New York – Interview With An Orthodox Jewish Survivor of Anorexia and Bulimia

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    The Observer: Hello, Aliza. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Although we at The Observer know who you are, could you give us some information about you, to introduce you to the rest of the student community?

    Aliza: My name is Aliza Stareshefsky. I am the Director of Student Programming at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I live in Passaic, New Jersey.

    The Observer: I understand that you had an eating disorder at some point in your life. Could you tell The Observer about it?

    Aliza: I did suffer from an eating disorder in high school. I suffered from both anorexia and bulimia.

    I am the youngest of three daughters (I also have a younger brother). The oldest was the 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 had gone to a very closely-knit elementary school, one where I had known everyone in my class very well, and more so, my parents had known everyone else’s parents. There were only eleven children in my grade. From this elementary school, however, 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.

    There I realized that my elementary school education had not been that good, and I was failing classes miserably. But not only was I failing my classes, I was suffering from tremendous culture shock. From a close-knit community of eleven to a grade of eighty, I again felt lost, invisible, forgotten, a loner who lacked the ability or capacity 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 as well, so for a time I hung around with my sister’s group of friends. But then the inevitable happened- my sister graduated, and went on to attend a seminary in Israel. I was shattered. Now I was truly alone, one sister in Israel, the other one attending college.

    I knew a boy. There was a certain boy whom I was very much attracted to, had been attracted to since elementary school, even. He was extremely popular and had many friends. He hung out with my group of friends (from town) but visited me every single Shabbos during the break between the afternoon and evening prayers. I felt singled out in some ways for his attention, because he would never visit anyone else during that time, even though they lived much closer to him- only me. However, at the same time, he had become cruel and angry because of some family issues. He lashed out at me. He continuously mocked me, teased me, told me I was completely ugly and that he would never even consider going out with me. However, I was very 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. Not only was he verbally abusive, but he was even physically abusive. He hit me in the middle of the street once, 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 the 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, a diet 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 parents didn’t notice what I was eating or throwing out because they were never home for 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, “nuke it in the microwave,” then eat it. Nobody noticed because we didn’t eat dinner as a family. And my diet was truly working- nobody would have noticed what I ate at all for a long time.

    There was one other experience I had with this boy I really liked. One Shabbos he came over to my house and we were in the kitchen together. The boy acted really nicely to me and was very sweet. Then he took a fancy white paper napkin and formed a rose out of it. He offered this rose to me, then said, very sincerely, then he thought I was right, and that we should go out. I began to cry, almost sobbing with joy. That was when he threw himself down on the floor with laughter, told me how ugly I was, and said it would be really funny if we ever went out. His offering the white rose to me was all part of a cruel and malicious joke. But even then, I went with him the next day while he pushed his sister in her baby carriage, and I went with him to go shopping. I was being treated abusively but at least I had some contact with the boy I liked so much…I didn’t realize that he was treating me badly, because I thought myself completely unlovable- and he was very fond of telling me that.

    Then, one day, I fainted at school. They took me to a doctor, and the doctor noticed that 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 the anorexia I was going through. Every single day I was weighing myself on the scale, looking to see whether I had lost weight. However, nothing was really enforced at that time.

    This then led to Pesach vacation. My mother noticed that I was too thin and unhealthy, and whispered about me to the other mothers at the Passover 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 very 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 felt as though this was one thing that I could control- I couldn’t control my clothing, or my school, or my lack of friends, but this was mine to do with what I willed.

    But afterwards I went to my nutritionist/ therapist (my father had grasped there was a problem, enough to make me go see them) who instantly recognized I had bulimia. The reason why was because there were certain swellings around my jaw/ mouth, telltale redness and tenderness that showed him what I was doing. My nutritionist told me that I couldn’t 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 then I gained back four pounds very quickly- because I had lost weight very quickly and my metabolism had slowed down. When I began to eat again, the “false weight” I had lost returned. This made me extremely scared, so I resorted to making myself vomit again. 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.

    One night I had a terrible fight with a member of my family. Afterwards, I rushed upstairs to the second-floor bathroom, while the members of my family watched TV, and violently 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. The next day, I developed pustules/ burst blood vessels all 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 in the end I would be pretty.

