Monday, April 29, 2013

Shabbat Shalom?

Last week I had the privilege of co-facilitating a discussion on eating disorders in the observant Jewish community.  We initially thought only a few people would voluntarily come to something like that...were we ever surprised when over twenty women showed up!  The discussion was passionate and thought provoking, and one topic that rose to the surface time and time again was:  Shabbat.  How, exactly, does an individual with an eating disorder navigate that "island in time"?

The Jewish year is dotted with festivals, but they each happen only once:  there is only one Pesach, one Yom Kippur, to get through each year.  Shabbat, however, comes EVERY WEEK.  This is supposed to be a blessing, a weekly opportunity for pleasure via food and rest.  But, what if you find neither food nor rest pleasurable?  For a person struggling with an eating disorder, Shabbat easily turns into 25 hours a week of facing head-on that which is most stressful.

I suppose it's not a stretch for people to understand why the lavish meals and seemingly constant presence of food can be so threatening to a person with an eating disorder.  The challenge posed by rest, however, is perhaps more difficult to parse out.  For me, physical rest is satisfying only if my brain is also able to quiet down...and, when I was actively engaged in my eating disorder, my brain was never, ever quiet.  I've always compared the endless stream of anxious, obsessive thoughts to the ticker tape that runs constantly across the bottom of the screen on CNN.  It felt like there was never a moment when my brain wasn't broadcasting some worry, and the way I dealt with the anxiety (and with any uncomfortable feeling, really) was to exercise.  Aside from the obvious "benefit" of burning calories, physical activity was my outlet for feelings and my way of coping with sensations that were unpleasant and scary.  For many people with eating disorders, exercise serves that dual purpose.  It's understandable, then, that to be faced with a day that is full of food AND devoid of physical exercise might feel like too much to bear.  

So, the challenges are clear.  What can we do?  Well, some aspects of Shabbat are probably not going to change.  There are always going to be meals, and it's probably never going to be considered "shabbosdik" to go for a long, sweaty run.  However, there are ways to work within the system that can make the Shabbat experience, if not actually pleasurable, at least bearable to someone with an eating disorder.  

Regarding food:  My discussion co-facilitator made the brilliant suggestion of simply not keeping platters of food on the table where people are eating.  If possible, put the food on a separate table or ledge so that it's not constantly staring people right in the face.  This also helps people focus on whom they're eating with, not just what they're eating.  To give the struggling individual some sense of control over the food, allow that person to serve him or herself, and ask ahead of time if he or she would like to be involved in the menu planning.   

Regarding rest:  "Rest" does not have to equal, "sitting around doing nothing."  It is perfectly permissible to do leisurely activities such as taking a walk, playing board games (may I suggest Bananagrams?), or going to the park.  Weather permitting, I personally go for a walk in nature EVERY Shabbat, and I also try to do something intellectually stimulating such as learning Torah or having a meaningful conversation.  But, really, people are encouraged to engage in any pleasurable activity (within the bounds of halacha).  For someone with an eating disorder, "distress tolerance" skills will be especially important on Shabbat and that person should be permitted to do whatever he or she finds soothing, no matter how "unusual" the choice might seem to others.  

For people working on recovery, know this:  there are going to be tough Shabbats...and that's okay.  You are NOT a "bad Jew" because you fail to enjoy Shabbat, or because you can't freely partake of what everyone else seems to find pleasurable.  You are doing the best you can.  Beating yourself up for all the Shabbats that you "should have" enjoyed serves no purpose other than to make you feel badly about yourself.  I was a big-time self-berator until I finally realized that punishing myself for missed opportunities did not bring back those chances, nor did it do anything to help me take advantage of future ones.  That said, knowing I was unhappy was a major motivator for me to get well.  And, now when I actually enjoy sitting at a Shabbat table with friends and good food, the experience is so much sweeter because it is a prize I've won.  I wish for all of you that you find your own paths to future Shabbats full of pleasure and satisfaction--one small step at a time.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Need for Dialogue

For many months, I've had the beginnings of this blog post brewing in my mind, and this week's parshiot of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim provide me with the perfect jumping-off point.  But then, Monday happened, and my city of Boston was irrevocably altered by tragedy.  In the wake of that, writing about anything else seemed a bit superfluous.  To be honest, it still does, in a way...but since many others (such as this guy) have already written far more eloquent, poignant pieces about Monday's events than I ever could, I suppose I'll just get back to what I can write about...which brings me to this week's Torah portion and the always relevant, ever controversial topic of sex.

I must begin by defining my parameters, here.  I am acutely aware that some of the psukim in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are often referred to in many ongoing, painful battles around various issues of sexuality.  In the interest of keeping this an open forum for all, I am not going to get into any of those specific arguments here.  This should in no way be interpreted as me ignoring these issues--on the contrary, I find them personally relevant and quite emotional.  But, I'm aware that not everyone does, and I'm just trying to keep this blog something to which as many people as possible can relate.

And let's be honest:  no matter who you are, or where you fall on whatever spectrum, we all can relate to sex.

So what does the book of Vayikra have to say about sexual relations?  Well, in Acharei Mot alone, I count 17 psukim that lay out the laws governing sexual relationships, and nearly every single one contains the phrase, "You shall not".  There is not a lot of discussion regarding any of these prohibitions; they are simply listed matter-of-factly and then are re-stated in Kedoshim, where each one is also given its corresponding punishment.

