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From One Altar to Another: A Story of Worship, From Orthodoxy to Anorexia

I spent my teenage years in rebellious pursuit of an unattainable body. It almost cost me everything.

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The first time I really got to know gentiles, I had my guard up. But they embraced me in a way my own community had never done.

Over the months, my friends became helpless strangers on the outskirts of my life, and my best friend, in whose home across from mine I had spent countless hours and in whose company I once shared the most intimate secrets, watched me with wounded eyes as I evaded her in class and on our street. “I see you in there!” she called angrily through the mail slot as I frantically hissed at my mother to get away from the door. “Why won’t you let me in? Why won’t you talk to me?” And as I raced to the peephole to watch her trudge away, lonely and confused, how could I tell her the truth: that I had no energy for anything or anyone other than this reduced version of myself?

For by this time, I was no longer the outgoing, eager girl with dreams aplenty and a smile at the ready, but a half-starved creature with hard eyes and heightened senses, not unlike a feral alley cat that lurks in the shadows as it lies in wait for scraps of food. I hunted for the forgotten vestiges from disregarded plates of others, and, once I made sure no one was watching, I snatched a pizza crust or the crumbling remains of a muffin and fled to a place where I could be alone. There, hunched over in the corner of my bedroom, I’d dissect these scraps into more minute slivers before ingesting them slowly while keeping a watchful eye on the door for any interlopers who might accidentally stumble across this scene of forbidden indulgence.

At night, I dreamed in food—anything my Bubbe had ever made me, the ice cream sundaes dripping with hot fudge my friend Miri and I used to get on Kings Highway on our walks home from school—and when I woke, it took me a minute or two to orient myself, the metallic tinge of starvation on my tongue jerking me back into my new austere reality. My days were minefields that stretched out in seemingly endless hours challenging me to do something, anything, but eat. As I cried myself to sleep one night, a salty tear made its way to my parched lips, and I sucked it in hungrily before cold shock set in and propelled me from the bed to the floor to complete a furious set of sit ups and leg lifts. I had already met my daily allowance of food, you see, and I couldn’t afford the calorie I suspected a teardrop might possess.

This is what my existence had been reduced to. I had certainly accomplished what I had set out to do, for anorexia had given me the sleek limbs I yearned for. It had superseded the real fears I was afraid to face, and it had become my entire life.

But oh, what a life.

By the time I lay crumpled in a heap on the basement floor just shy of 17, concentrating on each breath until my heartbeat resumed a more normal pattern and wishing for the release that death would bring me, I was just as quickly overcome with a desperate desire to live a more normal life again. A life that was uncertain and rife with potential to disappoint others as it might have been. And through the years of hospital stays and therapy and personal revelations that followed, I realized this: I lost a lot of things to anorexia, including 30-some pounds, my best friend, and no small degree of physical and mental health. But all I had done was exchange the confines of one religion in which I felt imprisoned for another, entirely of my own creation. And I had gotten nowhere.

This essay is adapted from a memoir-in-progress.

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From One Altar to Another: A Story of Worship, From Orthodoxy to Anorexia

I spent my teenage years in rebellious pursuit of an unattainable body. It almost cost me everything.

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