    I sat on the back of the school bus, but my friend sat next to me. My friend noticed how ill I was looking, and told me so. I shrugged it off and simply said I was tired. The friend followed me around school all day, and watched when me coughed into a tissue, and the telltale stain of red blood spread across it. Then my friend dragged me to the payphone (these were the days before cell phones) and tried to call my doctor. I, however, would not give my friend the number; instead I sat and sobbed, weeping and screaming about how I hated my friend so much, hated her for this betrayal. The school administration had the phone-number, and gave it to my friend. I had been suffering horrible cramps and pains in my stomach all day. My sister came to pick me up and took me to the hospital, where it was determined that I would be an outpatient rather than an inpatient. But I had said something as I sat weeping in school- I had asked, “How did this happen? How did everything spiral out of control?” That was the first time I had admitted I was not in control of the situation.

    I was slowly treated, because the eating disorders were really the scar over the greater pain and hurt- 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. I learned slowly that the people who had told on me were really my true friends. 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 or pustules all over it. I developed acid reflux. My intestines at one point in time were strangling one another. My body was raw, attacking itself, killing itself from the inside. My doctors had 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 returned to normal and 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- friends who knew everything about me and had stood by me anyway, had helped me. A friend who had overheard me vomiting in the school bathroom, and who had told on me.

    Even now, I am not normal. I have terrible stomach and esophogus 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 know personal stories, people who rally to me as a symbol of strength. I do this- I talk to people, to teenagers- so that they can learn to understand, and to feel for those who have been in these situations- to feel for those beautiful people who only wanted to be pretty, who wanted to do away with their ugliness.

    I was advised not to speak about this, because people were worried it would give people a bad first impression of me. But I decided I could do more good than harm, that I could help others, that many could learn from me. I felt I could be the one who could understand.

    The Observer: That’s very powerful.

    Aliza: Yes.

    The Observer: On that note, we understand that you’re involved with a new documentary that is set to be released in December. The Observer spoke with Elisheva Diamond, executive producer, who told us about her film in conjunction with the OU [Orthodox Union], “Hungry To Be Heard,” and mentioned that it was geared at educating parents in the Orthodox Jewish community. What do you think of that initiative? Is it necessary and why?

    Aliza: Elisheva came to me a few years ago to discuss the film with me. I was in – I don’t know what the right word is- but positive shock; I was excited- I wasn’t upset that somebody would do this, because this is something that definitely needs to be done in the Jewish community. Unfortunately this disease is creeping through the entire community- it’s really creeping through the whole world, but my focus is on this community. The stigma has to go away, and the only way it will is if organizations such as the OU say, “This is a problem. We’re recognizing this as a problem. We’re not going to stigmatize it- we’re going to see it as a problem.” I think it’s amazing that this film is coming out and parents will be able to connect with survivors, educators, rabbis, people in the throes of the disease and get a full picture so that they can feel more comfortable going to get the help that they or their family members might need.

    The Observer: I know that you’ve spoken to lots of people- at parlor meetings to raise money for the film- what has that been like?

    Aliza: I speak about this to pre-teens and teens all over the country, as in, brought to schools and camps as a speaker on this topic throughout the country. When Elisheva asked me to come and speak at a parlor meeting- it was apparent that I was going to be part of the film, but Elisheva decided to showcase my story to raise money for the film- so at the first parlor meeting that I spoke at, I got up, and remember I’m not nervous anymore- I turned around- and the room was filled with adults, and I realized, “Oh no,” because I had never spoken to my contemporaries about it, but only students! So now I recognize the importance of speaking to parents, and now I recommend to many schools that I speak to students and the parents, and many schools have followed my advice. I also do things for educators, for the teachers, and I do training for the counselors, for the staff.

    The Observer: What kind of training would that be?

    Aliza: I talk to them- I’m not a licensed social worker or psychiatrist. I am a survivor, and I have experience working with students in my own personal life. I also come with a psychiatrist and social worker- I am their student’s voice- sometimes their students can’t be heard because they’re not ready. In the throes of the disease, sometimes a teacher or parent just wants to shake them, “Get over it.” I explain to them how their son or daughter is feeling. It’s more like sensitivity training. And oftentimes, I’ve heard that their approach to them is completely different afterwards. I put a lot of time into this.

