Don’t think, feel or tell. Growing up in a house with these unspoken rules, a person grows crooked and stifled. As a toddler, I learned codependent behaviors and people pleasing to maintain an uneasy alliance with my mother. I joined Al-Anon, either because of father’s drinking or family’s thinking.
Still, I had much to be grateful for. My family was close and loving, but the missing piece was a sense of safety in expressing feelings and doubts. The display of too much enthusiasm would upset my mother. My father would get angry and lash out at her with verbal or physical abuse. The vibrations of negative emotions and tension would result in people retreating to separate rooms. I retreated into my head and took long walks or bicycle rides.
It was the 1950s, and the media emphasized perfectionism. I didn’t adjust from childhood to adolescence well. I felt awkward and ugly. I had a bright mind and a good memory, but I was a klutz in gym class. No boys ever asked me out. So as a teenager, I began an insidious journey into the hell of compulsive eating.
I compared myself to classmates and wanted their attention and approval. My self-consciousness isolated me. When a certain boy didn’t talk to me, I pouted in my room and contemplated suicide. I began to eat less and hid food in the trash. I felt superior if I thought I’d fooled my mother. She cooked good food in healthy quantities, but I got an evil rush when my thin, wasted look made her miserable.
My father suffered as well. While I weighed myself obsessively and wondered how I could drop another pound, he was recording my weight, hoping to stop my weight loss by taking away something important. He threatened to keep me from choir practice if I didn’t stop this diet nonsense. My singing voice was a ticket to the notoriety I craved; I hoped to get a boy’s attention in choir practice. I thought if Daddy wouldn’t let me go, I might as well kill myself. It was a question of control. Was my temper tantrum controlling my family or me? Years later I read about this behavior in a magazine.
A boy finally noticed me and asked me to a dance. I gave up the starvation game the day I shopped for a dress. In the three-way mirror I saw every vertebra sticking out of my back. It wasn’t pretty. I was 18 years old and alive by the grace of God.
This boy saved me. He asked me to eat with him. I didn’t refuse because he had taken an interest in me—a boyfriend at last! Once I began to feed my starved body, it jumped to life like a weed. I couldn’t eat enough. A gnawing feeling remained in my belly. I gained weight until I had to buy new clothes.
On birth-control pills, my body ballooned. My fingers and ankles swelled. My joints ached, and I could hardly walk. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know who to talk to about this strange and baffling illness. I didn’t trust authority figures and didn’t want a doctor to put me on medication or a diet. I lived in fear, distrust and self-loathing.
Off birth-control pills, the swelling went down. My cravings disappeared, but now I wanted a baby. I had married the boyfriend. If I let him go, where would I find another one? Who would want me? Breastfeeding was my most joyous experience. My weight stabilized. For years it remained at about 120 pounds (54 kg).
I found OA when a friend told me how eating disorders sometimes mask the feelings of having suffered incest. She recommended a meeting to deal with the mid-life insecurities that had brought my unresolved adolescent issues to the surface. The feelings of loneliness and wanting to fade away and die were returning. “You get to do adolescence all over again in mid-life,” I’ve said at meetings.
Today food isn’t the issue, although I’ve never met a food I didn’t like. Stinking thinking is the issue, which is why I need meetings. My recovery from food obsession, my relationship with my Higher Power and the ability to fathom truth from illusion are my first priorities. Whenever I look elsewhere for comfort, I falter. I become depressed, ashamed, confused and suicidal. I want to weep and gnash my teeth. Food is a temporary fix.
Working the OA program is the answer. It’s not easy. Admitting the true nature of my wrongs and feeling the shame and remorse for what I’ve done to hurt others is hard. But I no longer have to hold a pity party for myself. The group’s unconditional love and acceptance have helped me grow from an angry, hurt child to a young woman of 59! Thank you!
From the March, 2012 issue of Lifeline Magazine