Counting carrots at the seder table: Local family reflects upon a daughters eating disorder

A skin-and-bones 18-year-old sat at her family’s Passover table staring at plates of brisket and charoset. The only food on her plate? Carrots.

Lisa Himmel was starving herself.

Lisa Himmel as a child

“I hadn’t been sleeping, my body wasn’t working right, and everyone else was enjoying their time together while I sat there debating how many carrots I could let myself have,” said Lisa, now 24. “I was just totally disconnected from everyone.

“Every Jewish holiday — and even funerals — revolve around food,” she continued. “That was really hard for me. The holidays really took me away from the family.”

Lisa and her mother, Sheila Himmel, detail the long journey with Lisa’s anorexia and bulimia in their new book, “Hungry.”

The book is one part memoir and one part guidebook about the complexities of eating disorders. It is written from both women’s perspectives, and both will share their points of view during several Bay Area appearances in September.

“It was important to me that we write a book that wasn’t just a diary or only about us, but that it had useful reporting and set eating disorders in a broader context,” Sheila said.

Sheila was for many years the restaurant critic for the San Jose Mercury News; her husband, Ned, loves to cook. Food was often the center of their conversations, and restaurants were the axis around which their weekend plans spun.

“I can see now how having parents always talking about food would be torture” for someone with an eating disorder, Sheila said.

Lisa became overly focused on food and her body during her sophomore year of high school. She began by exercising often and watching what she ate. She cut down on fats, starches and sugars and swore off eating carbs after 6 p.m. and anything after 8 p.m. Her mother wrote that “at first, Lisa’s restrictions seemed weird but not red-alert worrisome.”

Soon, she was spending three or four hours at the gym at a time, an obsession even the gym trainers noticed. She was portioning food and increasingly hating her body even as the weight melted off. Eventually, she became a size 00, the thinnest among her friends.

“We kept hoping it was her age, that her misery would pass,” Sheila recalled. Instead, Lisa only got thinner and more concerned about food labels and how she looked.

She was diagnosed with anorexia as a senior at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School.

Lisa at her thinnest

“For Jews, eating disorders are a double shame,” Sheila said. “In the same way we’re not supposed to get tattoos, we’re not supposed to abuse our bodies” by refusing to eat.

In Judaism, food is a blessing to be recognized at every meal, during every holiday, and especially on Shabbat.

“We both felt we had done something wrong Jewishly,” Sheila said. “I think that’s something the Jewish community could do better — to open a conversation [about eating disorders] in a way that doesn’t make people feel they’ve done something against the tradition.”

The desire to be thin — and thus, attractive — is overwhelming for any teenager, especially girls, who today grow up in a media culture saturated with leggy models and size 2 starlets.

Nearly half of high school-age teens are trying to lose weight, and 1 in 10 admit to not eating for 24 or more hours to keep from gaining weight, according to the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control.

Other studies indicate that half of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight.

In “Hungry,” Lisa wrote about feeling like she couldn’t escape images of thin women. They flashed by her car window on highway billboards and appeared at the gym on the cover of Shape magazine.

At the end of high school, Lisa began to see a nutritionist and a therapist. She became healthy enough to go to U.C. Santa Cruz.

She relapsed three years after starting college. She had begun to binge and purge, throwing up everything she ate.

“Bulimia is easier to hide,” Lisa said. “I could go out and eat with people, and they wouldn’t know that I would go to the bathroom wondering ‘How quickly can I get this food out?’ ”

The 5-foot-3 Lisa weighed 93 pounds when she was hospitalized and admitted to an eating disorder clinic. Over the span of five years, Lisa saw a series of psychologists, dieticians, student health directors and psychoanalysts.

She also relied on the support of her synagogue, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The first time she was admitted to a hospital, all of the temple’s clergy came to visit her.

Lisa and Sheila Himmel today

“It was important that when she was at her worst, the community was there for her,” Sheila said.

Mother and daughter have learned a lot about each other through surviving Lisa’s eating disorder and working on the book together.

The writing and editing process wasn’t easy for either, but it ultimately brought them closer.

“We’re mother and daughter, so of course we had our differences, but now that [the book] is done, it has brought us closer and we understand each other better,” Lisa said.

Added Sheila, “We both feel that we took something terrible and made something good out of it, and not just for us.”

Ned is a character but not a narrator in the book. He’s proud of his wife and daughter for sharing such intimate details of the family’s experience.

“I didn’t mind opening up our lives to others … Those stories are the most useful,” he said.

Lisa moved back to the Bay Area last week after a year living in Florida. She’s no longer starving herself or throwing up, and she exercises in moderation.

“Sometimes it’s still really hard for me, but I don’t see those moments as setbacks, more like something I’m working on,” Lisa said.

As Lisa’s health has improved, Sheila has gained perspective about how a parent should handle a son or daughter with an eating disorder.

Looking back, she wishes she had intervened earlier. “I think we feared we would make it worse,” she said. Early intervention might prevent an eating disorder from fully developing, which makes a young person’s food and body image issues easier to treat.

Today, she encourages parents not to worry so much. “As parents of a teenager, whatever you do will be wrong,” she said. Still, “they’ll see that you’re expressing concern and love.”

There is no silver bullet solution, Sheila said. Parents of a child with an eating disorder can turn to therapists, nutritionists and support groups. The most important thing, she said, is for parents to find a professional their child can trust.

And to truly heal, the person with the eating disorder must decide he or she wants to get well.

“It’s not easy but it is possible to get over this,” Lisa said. “For a while, I had trouble believing that if I gave it up I would be OK, because for a lot of people it becomes an identity, and we’re scared of who we’ll be without it. But I’ve found out that life is a lot better and more enjoyable when you’re not consumed with your body and food.”

“Hungry” by Sheila and Lisa Himmel (274 pages, Penguin Group, $15)

Sheila and Lisa Himmel will read from their book, “Hungry,” 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, 100 Larkin St., S.F.


Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.