May 28, 2024
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The Challenge and Power of Shabbat

Puzzles. Blank stares. Books. As a young woman living a half-life, suffering through anorexia, this is how I spent Shabbat. It felt as if Shabbat dragged on for hours, my thoughts consumed by food and the upcoming meal. I recall that each week while in outpatient treatment we had a group on Friday to prepare for the weekend. We shared our plans and asked for support or guidance from peers. Each week I struggled to truly express and explain the difficulties of Shabbat; I was expected to participate in overwhelming meals that were akin to a “weekly Thanksgiving.”

While my peers attempted to offer support, I felt incredibly alone once sunset took place each Friday. I was struggling to eat normally without restricting and was battling an exercise addiction. Shabbat was a time when I had to face my eating disorder without many supports.

Oftentimes, when an individual is facing mental illness,or a life battle or struggle, coping mechanisms are discovered. These tools can help to distract the individual or to stay safe or mindful when one feels particularly anxious, overwhelmed or in pain. Some coping mechanisms include journaling, watching television, going for a leisurely walk or using art or music. The purpose is to allow the individual to resist from using a negative or maladaptive behavior.

Eating disorder symptoms act as a coping skill in a way. The eating disorder is never truly about the restricting or bingeing or purging, but rather about an underlying issue or pain. This also applies regarding substance use, self harm, or other types of addictions. When the individual enters recovery, the goal is to cease using the maladaptive coping mechanisms which have felt like a crutch or a “best friend.” But in stopping this behavior, the individual sits with all the negative emotions and underlying issues and must find a way to cope. A healthy way, that is. This is where the need for healthy or adaptive coping skills enters the picture. The coping skills act to replace the former negative behavior. And, yet, this coping skill often feels unfulfilling.

I restricted and exercised because it felt as if that helped me to manage pain, fear and loss. In reality, it was killing me. Journaling my feelings did not achieve the same emotional experience as I believed restricting did. I needed to practice learning that in reality the restriction was maladaptive. I also needed to process the underlying pain, loss and fear.

Positive coping mechanisms do not erase the pain, but can instead help one sit with the emotions or delay using negative behaviors. Then, when the person is ready, s/he can sift through and process the underlying emotional experience. Simply watching a movie did not make the urges to partake in my eating disorder go away. But, at times, it did help me to stay grounded until I could express my emotions in a safe and productive way, by speaking to a therapist or supporter.

On Shabbat, my coping skills were limited. I could not call my therapist. Nor could I watch television, journal, speak to my long-distance boyfriend, do an art activity, color, drown out my thoughts with music or one of many other coping skills I was learning to practice. Instead, I was faced with large meals and many self-loathing thoughts, and no way to drown them out.

When someone you know is battling an inner demon, or struggling through a particular life experience, it is important to be mindful of just how difficult Shabbat can be. Think of an individual struggling with substance abuse who cannot call his/her sponsor if feeling tempted by the alcohol at a Kiddush at shul. Offering extra support before the weekend can be extremely supportive and comforting. And this was one way I was able to get through Shabbatot. My mother offered me support by taking short, slow walks with me just around the block after a particularly hard meal. My parents and siblings checked in with me and asked how they could be helpful before, during and after meals as well as during the long afternoons in the summer. We found ways to make the meals feel safe for me including playing games during the meal and refraining from talking about the food. Each person is different and therefore guidelines and coping skills are different, but the act of offering support can show a loved one that you care.

I was also able to connect to Shabbat, eventually, in a way that allowed me to appreciate its significance and look at it beyond the—what felt like—impossible meals. Shabbat is intended to be a day of rest. I used this theme as a way to “rest” from the eating disorder. I set intentions and connected to the Tefilot of the day, as a way to make the day more meaningful to me. I used coping skills and processed the experience, and received, as well as advocated for, support.

Shabbat, a day that helps us slow down and reconnect, can pose difficulty for those in recovery. By offering support and understanding the need for awareness, you may be able to provide relief to allow the day to once again become a time of rest and comfort.

Temimah Zucker, MSW, is a social worker at EDTNY Monte Nido and provides meal support. She is also a public speaker on the subject of eating disorders and body image. You can reach her at [email protected].

By Temimah Zucker, MSW

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