Temimah’s Story: Living Well is The Best Revenge

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When Temimah and I met for her portrait session for this profile, it was a special reunion for me. When I was working in the eating disorder and addiction field, she and I collaborated several times. I arranged some of the events and she told the story of her eating disorder and her recovery experience to rapt audiences. Since then, Temimah has become a therapist specializing in eating disorders, gotten married and built a beautiful life with her new family.

Temimah frames her eating disorder experience through her heightened sense of mortality. When she was young, she was exposed to a series of deaths, some tragic and traumatic in nature, and others filled with familial grief. She was a sensitive and empathic child and was deeply troubled by the sudden nature of loss and the reality that when a person leaves this world, their body does not return to living. She ruminated over the potential deaths of those closest to her, and as she was the youngest in her family, she was afraid of being left alone. Temimah reflected, “growing older mainly felt like growing closer to death.”

Entering puberty at ten years old, she was suddenly thrust into “womanhood,” triggering her old fears. The pre-teen stage, with all its social pressures, exchanges and discomfort, was particularly challenging for Temimah. She began to have trouble expressing to her family and friends about her emotional needs. As she entered her teenage years, her beloved grandmother died. In addition, the stress from the emotional demands of growing up, Temimah began to wrestle with clinical depression and asked her parents for therapy help.

In her late teens, Temimah was engaged in several emotionally abusive friend and romantic relationships. She noted, “Things are not as beautiful or innocent as you think life will be when you are a child. All of a sudden I felt that maybe I wasn’t inherently a worthy person, that maybe things weren’t going to work out for me. I was pretty confident before this point, but my self esteem had been knocked down, and I started thinking maybe I was unlovable.” Though she did not know it at the time, Temimah’s love language- the way that her personality needs to be loved, is best received through acts of kindness, by being nurtured. While watching a family member be tended to when they were in the hospital, Temimah unconsciously absorbed that in order to receive the love that she needed, she needed to be ill. Though she seemed independent and secure, she reflected that “I unconsciously was looking for a way to show people that I was broken on the inside. I felt the need to show them how much pain I was experiencing. I am mortal, I get hurt and I’m going to show that I can’t handle the pain. Maybe then they would feel sorry for hurting me.”

The catalyst of her eating disorder was a summer where she suffered a serious betrayal that “caused a tornado of loss of childhood innocence.” This experience was a crushing blow to her feelings of self worth, and the disordered eating habits that had followed her during teenage periods of stress, quickly turned into a serious eating disorder in her first few months of college. Completely overwhelmed by starting this new stage of adulthood, her old fears were triggered.

“After a lot of therapy, I learned that it made sense that I unconsciously would choose this method of self harm. It’s almost socially acceptable to restrict eating to stay within a body size that’s venerated in the Jewish culture and Western culture.” But the reality was much more serious because within two months of starving herself, Temimah was close to death. Her parents intervened and she began treatment and the process of recovering from her eating disorder. “When I was in recovery, I was being forced fed like a baby and told how much sleep I needed. My body was the size of a child’s body and people were worried about me. This all makes sense in the context of the secondary gains, which was to make myself sick enough that people would have to take care of me, so I could feel loved.”  When she left inpatient treatment, her father told her, “Living well is the best revenge,” giving her motivation to shed the pain that she still felt from those that had hurt her.

Before anorexia, “I had an awareness that I had a body, and my mind was conscious of wanting to be attractive, and it stopped there. I knew that people would judge my body, I liked to look nice, but it was never something that I manipulated in any way. During my eating disorder, body image became my life.” Later in therapy she learned that her “body image issues” were largely symbolic of the other issues with which she was struggling and anorexia enabled avoidance of dealing with them. During the eating disorder, all her thoughts and efforts were oriented towards her body. She counted calories, timed how long she would stand during the day, how much she could exercise, every choice she made was related to how it would impact her body. She thought that exacting this level of control on her body would make her feel good on the inside. “If I achieved a certain weight, or if I could achieve satisfaction about the way that I felt about my body, than I could feel good about who I was on the inside. That was highly false, because that would never have been enough. I lived for numbers, calories and cutting out fat.”

Now Temimah’s relationship with her body is very different. “Today the extent of my putting on makeup is the effort of trying to look nice, but I know that doesn’t mean that I’m going to feel nice. Beauty to me is the definition of how something feels, not the way something looks. Now, I would rather feel a certain way, than look a certain way.” Temimah has been able to move past her eating disorder because she has learned that she now has the capacity to manage those moments when she is hurting, as opposed to being overwhelmed by them. She knows how to express her pain, and ask her loved ones for support when she needs it. “I am still a woman, and there are days I look in the mirror and I have thoughts about what I see. But that’s where it ends. If I want to keep my body strong then I can make mindful choices about what I eat or how much I exercise. I know what my body does for me, its a vessel that houses something way more important than something physical.”

Temimah’s brush with death she calls, “flirting with mortality.” We talked about how we creep close to the matters that frighten us so that we can know them, convincing ourselves that because we’ve caught a glimpse of the beast itself, we have less to fear. “Obviously the joke was on me, because it could easily have overtaken me.” Now as an adult, she still has moments of preoccupation with regard to mortality. She becomes tearful when she mentions her dog Ferdie, who was given to her as a therapy dog when she was in recovery. “That fear is still prevalent in my life, when I think about Ferdie, my recovery dog, a transitional object in my life, when I think about the future and her dying, it’s very emotional for me. The idea of my own death or the death of loved ones, as painful as they are, similarly to my feelings on body image. I have chosen at this point to live a life where thinking about death won’t take me away from living.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.