others with an “I’m fine” façade. But internally, I start to panic: When will I next eat? Where will my next morsel come from?

Yom Kippur is a haunting time. Not engaging in the fast puts me emotionally outside my community on a day of personal and communal reckoning. And yet fasting lands me back in the self-imposed food desert of my freshman year.

Year after year, girding my mind against the panic — to focus on the liturgy, atoning, contemplating my demise — is exhausting. And also scary. I know of others who’ve had a past like mine and struggle like I do. Talking about it, particularly on the holiest and most solemn of days, feels taboo.

For a day characterized by both community and atonement, Yom Kippur already is vastly profound. I long for the Day of Atonement where fasting is a spiritual cleanse and not a post-traumatic experience.

I wish you — and myself — an easy fast.

Jenn Director Knudsen co-owns 2B Writing Company. She holds a master’s from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.




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