Invisibility

Yiddish Proverb:

How many will listen to the truth when you tell them? Vi file veln hern tsu dem ams ven ir zogn zey?

Truth time.

My Mrs. and me, we did not meet at a book club. Yes, we read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and yes, we loved it (in fact this is a book everyone should read, especially today). We even convinced our friends to name their first daughter Scout, and our first pug was named Atticus Finch. If at some point in our lifetime together, we told you that this is how we met, I am sorry. We weren’t quite healthy enough to speak our truth. Thankfully, we are now well over the stigma and only want to help where we can.

Here is our real story: About one million years ago, or at least a couple or so decades ago, we both arrived at our first meeting for women with eating disorders. We were at one of the very top treatment centers, The Renfrew Center, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. As the young therapist unlocked the door and turned on the lights, not one of us in the group made eye contact. We scuttled about uncomfortably searching for a seat that could somehow feel safe. Everyone stared at the floor. No one made a sound. Occasionally, one could hear a belly growl or the sounds of digestion. If pins were to drop, we would have heard them. And after what felt like hours of bone-chilling silence at a call for introductions, the person who is now my Mrs., she said, “Oh, okay. I’ll go first.” 

Slowly, painfully, we made our way around the room. Not one of us admitted sickness. Not one of us ‘needed’ to be there. The very long, often unbearable road to health and wellness had begun. 

You might say, Lisalah, why now? Why are you telling us this? The answer, as always, is in the eyes of my Big and my Little. We want desperately for them to hold on to the joys of childhood and develop a strong foundation of self-confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem. We are trying to raise our maidelehs (sweet girls) to be brave and mighty, rebel girls as they grow up in this harsh, misogynistic world. We also want them to become women who have a healthy relationship with food. Imagine that! Eating, breaking bread, a nice nosh, all such an important part of our life in terms of sustenance, social interaction, nurturing, and sensuality.

To the caregivers of all of the beautiful kinder that are out there, please know that children, they have ears that hear what you, relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, say, even whisper. With social media, unhealthy messages are persistent for vulnerable children and adults. Know, be on the lookout, be prepared. Catch it early. Eating disorders are one of the mental illnesses that have a 20% mortality rate. That is too high. I vividly remember that day in 1983 when Karen Carpenter lost her battle to anorexia nervosa. Understand that you have an ally in me. No stigma. No judgment.

Today in America, over 30 million people of all ages and genders are suffering from an eating disorder. Suffering — that is a kind word for it. As a person in full recovery, this stat, which is on the rise, makes me so profoundly sad. I know the loneliness and sorrow that fills their people-pleasing, loving hearts and souls. I know the pain and overwhelming lack of self-worth that comes from seeking invisibility first hand.

I write about this today for three reasons:

First, so many people, caregivers, parents, and patients all, live in denial. It’s easy to look away, and say, “Nope, not me.” “Not my kid.” “They’ll grow out of this.” If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, learn about eating disorders. Educate yourself to what may be ahead. Talk to your child openly with compassion and empathy. Listen. Love. DO NOT make your talk about appearance. If you say something like, “…you are nothing but skin and bones…” you can easily validate that they are on the right path. This disease, and it is a disease, affects the mind too. Emphasize to them that it is not their fault.

Second, the holidays are fast approaching. Group meals, big meals, family gatherings will feel threatening, frightening to the eating disordered person. They will avoid it at all costs. They will feign sickness, volunteer, say they are eating with friends, all in an effort to avoid the Festivus you are so eagerly awaiting.

Third, you must act compassionately and quickly. Your silence can be deadly. My eating disorder was a cry for help, screaming as loudly as I could scream — a young woman with no voice.

Here are some important things to look for in your child/friend/neighbor:

  • Any weight changes, up or down
  • Differences in eating patterns, like avoiding family meals, or an inability to eat with others
  • Pushing food around the plate; excessive use of condiments; you may even notice the family pet gaining weight
  • New dietary regimes like vegetarianism; fear of certain foods, obsessions with other foods
  • A dramatic increase in physical activity and exercise
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after a meal; spending a long time in the bathroom
  • Missing food that may be hidden away for another time, or eaten when alone
  • Mood and social activity changes
  • Distorted sense of body image; wearing big or baggy clothing
  • Thinning or brittle hair
  • Digestion or bowel issues
  • Abnormal blood counts
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Insomnia
  • Tooth and gum problems (often times the dentist is the first to notice)
  • Fine hair growth over the body

If you see these symptoms in your kinder, offer your compassionate heart. Be a loving, nurturing part of the journey. The causes of eating disorders, as the layers of an onion, are so complex. Genetics, environmental, psychological and cultural issues all come into play. Emphasis on diet, looks and body shape only add to the dangerous mix of complex behavioral issues lurking in our society.

I had an eating disorder from the age of thirteen. I sought help, at 32. A lot of damage was done in between those years. It was an excruciating battle to overcome what I believed was ‘my very best friend.’ No number on the scale ever offered satisfaction. Tied in with anorexia, as it oftentimes is, was a major depression. I desperately wanted my outline to get smaller, lighter until it, until I, disappeared. Nothing less than that would be deemed a success.

I had an ‘entire team of people’ trying to help me, help myself. I had a therapist, medical doctor, nutritionist, and psychiatrist, all specializing in my illness. I even spent several months outpatient at a clinic. I called it ‘food camp’ and ‘my unfortunate incarceration.’ At 35, I had to re-learn how to feed myself. When I had to use the bathroom, I had to leave the door wide open and sing the entire time I was in there.

I had never really tasted a food, any food until I was 40. Yes, you read that correctly! The Mrs., and me, we went on a bike trip through Tuscany. We were both finally healthy and happy — new foods and flavors danced in my mouth in a way I had never experienced. Nu? So this is what people have been talking about?

Over time, a great deal of damage has been done to my body. I have had multiple painful gum surgeries to stop the gum recession in my mouth from acid reflux caused by not eating and from throwing up. Too much diet soda led to kidney stones. Malnutrition and missing periods for years at a time led to infertility and brought on early osteopenia and osteoporosis. I even have bone loss in my mouth and jaw.

I am so very grateful I figured out, with a great deal of help, that I was worth the fight. We are proof that this awful disease can be overcome successfully.

Yiddish Proverb:

Love is sweet but it’s nice to have bread with it. Lib iz zis ober es iz feyn tsu hobn broyt mit im.