    The Observer: How did you originally start?

    Aliza: Two years into my recovery, a principal of a school called to ask me advice about an eating disorder awareness program that she was running for her students, and she told me about this nutritionist and psychologist coming to speak, and I said to her that if they had come to speak while I was in the throes of the disease, I would have shut them off- it’s their job to make me better. So she called me about an hour later and said, “I’m really excited that you’ll be coming to speak,” and I thought, “What?!” and she said, “Well, you were saying that students needed to hear from someone who was a survivor,” and so I spoke- I didn’t want to but I did it- and I was nervous as anything; it was a terrible speech, as I recall. I read it straight off of a piece of paper; I was so nervous. But I needed to make sense of what I had gone through. When I was sick, I had a support system of teachers, rabbis and friends and family. The one thing I did not have is someone who said: I get it. I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and be very, very skinny and see a fat, disgusting person. It’s very emotional for me to speak about- but I feel like I need to make sense of it- it’s that I want to be that one person that someone can turn to and say, “She gets it.” There’s something very powerful about saying “I know; I get it- I know how you feel right now and I get it anyway.”

    The Observer: Do you feel that the Orthodox Jewish world is aware of this [eating disorders]?

    Aliza: It’s started to become more acceptable to talk about it. What’s happened is- I can’t even tell you how many different families have been in touch with me because of parlor meetings – it really crosses the spectrum. I get some calls from the depths of Brooklyn, from some very Modern Orthodox communities-from across the spectrum. When I was interviewed for a very Orthodox publication, I can’t tell you the phone calls I got from that. I think it also opened up lots of discussions between parents and children. When I go speak in schools and I speak to the parents and the students separately, I know that it is opening up discussion at home, or on their way home, because they both heard me and they have to talk about it to process it. Oftentimes, discussions like these don’t begin at home. For many parents, it’s the fear of the unknown. Every eating disorder is different and manifests itself in different ways; every eating disorder starts for different reasons; each person who has a eating disorder experiences something completely different from everybody else. And each eating disorder has its own backlash- what happens to you afterwards, how you feel afterwards. Each person ends up having a different response to an eating disorder. And not one is the same; it’s not like you can look at me and say my daughter doesn’t have that; that means she’s not sick. No matter how it manifests itself, no matter what the symptoms are- the feelings of low self-esteem, of not good enough, of not being pretty, of wanting to improve and wanting to change your life and not knowing how to do that- all of those things, that’s the same. The feelings of not being worth anything.

    The Observer: How do you think the shidduch system and dating affects the Orthodox world with regard to eating disorders?

    Aliza: Dating can get very, very difficult. For example, many times guys ask me the dress size of girls. But in reality, they don’t even know what dress size means. I once did a test on a bunch of college age kids. They wrote down what size they thought a certain person was- they all thought she was a 2 or a 4 when actually she was an 8 or a 10. They would be perfectly comfortable with her body size; they just don’t know what it means! It’s very strange, because the questions are not even reality-based; they have no idea what they’re talking about when they ask about sizes. They lack a frame of reference.

    The Observer: What’s your message to us, students at Stern and Yeshiva College?

    Aliza: My message to college-age students is twofold. Firstly, don’t assume that just because you’re past teenagehood, the disease can’t creep up on you or your friends. Part of staying healthy is being self-aware. Just be aware of what is going on in your mind and your body.

    Secondly, I think many of the Stern and Yeshiva students in particular become future leaders, whether it’s as guidance counselors, accountants or whatever job they take, they all become leaders in our communities. I think that is huge, and I think that is a huge responsibility. And when I speak to counselors in camp and students, I say: you can do preventative work by being more positive about your own self-esteem and body image and also not focusing on everybody’s exteriors. Your ability to lead is the way in which you will help change the world for the better.

    “If you have any questions, comments or an interest in arranging for Aliza to speak at your venue, please email [email protected]


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