Rea’s Story: Medicating A Spiritual Condition
The photographs for this profile were taken by Mina Richler from Art of A Moment.
(1/6) “Fix This”
“I always felt very lonely. I felt as if everyone else received this pamphlet that was called, ‘Instructions for Life’ and someone gave me their chewed up Bazooka wrapper instead. Everyone always seemed to ‘know what to do’ and I never had a clue what I was supposed to be doing. I felt as if I didn’t fit in, that I couldn’t relate to people, so instead I would stay home and make up stories about imaginary people, so I could feel less alone. I was always escaping into other realities that weren’t mine (like books and movies). The way I comforted myself was with food.
By the time I was 8 years old, I had developed habits of self-soothing with food. I would steal other kids’ snacks in class, I would dig through the garbage cans at school and eat other people’s pizza crusts. I stole food, and snuck and hid – I became very good at keeping secrets.
At that young age, I was obese. I would eat snacks all day in class, all afternoon when I came home from school, then eat a really big meal with my family for dinner. Then I would sneak up and down the stairs all night to get more snacks. For years, I hid the tell-tale sign of the wrappers behind my bed. Eventually, when we moved out of that house, they pulled my bed away from the wall and there was a mountain of garbage that had accumulated, approximately 5 feet by 2 feet, behind the bed. I thought I was keeping this big secret, but I was getting heavier and heavier, so I was wearing my problem for the world to see.
My mother a”h, was supportive in the only way she could be, and she thought she could fix it for me. We went on diets together. She was a large, tall woman, and we went on every diet you can imagine. I could never lose weight, and I felt a lot of shame and a sense of defeat in this silent competition I had with my mother. She was never competing with me, but I was always competing with her. When she would lose weight, I would resent her. She was dieting out of love, thinking she could fix this thing for me. But she didn’t know what I was truly struggling with.
As I gained weight, I wrestled with the emotional turmoil that came with it. The loneliness was compacted by being an obese child. I was always feeling separate, always feeling distant. I could always point at the weight: ‘It’s because I’m fat that I feel this way, angry all the time, lonely, sad and don’t want to be here.’ Really, it was the opposite; those feelings had been there from the beginning, and I was soothing them with food. The weight made a good alibi for me: ‘If I lost weight, then everything would be perfect.’
At 14, my mom took me to a diet and fitness center in North Carolina, which was billed as the premier weight loss nutrition center in America. I remember listening to a nutritionist giving a lecture on caloric intake versus metabolic output: Eat less and exercise more, and you will lose weight. I basically had a PhD in nutrition at that point, from all of the diets I had done. During that lecture, I raised my hand and asked, ‘What happens if I am in my room, and there is a chocolate cake in the kitchen that is talking to me, and I can’t not eat it?’ She looked at me like I had three heads and responded, ‘Just don’t eat it.’ I said, ‘No, no. In the multiple choice question, I just gave you, not eat it is not one of the answers. It is either, A. Eat it now, B. Eat it later, or C. Eat half of it now and hide the rest for later. There is no not eating it. For me, it’s just a question of when.’
I left that lecture feeling like, ‘Wow. Even the doctors can’t help me.’ No diet, pills or shakes were going to fix this.”
“By the time I was 16 I had gotten really large. I had made peace with myself that I was never going to be a thin person. But I had been wrestling to keep myself under a certain number. I knew that if I let things go, I would get even larger and that terrified me. I had this quiet understanding that if that ever happened, I would kill myself.
Hitting a specific number would verify a suspicion that I had: that I was some kind of freak. That I was broken in a way no one else in the world understood. There was this motor, this obsession running all the time, a constant need to feed something. If I let that take over, I would leave the realm of ‘what could be considered normal’ and I would not be able to handle the immense shame of the fact that I had no control.
Once I went to a theme park with my friends and we all wanted to go on a ride. I couldn’t fit into the seat. I was in high school, and I couldn’t imagine having to go through 40, 50 more years of such emotional pain.
There was a night that I went into my mother’s bathroom and I poured an entire bottle of Advil into my hand and I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, ‘I could kill myself right now.’ But I didn’t do it, because I was afraid of dying and because I thought of my mom and what it would do to her. My parents had fertility problems for 7 years, and then they had 4 children in a short amount of time. Every day she told us how we were her miracles and the center of her life. I couldn’t do it to her.
