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Ugly Me

July 19, 2009 | by Aliza Stareshefsky

My eating disorder was my way to get control of my life and become pretty.

I am the youngest of three daughters (I also have a younger brother). The oldest was the easy child, the next one was very popular, but a bit difficult. I was the "happy and funny" one, always willing to do whatever I could to make people smile.

I went to a very closely-knit elementary school where I knew everyone in my class very well, and my parents knew everyone else's parents. There were only 11 children in my grade. From this elementary school, I went to a large high school and found it very hard to make friends and handle the workload. I never really seemed depressed or unhappy around the house, because I was the performer, the one who smiled and amused others. But in truth, I lacked coping skills, and I was thrust into the ultimate training ground – high school.

I felt lost and invisible, a loner who lacked the ability to make friends.

What I had learned in elementary school did not prepare me properly and I was failing classes miserably. And I was suffering from tremendous culture shock. From a close-knit community of 11 to a grade of 80, I felt lost and invisible, a loner who lacked the ability to make friends. There was no way for me to interact with the other girls in my grade; I did not know what to say, how to act, what to offer them.

Luckily, my second-oldest sister was in high school with me, so for a time I hung around with my sister's group of friends. But then the inevitable happened – my sister graduated and went to attend a seminary in Israel. I was shattered. Now I was truly alone, one sister in Israel, the other one attending college.

I was friendly with a certain boy, ever since elementary school. He was extremely popular and had many friends, and I was attracted to him. He hung out with my group of friends and would visit me every single Shabbos during the break between the afternoon and evening prayers. His attention made me feel singled out, but at the same time, he had become angry and cruel due to some family issues. He lashed out at me. He continuously mocked me, teased me, told me I was ugly and that he would never even consider going out with me. But I was attracted to him and wanted the attention he lavished upon me, even if it was negative. I liked him very much and accepted his cruelty. He was not only verbally abusive; on occasion he'd be even physically abusive. He once hit me in the middle of the street and a neighbor saw. My parents forbade me to have anything to do with that boy ever again.

During the stress of my high school years, I lost a few pounds. And I liked it. I felt ugly and unlovable, and that boy I liked had only enforced that impression of myself. I really wanted to be pretty. So I decided to adopt a diet – a diet I had created for myself that would cause me to lose weight so that I would become pretty. Not beautiful, not gorgeous, only pretty.

I would skip breakfast in the mornings, then eat two Snyder pretzels along with either a Coke or a Snapple for lunch, and eat a very small dinner. My younger brother came home at 4:30, and he ate dinner soon after. My older siblings were away. I came home at 6:30, would take what I wanted for dinner. Nobody noticed because we didn't eat dinner as a family. Every single day I was weighing myself on the scale, looking to see whether I had lost weight. My diet was working and nobody would have noticed what I ate for a long time.

I felt disgusted with myself. So I went to the bathroom and made myself throw up.

Then one day, I fainted at school. They took me to a doctor and he noticed I looked ill; my color was off, my blood was lacking certain nutrients (what can you expect from a Coke and Snyder pretzels every day?) and that there were problems. These were the first signs of anorexia. But nothing was really enforced at that time.

On our Passover vacation, my mother noticed that I was too thin and unhealthy, and whispered about me to the other mothers at the table. They all watched me, and I felt obliged to eat. But once I began to eat, I ate and ate, continuing to gulp down food. My mother was obviously delighted. But when I went upstairs I began to imagine the food that I had just eaten sticking to my body. I felt disgusted with myself and really sick. So I went to the bathroom and made myself throw up.

The first time was very difficult and traumatizing, but it got easier. I began to eat very well in front of my family, and then would throw up my food later. This gave me control. I couldn't control my clothing, or my school, or my lack of friends, but this was the one thing that I could control.

My father grasped there was a problem, enough to make me go see a nutritionist and therapist. He instantly recognized I had bulimia. There were swellings around my jaw and mouth, telltale redness and tenderness that showed him I was forcing myself to throw up. My nutritionist told me that I could not keep on abusing my body, and I resolved to stop throwing up for a while. I was able to stop myself for two entire days. But I did not like the fact that I had lost the control that I had gained. I wanted to be the one to make these decisions, not just because someone was telling me what to do. I wasn't one of the people who binged and purged, though, because I was worried I wouldn't be able to make myself throw up everything. I ate very little, but still threw up a few times a day.

