Suspension bridges are frightening—some more than others. But the most frightening suspension bridge in the world is in a faraway place called Non-Dessert-ed Island. The bridge sits at the far end of the island, waiting, still and serene, daring all the inhabitants to cross it and find their way to freedom. Many of them wish to leave, but almost no one ever does.
Nobody ever means to get stranded on Non-Dessert-ed Island. Nobody.
But look around. The place is packed! There are doctors and lawyers, businessmen and women, the smart, the successful, the young and the old, average folk, people from all walks of life—all stranded together.
Some of the unfortunates stranded here made the choice to come on their own free will. Others were brought over by well-meaning caregivers and friends. If they would only realize that they have the ability to leave, they would be able to go back to their regular lives, free to just be. But the fear stops them short.
Normally, when everyone is stranded together, they can draw strength in numbers. People encourage one another. They pool their various resources to come up with creative solutions to their problems and build trusting relationships. But Non-Dessert-ed Island has funny ways of messing with people. Over time, their sense of reality becomes warped and instead of planning their escape, they begin to convince themselves that the mainland is a prison and that Non-Dessert-ed Island offers true freedom.
It’s not an unusual sight to see a group of inhabitants gathering around the banana trees, eating only the leaves and leaving the fruit behind. They fight to break up the fibrous leaf with their molars and coax down its stringy morsels all the while making comments like, “Do you know on the mainland they eat the yellow part? Don’t they realize how unhealthy that is?!”
After grazing, many of the inhabitants will make a full circuit of the island, a ritual they believe permits them to eat another meal. Sweaty and drained, one inhabitant will turn to his fellow and scoff, “Hah! On the mainland they only run when they need to get somewhere or if they enjoy it! That miserable lot.” They laugh together for a short interval, and then exhaustion sets in as they realize they have another two miles to go before they can eat another coconut husk.
Come Purim and they’ll share newly found treasures with one another. They find ways to creatively wrap “almond bark” (“It’s cheaper and healthier than the almonds!”) and “seaweed bars” (“If you stare right into the sun while you eat them, they almost taste like chocolate!”). Over time, this becomes the new normal.
The Great Escape
For some, the facade is too much. Occasionally, in a fit of frustration, inhabitants work up the courage to try to escape. First, they have to make it past the guards at the gate. These are usually family members, coworkers or jogging partners who have caught wind of the escape plan.
“So, little Penina thinks she can be free of this place.”
“Yes, Mom. I just want to be normal again.”
“Normal? You think that’s normal?! If you go to the mainland, you will never get a shidduch!
Or, “Moishe. Where ya’ going?”
“Uh….I was just going to take a stroll. Across this bridge.”
“Oh. Okay, Moishe. You do what you need to do. Just want to remind you that 60% of men your age have mainland-related deaths.” (Returns to chewing his piece of pineapple root.)
Those who make it past the committee have the bridge to deal with. The first few steps are easy. Laughably easy. It makes people wonder what’s so scary to begin with. But once they get a comfortable distance from the island the bridge gets narrower. The view goes wonky. Sometimes they feel like they are a few steps away from the mainland. Other times they feel like they’ve barely moved. Most times, they feel like the bridge is impossibly rickety and they are about to be consumed by a dark abyss. The voices of the committee transform into unbearable shrieks promising death and loneliness. Their legs turn to jelly and all they know is fear. And then they run back. Back to the safety of Non-Dessert-ed Island. And slowly they reintegrate into the throngs, back to their roots and husks, and convince themselves that this is how life is meant to be.
The Great Knowing
Amazingly, there have been inhabitants who have made it off—and those numbers are growing. Such escapes are hushed up or ignored as fairy tales on the island, but on the mainland you can meet the survivors. Most of them find a way to integrate back into society at large, even if they have a few scars from the journey.
These brave souls have found a way to make it off the island and over the horrid bridge. How? At first, maybe some of them willed their way off. Maybe they stumbled a lot, even fell off. Yet somehow, they got across and made it to safety. Then, things started to change. Whereas a few decades ago it would have been seen as irresponsible or dangerous to leave the island, nowadays it is not uncommon to find a group of islanders who have felt The Great Knowing. They see each other and understand without saying a word. They grow emboldened and come in groups to the bridge and help each other over its scariest parts.
What is the Great Knowing? It is an almost indescribable feeling. There are people who live on the island for some time—a few months, a few years, a few decades. On the outside, they look like your average bark-biters, openly decrying life on the mainland. On the inside, they know that the facade is ridiculous. This is not normal life. They need to escape. They have to. A burning image of the mainland grows brighter and brighter in their minds.
The imagine a life where eating and exercise is an invigorating part of life. They imagine having the mental space to focus on their lives and their families and not just calculate how many acorns they are allowed to nibble and how many they have to hoard. They imagine a life that is not subsumed in how others view them. They imagine a life where physical, mental, and emotional well-being are balanced together with ease. They imagine a life of living.
Every year, more and more islanders feel the Great Knowing and make their escape. Some escapees even sneak back over the bridge to share their stories and give guidance on how to get off. Maps have been drawn up and scattered about. Most islanders ignore them, but once you have the Great Knowing, you can never go back.
In the last hundred years, diets have slowly come into the public consciousness. It’s come to the point where dieting has become a social norm. But nothing about dieting is normal. By definition, it is the act of forcing yourself to eat in a way that is not natural for your body. And despite the promise of giving life, most diets take over people’s lives, leaving them feeling like slaves to a foreign diet religion.
It is frightening to abandon the world of dieting. Someone who has grown accustomed to rules will naturally grow to fear the possibility that he can eat in a healthy way without a strict regimen. On top of that is the fear of criticism, social pressure, and health problems.
The science behind the bridge of Intuitive Eating is rather impressive. But science isn’t enough to get people on board. The bridge to freedom is scary. Those brave enough to cross it need a lot of hand-holding. They need the support of others who have made the journey. They need a glimpse of what a healthy life without the burden of dieting looks like.
How fortunate we are to live at a time when the frum world is more open to the idea of Intuitive Eating. Every day, more and more frum professionals join me in the journey to bring (food) normalcy back into the lives of many wonderful people. Slowly, we are creating communities and building bridges to a full, engaged life. Many have been rescued from Non-Dessert-ed island, but many still remain, unaware that there is a way off.
I invite you to take a moment to reflect…where are you? Are you on the island? Are you satisfied with your relationship with food? Have you ever tried crossing the bridge to food normalcy? Have you had the support you needed to make that transition?
When you are ready to make that journey, remember that there is a community of support waiting to help.
(This article originally appeared in The Voice of Lakewood.)