I was young, but I was already so tired. I didn’t want to keep fighting anymore.
In my junior year of high school, a woman came in to talk to us about Bulimia. She said she was once an athlete and that she would binge eat whatever she wanted, and then throw it up – and never gain weight. I don’t know how, at that age, I had never heard of this. Ostensibly, she was there to deter people from Bulimia, but all I heard was, ‘Eat what you want, and not gain weight.’
And I thought, ‘That is genius.’”
(3/6) “Magic Pill”
“This was the magic pill I was looking for. Within 4 months, I was binging and purging up to 8-10 times a day. I would go into my class with a snack, leave, purge, come back with a new snack, on and on, in a cycle.
One night I was in the middle of purging at home when the food I was throwing up got stuck in my throat and I began to choke. All I could think was, ‘I can’t die like this.’ The thought of being found there, having choked to death, was too much for me to handle. I said to God (Whom I didn’t believe in at that time), “Please, don’t let me die like this. I promise I’ll never do it again.” Just like that the food dislodged and I could breathe again.
Ten minutes later, I went back to the kitchen for more food.
There was eventually an intervention. My mom found out what I was doing and made me stop throwing up. I never hated anyone more in my entire life; she had taken my trick away. I got outpatient treatment for Bulimia, though I wasn’t really invested. But I shared a bathroom with my sister, so I knew that I would get caught if I continued. I figured I would wait till college and start up again.
And that’s exactly what I did.”
(4/6) “My People”
“When I got to college, I was eating and binging and purging again. All these experiences that most normal teenagers have and take for granted, I had never had. That ‘outsider’ feeling followed me everywhere. I was consumed with loneliness and barely passed my classes.
Once I had a conversation that still strikes me today. I was at a party and someone asked if I wanted to try cocaine. I said, “I can’t, because I know if I try it, I’ll like it, and I won’t be able to stop.” I don’t know how I had that self-awareness, but it kept me out of even bigger trouble.
On paper, I had a good time in college. I traveled and worked in cool places. But inside, I was lonely and desperate. I could never understand how other people were living their lives and succeeding at their goals. I always wondered when real life was going to happen for me. I never realized that I was removing myself from life and blaming my weight for it. Always telling myself, ‘If I lost weight I would be able to do those things too.’
I went to school for film, and at 19 I began writing a screenplay. I was looking to write a film about the diet industry. I figured that if I blew the lid off all the diet plans and said they didn’t work, I would be forgiven for being fat, because then, ‘it wouldn’t be my fault.’ Somehow I heard about this group of people that get together and talk about food. To this day, I have no idea how I heard about them. But I called my mother and asked her to go to one of their meetings, listen to what they say, and then call me back so I could put it in my screenplay. My mom went, and then she called me and said, ‘I think you should go to one of these meetings.’ I was appalled: I wasn’t like them. But I happened to look online, and to my grave disappointment, I saw there was a meeting in an hour right up the street from my dorm.
When I got there, I saw there was a poster with all these steps on them. The weird thing was, no one was talking about food. I was waiting for someone to weigh me like the other commercial diet meetings I’ve attended. But they were just talking about their lives. I thought it was really weird. But then someone next to me started sharing, and they said, ‘My name is X, and I am a compulsive overeater.’ The minute I heard those words, it was like, ‘Whoa! There is a name for this thing??’ If there’s a name, that means it’s a real thing. Which means I’m not the only one who has it.
And that means I’m not a freak.
I knew that if said to this group, ‘I can’t not eat it,’ they would understand what I meant.
I didn’t share in that meeting, but they told me to keep coming back. I didn’t know what I was coming back for, but I knew that these were my people.”
(5/6) “Sick Inside”
“For two years I went to these meetings. I listened but I didn’t take suggestions. I had to really make sure that I had this problem of Compulsive Overeating. The thing that I learned about addiction, and often about personal growth, is that you have to be in enough pain to be willing to do something different. There is a moment when the pain of staying the same is more than the pain of changing. For me, I had to get to the point where it hurt too much to stay the way I was, and that forced me into change.
Those two years I messed around, I graduated from college and moved home to my parents’ basement and was basically rotting down there. I went to work, came home, ate, and watched movies. I was just escaping my life. But I kept going to meetings because there, people understood.
I remember hearing the first step of the 12 Steps and thinking, ‘I am powerless’. Ok, well, if I’m powerless, all bets are off. I can’t do anything about it anyway, right? But then, what would be the point of the meetings?
