National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Through Thick and Thin
By Shani Raviv

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I recently received a book in the mail––it was the first copy of my new book, a memoir of anorexia nervosa. I picked it up off the front door mat where it lay swaddled in brown cardboard like baby Jesus in a basket. When my husband came home and I unwrapped it and held it bare in my hands for the first time, I said, "It feels a bit thin! I expected it to be… thicker." We both immediately recognized the irony in my statement, coming from the mouth of a recovered anorexic, and we laughed. Society accepts thicker books, "fatter" books, we call them tomes and consider them to be intelligently written, of value, containing substance. My book of 264 pages, however "thin" it feels, contains the weight of the decade of my Anorexia, which started at age fourteen and waned at age 24. I'm now 34 and ten years recovered.

I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa where I grew up in an all-female, diet-free, nutrition-filled eccentric, artistic household. I attended a private Jewish school where I belonged, miserably and involuntarily, to the "odd ones out" and not the "popularati." My parents had divorced, when I was nine, on our return to South Africa after a short, failed immigration to Israel and it was then that I suffered my first unofficial depression. I remember the feeling of being in a place (physical and emotional) that I didn't want to be and having absolutely no power to change it. I can tell from photographs of that time by the look on my face, my demeanour, the way my clothes sag on my sad childish frame that I had lost the happiness that I had suddenly discovered inIsrael and there was no way out. On top of that my father moved out and my already precarious world ripped in two. I felt it rip. Suddenly we were a family of three sisters: my mother––a young thirty-something woman, herself struggling with depression, my sister and me. On the periphery was my distant and emotionally unavailable father whom I wanted more than anything in the world to show me love. Over the years when the pain of being the pariah at school persisted, I wanted out. Out of the pain of feeling like the odd one out, the awkward one, the sad one. I decided at age fourteen after a humiliating incident at school to change schools and my life took a new turn.

I suddenly found myself popular at my new school––a multi-racial (which in those days was unheard of in apartheid South Africa Catholic, co-ed convent as different from my elite, all-white Jewish school as could be. I hooked up with a group of girls––many of whom came from "dysfunctional" families, all of whom were teens on the verge of daunting womanhood, struggling to find their true identities, craving to fit in, to be loved and accepted by one another, wanted by the boys. In those days, however, there were no online sites dedicated to girl empowerment movements or self-esteem boosting organizations to which to belong as there are now. The girls in my clique only had each other to rely on, to turn to in crisis and we were all stuck in the same boat of teenage naivety and the insatiable desire to belong.

It was at the convent that I first heard about dieting. And within months I latched onto this once utterly foreign concept and was unexpectedly on a sudden mission of weighing myself and on a downward spiral of weight loss that caused amenorrhea, depression as well as a high, an illusory sense of control, and focused my attention on something other than my daily stress and my inner turmoil. Nine months later, I should have been hospitalized but the doctors in those days wouldn’t have known what for. I didn't know what Anorexia was, nor did I know anyone who was anorexic. Growing up in South Africa, I wasn't inundated with Hollywood "thin" extravaganza and Anorexia was nowhere to be found in the media. That was 1991. An almost (unbelievable) twenty years ago and yet that so-called teenage "diet" set the stage for the rest of my life. Soon enough I became a reclusive, defiant, angry, aggressive, unhappy teenager. I started to lie, steal, sleep around and drink in secret pursuit of some unattainable escape, all the while conspiring with an invisible entity––Anorexia––that had overtaken my life, my being and was becoming me or me Her. Yet she remained nameless.

For six years I lived in denial of my disorder. I refused to label it or define it although I knew there was a problem. I knew my starving was all-consuming. But I didn't believe (like others thought) that my intention was to starve to death. I know it wasn't. Instead, starving, for me, was an act of survival. In my mind, I honestly believed that Anorexia was the only thing protecting me. Anorexia became my identity. Years later, after moving to Israel after high school and being recruited to the Israeli army (a decision Anorexia agreed to on my behalf), I returned to South Africa and my mother, who had not seen me in months, took one long at me and realized the severity of my situation. After six years of watching me waste away and being powerless to stop it, she managed to track down someone in the field of eating disorders to speak to me. For some obscure reason, I agreed. That man, in one conversation, broke my denial and a few months later while actively pursuing a dead-end career in raving and doing drugs, I had an epiphany that woke me up to the reality that my sense of self, "I" was being lost to Anorexia. And from there, I knew that if I crossed the line, there would be no return. I realized that if I didn’t stop starving, I would experience something worse than death. "I", my sense of self, would die forever. Yet I would be alive, for a little while, to realize it.

It took another three years of reckless behavior and debilitating confusion before I finally, after ten years, and some serendipitous happenings, made the conscious decision to want to be well. However, I didn't think it meant letting Anorexia go, as though she meant nothing. I just knew that I could no longer hold on. After ten years of fighting the disorder alone, almost every day, believing I had the will power to stop it, while paradoxically "feeding" it with my starvation, I finally gave in. I surrendered. That was the start of a long, emotionally excruciating and exhausting recovery. It was the start of my journey back to my true self.

My story is not a misery memoir, it's not a to-hell-and-back story, it's strangely enough a wild ride that I am lucky to have survived. I am lucky to have had the undying support of my amazing, loving family who believed in me every step of the way and incredible therapists and nutritionists who supported my recovery. I could never have done it alone. Especially valuable was the support group I attended for years where girls and women with eating disorders gathered to share their stories. It was there that someone planted the seed for me to share mine. That was in 2002, the year that I started writing being Ana, which is ultimately a story about one girl's search for her Self, through thick and thin.

I wrote being Ana to share what I learned about this complex and controversial disorder––Anorexia. I hope that it inspires readers to find compassion for their loved ones and friends suffering from Anorexia, and maybe that it encourages sufferers to want to find a way out. Because there is a way out––a clear-cut, albeit painful and messy, way out. But the journey out requires tenacity, courage and endurance, which I believe every Anorexic has. Rabbi Nachman, who lived in the eighteenth century, once said, "If you believe you can spoil, then believe that you can repair." He also believed that the purpose of sharing one's story, one's dark secrets with others is to take a weight off the soul as part of the healing process. On that note, it is also my hope that readers of this Story of Hope or of my book will walk away with the will to want to share their own stories so they can lead lives in which they are true to themselves.

Shani Raviv worked as a freelance writer in South Africa. She currently lives in Seattle where she is marketing her book, being Ana: a memoir of anorexia nervosa, leading creative writing workshops, practicing yoga, hiking and camping in rainforests and volunteering at NEDA where she is working on outreach for NEDA Awareness Week 2011. Visit her website: www.shaniraviv.com

being Ana: a memoir of anorexia nervosa is now available on Amazon.com

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