One night I had a terrible fight with a member of my family. Afterwards, I rushed upstairs to the second-floor bathroom and forced myself to vomit. I did it violently, angrily, to the extent that after I had vomited, I began to cough up blood. My revenge was taking its toll on my body. My days of vomiting – to the point of retching, or simply vomiting up nothing, only air – were hurting my badly abused body. I was scared, but not scared enough to tell anyone.

Even after developing pustules under my eyes, I felt that this would lead me to becoming pretty.

The next day, I developed pustules – burst blood vessels under my eyes. I put on a hooded sweatshirt and dashed out of the house, catching my bus to school without letting my family members look at me. Even then, I felt that this would lead me to becoming pretty.

I sat on the back of the school bus, but my friend sat next to me. She noticed how ill I was looking and told me so. I shrugged it off and said I was tired. She followed me around school all day, and watched when I coughed into a tissue, and the telltale stain of red blood spread across it. She dragged me to the payphone (these were the days before cell phones). "Give me your doctor's phone number!"

I refused to give her the number. I sat and sobbed, weeping and screaming about how I hated my friend for this betrayal. "How did this happen? How did everything spiral out of control?" I said aloud. That was the first time I admitted I was not in control of the situation.

The school administration had my doctor's phone number and gave it to my friend. I was suffering horrible cramps and pains in my stomach all day. My sister came to pick me up and took me to the hospital.

I became an outpatient and was slowly treated. I discovered that the eating disorders were really the scar over the greater pain and hurt I was feeling – the fact that I was ugly, unloved, had very low self-esteem and simply hated myself. I went through emotional therapy and learned to understand nutrition and my diet. After a long period of time, I learned to cope, to begin again.

But I had ruined my body. My esophagus was red and swollen and had abrasions all over it. I developed acid reflux. My intestines at one point were strangling one another. My body was raw, attacking itself, killing itself from the inside. My doctors told me that if I continued to abuse my body, it would hurt me back. And that's what it was doing.

Even after I overcame my eating disorder, I still went through a very difficult time, a time of depression and hatred and anger, a time where I had to fight with God. Then, after intervention and miracles, I began to crave stability and to recreate my life – to learn to live for myself, to love myself, to find the good things in myself as well. A time to learn to understand the goodness of my friends who knew everything about me and still stood by me and helped me. Even today, I still have terrible stomach and esophagus irritations.

I know intimately what it means to have an eating disorder. I know the signs, the obsessive discussion about food, binging and purging, over-exercising to the point that one is trying to outrun something, to run from their demons, to exercise and imagine food floating off of me.

I was advised not to speak about my eating disorder; people were worried it would give a bad first impression of me. But I decided it would do more good than harm, that I could help others and that many could learn from me. So today I talk to young people and teach them to understand and feel for those who only want to be pretty and do away with their ugliness.

People often ask me what they should do if they know someone who is suffering. The best advice I can give is that you must tell someone you trust who can handle the situation. A doctor, a psychologist, a rabbi, someone who you trust who can work with you to help your friend. Intervention with your friend is a great way to help him or her. Tell her that you are nervous about her – that you love her and that you need to help her get the help she needs and deserves. Make sure that when you speak with her you don't only talk about the food (what she is eating or not eating), as this just adds to the obsession that she is already feeling.

Young people learn from adults how they should feel about their own body.

We have to be careful as parents, older siblings, mentors and teachers that when we talk about ourselves, we don't put ourselves down. Young children and teens look to us as a source for what is normal. How we talk about ourselves, how we feel about our own bodies, how we look – that is how they will talk about themselves. A young child should never look at herself in the mirror and talk about how big her hips are, or how her stomach might not be the right size. What we can expect from children if they constantly hear the adults in their lives talking this way? When I speak to audiences of educators, parents, and counselors I always reinforce this thought in hopes that we can change what everyone thinks is normal.

The more we talk about this topic and the grave dangers that this disease carries, (I have been to a few funerals of people who have passed away due to complications of an eating disorder) the more we can prevent this disease from spreading.

Thank God, I am a survivor. I am the voice of those with eating disorders – of those who have survived them and of those who succumbed to them.

A month ago I got engaged! My fiancé is fully aware of my past struggles with eating disorders and encourages me to advance my public advocacy. I am grateful for his tremendous support. I thank the Almighty for how far I have come, and I look forward to continuing to share my story which will hopefully help others.

Click here to order "Hungry to be Heard," a documentary about eating disorders in the Jewish community, produced by the Orthodox Union.

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