So one day I went to a meeting where there were these women who had everything I wanted. They had maintained huge weight losses for over 20 years and had full lives. The cartoon lightbulb went off over my head, and I wondered to myself, if I just do what they do, maybe I’ll have the kind life they have. That’s the night I consider my abstinence sobriety date, March 29, 2004.
I committed to stop eating flour and sugar, which I discovered are my addictive substances. When I eat them, I can’t stop eating them, plain and simple. I am an addict, which according to the American Medical Association, is a disease. I wasn’t a moral failure or devoid of willpower; I was just sick.
I began using a food plan that works for me, which includes weighing and measuring my food. It was what I needed at the time, because I didn’t know that meals had ends. To be able to say, ‘beginning, middle, and end- you’re done’ was an important lesson for me to learn. A year and a half on this plan, and ‘I got thin.’
The problem was, as I learned from the “Big Book”, the basic text of all 12 step programs, the addict’s problem is not their drug of choice – in my case, food. I have a spiritual sickness, a default setting of restless, irritable and discontent that I used food to medicate. When I took the food away, I was still a sick person – except now I was passing for a normal person because I looked like everyone else. That loneliness that I thought was caused by my ‘fat’ was still there, the anger was still there- all those feelings I was running from were still there. The outside didn’t matter. I was still sick inside.
All my relationships were suffering. I was miserable in my job. My mother and I weren’t getting along. ‘But I’m thin! But I’m thin!’- it didn’t matter. I was burning through people like cigarettes. I didn’t know how to function.
I was so afraid of relapse. I could not go through it all again. And I was so vain- I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my new body – so I didn’t pick up the food. But I hit a bottom when I realized that I was going to end up alone, unhappy and angry all the time if I didn’t change something. Why did I feel worse at my optimal weight than I did when I was overweight? I felt like a well-dressed sociopath.”
(6/6) “Never Alone”
“I found some people who were in the same 12 Step program that I was, but they were also working the 12 steps. The original founders of the program wrote the “Big Book” as a set of directions for anyone who wanted to recover. The problem was as rehabs and therapies and other modalities of recovery started, sometimes those ideas bled into the rooms and masked the true basis of the 12 Steps for recovery. Some people don’t even read the 12 steps; they just think that going to meetings will do the trick. Unfortunately, there are so many people who go to meetings and are sober but stay miserable. Ask someone who is an addict, ‘Can you stop when you want to? And if when you stop, can you stay stopped, happily?’ If the answer to both those questions is no, then you’ve got a problem. If you can’t be stopped, happily – then inevitably you will go back to the addiction, because it’s a cycle.
I knew I was deep in that second question, and I needed a new solution. The “Big Book” said I needed to have a ‘spiritual solution’ – and I would do whatever it took to get it. I went to people who were living peacefully, who had developed a conscious relationship with the gods of their understanding by working the 12 Steps. Someone said to me, ‘If the god of your understanding doesn’t work for you – fire them and get a new one.’ I learned that Judaism teaches us that Hashem is anything and in everything. Any vision of Hashem that I need at any given time, is true. If I need a parent, a friend, a cheerleader, an ATM, it doesn’t matter. Hashem is every one of those things. In developing that relationship, I was able to find that source of peace and belonging that I had been looking for, everywhere else in the world. Not just in food, but in clothing, geographical locations, other people, money, and more.
Everything I was looking for, I already had. I just didn’t know that. Once I let God into my life, I was literally never alone. God is closer than my next breath. That sense of being lost in the world or fear of not getting what I need is gone. Today, I’m married with five kids, I’m a reliable employee in a job I love, I’m an active member of my community and a grateful member of my 12-Step program. But most importantly, I’m content in my own skin, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My life is the culmination of a million miracles.
It takes constant vigilance, constant honestly, and constant thinking of others and being willing to say, ‘Please show me what to do next.’ I don’t need food anymore to medicate a spiritual condition. I have spirituality to medicate a spiritual condition.
But it’s constant work every day. It’s so easy to slip back into the delusion of control. Any human being – you don’t even have to be an addict – we are all addicted to the delusion that we control our own lives. We do not. We have the power of choice, but we don’t control the outcomes of our choices, nor the people in our lives. All we can control is our attitudes about our circumstances.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in 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 made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.