The first time I fasted for Yom Kippur, I was 16 years old. Because I was raised in an interfaith and largely non-denominational household, I was never expected to participate in religious traditions, and I certainly wasn’t asked to fast from sundown to sundown. But at 16, I felt compelled to commit myself to observe the High Holy Days with what resources I had at hand. In a way, it felt noble to take a firm stance in my Jewish identity in a place where Jews were few and far between. At least, that is the narrative I crafted for the world.
For myself, it was an entirely different story.
Throughout the last few years of high school and into college, I suffered from anorexia. The onset was slow, beginning with an innocent attempt to eat healthier, which then spiraled into an all-consuming lifestyle. Numbers ran a gambit on my brain, constantly counting calories and obsessively weighing myself every morning and night. It grew beyond the necessary numbers on a scale, and into the need to moderate my body at my will and on my terms. I purposefully ignored the groans of my stomach, developing several tactics to ensure I was constantly in control of my body. Yom Kippur became one of those tactics.
When I decided to participate in Yom Kippur traditions, it was not to resurrect a deeply seeded connection to Judaism, but as a tool to remain in control. If I could fast from sundown to sundown, I would have completed yet another step in the never-ending cycle of attempting perfection and authority. The religious components of the holiday were completely overshadowed by my inability to obtain some unattainable weight or imaginary sense of power over my body. If I fasted, I was that much closer to achieving a different kind of atonement.
Looking back, I know this atonement was not holy. I practiced self-denial, but only as a vehicle to propel me closer to an impossible goal, rather than to repent for wrongdoings. The only sin I was absolving myself of was my failings as someone who could not assume dominance over not just my body, but every aspect of my existence. It was a calculated suffering.
I wish I could say my recovery was spurned on by some divine intervention from Judaism, but in reality it was the whirlwind of college, where feeding myself became a part of survival rather than a methodical system. Accompanied by exhaustion and late night pizza orders, I eventually felt myself too tired to wake up an extra five minutes before my alarm to weigh myself while my roommate was in the bathroom. I no longer saw food as an enemy, but simply as a necessity. It did not have to taste good or be good for me, it just had to keep me awake through the next lecture, paper, presentation, club meeting, late night rehearsal, that one early morning art history recitation.
While I do not advocate that this lifestyle was particularly healthy, it was far better than the alternative. I had fuel and began to envision a life where I could believe the notion that I one day would be good enough, despite my outward appearance, despite the lack of control over my surrounding and myself, and despite how far from perfection I had strayed. I began to painfully undo shackles to something far darker and far more dangerous, a process that took several years and crying fits and practicing acceptance and throwing away old jeans and finally trying to convince myself I am comprised of more than just a series of ultimately unimportant numbers.
I am now, thankfully, a handful of years into a lifelong recovery. Many of the tactics and daily tenets of that period of my life have faded into sinister habits of an era gone by, no longer manifesting themselves in my everyday routine. However, I recognize relapse is possible and unfortunately a likely outcome for many of those who have suffered from an eating disorder, myself included.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur, a holiday that once triggered and deepened my illness, I have to reassess not only my connection to my body, but my relationship to Judaism. While I do not proclaim to be particularly religious and maintain a relatively secular bond with Judaism, participating in religious ceremony serves as a touchstone to my history and heritage. I’m still unsure if that entails an intimate relationship to God or to prayer, but the idea that these traditions have been practiced for thousands of years, through every plight imaginable, shifts the focus to an existence larger than just myself.
Yom Kippur will always be difficult, as is intended. But as someone in an ongoing recovery process, the complicated history I have with the holiday gives a new meaning of renewal. It’s another year towards better habits, another year away from a darker reality, another year separating me and the lurking mindset of total perfection. I still approach fasting with trepidation, conscious of how the feeling of an empty stomach might become enticing long after sundown. There have been years where I’ve made the decision to not fast in order to protect my physical and mental health. While I felt guilty for not participating to my fullest ability, Yom Kippur remained sacred and a gift of time to reconcile my thoughts. I have to consciously reframe it every year, not as a milestone toward unobtainable control, but as a moment to center myself in this present moment.
Whether I fast or not, Yom Kippur allows me to catch my breathe and honestly check in with myself amidst the noise of my daily life.
My body is capable. It always has been, regardless of the number on the scale or my daily caloric intake. It has been broken a few times, maybe suffered a few bumps and bruises along the way, but it has gotten me this far despite all the obstacles, and that is pretty remarkable. This is not to say I am totally at peace with my body. My self-confidence ebbs and flows, which seems pretty normal based on observation. There are days where I can feel myself slipping into old habits, but there are also days of immense celebration.
I’ve let go of the reigns little by little. I trust my body and I understand recovery is not a linear process. And all of this is okay. My body does not have to atone for the extreme expectations I placed on it. It no longer has to carry the burden of perfection. And Yom Kippur no longer represents an insidious goal, but an opportunity to reinforce a healthier relationship between mind and body.
I won’t lie. None of this has been easy, but it has been worth every moment in order to give my body back to myself. Yom Kippur is a somber holiday, but it allows for a period from sundown to sundown where my only expectation is to reflect and release. With each mistake cast away, each failure learned from, and each commitment to spiritual improvement, I start to finally feel weightless — separate from any calculations or control, but from simply allowing myself to let go.