What I'd like to focus on here is not so much the specific content of the prohibitions, but rather the issue of a cultural sexual ethic being based primarily on unequivocal and harshly punished you shall nots.  Interestingly, much of the basis for the practice of shomer negiah (refraining from physical contact with members of the opposite sex) is derived from Chapter 18 of Vayikra.  Essentially, we are telling young people not to think of themselves or others as sexual beings, lest they fall into the trap of committing one of these sexual sins.  This abstention from all manner of sexual thought and action should continue until the moment when they are expected to fulfill our very first commandment: be fruitful and multiply.

How often does that transition actually go seamlessly?

Again, I want to stress that I'm not intending to use this forum to debate the nature of the traditional Jewish sexual ethic.  What I do want to challenge is the barrier against questioning and dialogue that a long list of you shall nots puts up.   It's no secret that young adults have questions and concerns about sex, about their own bodies, thoughts, and feelings.  And, since we've all been young adults, we've all had these questions.  It is therefore our responsibility to do more than simply begin and end the discussion with "You shall not ____."  Nothing shuts down conversation faster than an absolute negative.  And, few things cause more inner turmoil for young people than the misperception that something wrong with them sexually.  The relationship between sexuality and eating disorders is well documented.  When people feel out of sync with what is culturally expected of them sexually, many respond by taking this confusion and fear out on their own bodies.  For a girl who is expected to marry and have children before she is ready, this might mean starving herself to avoid maturing into a "woman." For an individual who is ready to explore sexuality before it is culturally permitted or in a way the community frowns upon, it might look like bingeing and purging to relieve some of those built-up emotions and anxieties.  One way to support  young people around issues of sexuality is to invite them to air their concerns and questions with trusted adults who won't just tell them what is and is not a sin, but who will respond with compassion and understanding.  It is possible to maintain a cultural sexual ethic while also making room for dialogue about it.  But the absence of dialogue certainly breeds fear, confusion, and self-hatred--all of which are key ingredients for an eating disorder.

So after all that, with what can I leave you?  I suppose I am hoping that if you are a young person with concerns about sexuality, you will get the message that no matter how it seems, you are not the first person on earth to wonder about whatever it is you're wondering about.  I'm also hoping that if you're an adult in a position to offer counsel to a young person about these matters, that you will open the doors of conversation instead of closing them.  Listen to the person talking to you; find out where he or she is at.  If we can support our young people and receive their questions gently, maybe we can make the journey a little less bumpy--so that sexual development doesn't lead to inner pain, but instead can be a healthy part of a full, recovered life.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Recovery Wisdom from the Fathers

Spring is definitely in the air!  It's hard to believe Pesach has come and gone, and we're now counting the days until Shavuot...woah.  This means it's time for two of my favorite seasonal rituals:

1) Feeding the leftover matzah, in small doses, to the geese and ducks at the pond

2) Reading Pirkei Avot

Both bring me a lot of joy in completely different ways, but for the sake of thematic consistency, I'll focus here on #2.

To be honest, I read Pirkei Avot in snippets throughout the year, but it excites me that the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are earmarked for reading this tractate of the Talmud in earnest.  Yesterday, during the closing hours of Shabbat, I studied the first chapter with my friend (and chevruta par excellence), and then when I got home I couldn't resist looking ahead.  Toward the end of Chapter 2, I came across one of my favorite quotes, from Pirkei Avot 2:16:

"He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say:  You are not expected to complete the work and yet you are not free to evade it."

In its original context, this quote relates to the immense tasks of acquiring Torah wisdom and working to repair the world.  However, I think it can be generalized to other realms of life and applied to any situation in which a person faces a daunting yet necessary task.  Certainly, then, it speaks to the work of recovery.

In the beginning of my recovery, I often got overwhelmed when I stared down the road ahead, seeing the end result that I sincerely wanted but having no idea how--or if--I would get myself there.  One of the most supportive things my treatment team did was to communicate to me that I did not have to do everything at once, and none of it would have to be done alone--but they were not going to let me avoid the work, either.  Baby steps, they accepted and encouraged; inertia, they did not.  To be honest, this balance served me well.  I needed someone to acknowledge that what I was doing was hard and scary, and to reassure me that "slow and steady" would get me there, in the end.  But at the same time, I needed to be held accountable and to be reminded that it was my responsibility to take myself as far down the recovery road as I possibly could.  Rabbi Tarfon understood this principle and the truth of his words reaches out to us today:  We do not have to do everything, yet we must do something.

Which brings me to an excerpt from one of my other favorite quotes, taken from the famous words of Rabbi Hillel:

"And if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Let's face it:  There is never going to be a time that actually feels like a convenient time to work on recovery.  There's always something in the way:  work, school, family obligations, vacations, etc.  Few of us believe we have the luxury of "taking time off from life" to focus on getting well...but the truth is, it's not so much a luxury as it is a necessity.  Life, after all, is more than just going through the motions. If anything we do is going to have any meaning for us, we will have to be fully present to experience it.  I would argue that time invested in recovery--even when it initially feels like a loss or concession--is ultimately going to result in a life that is richer and more satisfying than anything you could experience through the haze of an eating disorder.  It's as Hillel said...there is never a good time, so the best time is now.

I hope you can take the words of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Hillel with you into the coming weeks as you work on your respective journeys:  Take small steps, but take steps...and take them now!