All that stuff about how my thinness was something I could never control? I might have been lying a little. Don't get me wrong-I have always leaned naturally toward thinness, more so than many women I know, and I don't think I'd ever have gotten "fat" per se before I had Ronin. I've never intentionally starved myself long-term, or regularly purged, but that doesn't mean that my habits have been healthy. In fact, I'm starting to suspect that I did hold off a bit longer than I naturally should have in putting on this most recent and endlessly thought-provoking fifty pounds. And I think that I need to get some of this off my chest, because I won't fully heal from it until I do.
My recent explorations of "intuitive eating" have been way more difficult than I let on. Through most of my life, I have actually struggled with disordered eating. Not an eating disorder-I was never "consistent" enough to be diagnosable. But my relationship with food has never been healthy.
When my mother, a woman who prided herself on her 23 inch waist in early adulthood, got "fat" (translation: roughly a size 8) after I was born, it was a huge problem for her. I know this partly because of what I've been told by friends and relatives, and partly because anytime her clothes didn't fit when I was a child, she would beat me. After all, me being her first child, it was naturally my fault she was "fat." If she had just done the sensible thing and aborted me, she would still be thin. (Never mind that she went on to have six more kids after me. At that point it didn't matter anymore, I suppose-I did all the damage, no point in stopping now!)
After me was David. He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and had to be revived at birth. He was also born with several disorders that have affected his hearing, made him blind, and caused his growth to be out of control for most of his life. As a child he had to have steroid injections as part of his treatment, and his sight and mobility issues have always interfered with his physical activity. Add to that the fact that he's always been just a big kid (he's two years younger than I am, and to look at photos of us from around his first birthday you'd actually think I was the younger sibling) and you have a recipe for a very fat boy. You can't imagine the kind of abuse that was heaped on him. Being such a protector by nature, I tried to take care of him. And usually, I was the first target for mommy dearest anyway, being the firstborn and a girl. (She didn't like girls.) But sometimes kicking me around just wasn't a good enough substitute for beating up the little bastard that brought all this FAT into her house.
Through most of my childhood, mom was constantly "on a diet." Looking back, she was really just cycling through anorexic and bulimic behaviors. After a week of eating almost nothing, she'd down an extra large pizza and lock herself in the bathroom for hours. My stepfather, while seemingly more normal, didn't honestly help matters. He loved healthy food and exercise, and he taught me so much. I learned from him how to read food labels and ration my calories, how many grams of fiber I needed to help me "fill up" so I wouldn't eat as much, and why drinking LOTS of water is good for you-it helps that icky "hungry" feeling go away. And if you want more flavour, just squeeze a bit of lemon into it. All this by the time I was eight.
I don't remember exactly when mom started starving us. It was pretty gradual. First she stopped insisting that we clean our plates. Then she stopped cooking enough for second helpings. Then she started measuring and rationing, making sure that we each had only a certain amount. By that time, I was nine years old or so and already hitting puberty. I needed a training bra and I was getting little pockets of fat on my thighs and butt.
Sometime after I got my first period (which happened the same month I turned 10) mom decided that she couldn't stand to look at David's fat ass anymore. To make matters worse, I was getting fat too! Goddamn it, how dare I develop secondary sex characteristics? No self-control, I tell you. So both of us were put on a diet. We split packets of instant oatmeal for breakfast, lunches were limited to one tuna sandwich and an apple, and dinner, while usually slightly tastier, was strictly portioned out. We drank skim milk in very limited amounts and even took a "supplement" that was supposed to speed up fat loss. To this day I don't know what we were taking. But given that I'm talking about the mid-90s, before phen-fen was banned, I count myself and my brother fucking lucky to be alive. As far as exercise goes, I got off lucky. Running stairs was mom's regime of choice. Since I wasn't quite so fat, I only had to go up and down the twenty-ish stairs in our gorgeous character home about ten times a day. David, however, ran until he literally dropped in his tracks, till he couldn't even catch his breath to sob, till he was coughing up blood and begging for water.
Sometime during that year, the school health nurse noticed that I wasn't exactly healthy. I had constant headaches, I wore sweaters even while sitting right next to the heater, I couldn't concentrate on anything, and I was having unbelievable dizzy spells. From what I've seen in pictures, I looked like crap, too. Skin that had gone from naturally pale to white to almost gray, dark circles under sunken eyes (though those were hidden by the prescription sunglasses I wore inside and out to counteract my headaches and photosensitivity) and not nearly enough flesh on my expanding skeleton. (I had also missed a few periods, but whether that was because I had just started them and was still irregular or due to starvation-induced amenorrhea I never did figure out.) The fantastic nurse (her name was Jill Scott, and I'd love to find her and thank her for setting in motion the events that got me re-fed) asked me if I was alright. I said that I was unhappy with the diet David and I were on. I honestly didn't think anything of it-I certainly didn't mean to imply that I was being abused at home. (I was a very intelligent child, as my AcTal teachers would have confirmed. But not so much with the common sense.) I'm not sure whether I was the victim of something like Stockholm Syndrome, or if I just believed firmly in my mother's insistence that I was worthless and didn't deserve good treatment, but I loved her intensely and would have killed to keep our family together. Hell, by that time I'd already lied to the police about bruises once or twice. So I innocently mentioned the conversation to Mom when I got home.
I have seen a lot of emotional explosions in my time, but few have inspired the same kind of fear that I felt that day in the kitchen. Karen (because calling her Mom really feels unnatural) turned from the meat she was cutting and held the point of the knife at my throat. She screamed-I don't even remember exactly what she said. I'm not ashamed to say that, at nearly eleven years old, I pissed myself. (What feels slightly more shameful is the fact that I sat in those wet pants for the rest of the day, because Karen wouldn't let me change.) All I remember about the rest of that night is a flurry of phone calls, a lot of whispering, and a suddenly very different Karen at the end of it all. When she finally allowed me to get out of my dirty clothes, she ran me a bubble bath and made me a special snack. (Cinnamon toast made with raisin bread, and a cup of hot chocolate. I'll never forget that, because those were some of my favourite "bad" foods and I couldn't figure out why she was letting me have them.) Once I was in my pyjamas and fed, she hugged me and said "we're going to get through this."
The next day, I didn't go to school. Instead I went to a special "emergency" appointment with our family therapist. (After the previous abuse allegations, Karen was ordered into therapy. In addition to her solo sessions, there were a certain number of family sessions we had to go to. By this time, however, those were supposed to be over.) Having not seen this guy for months, it seemed strange to me that it should suddenly be so urgent for me to have a solo appointment with him. But even with my common sense deficit, it all clicked when he asked, "Rebecca, why don't you want to eat?"
"I do want to. I love food," I replied, "and I just wish Mom would stop making me be on a diet."
"She said you might say something like that. Rebecca, what we want to help you understand is that your mom wants you to eat healthfully. She's trying to help you make good choices. Your refusing to eat and then blaming it on her is getting you nowhere. What we need is to get to the root of your eating disorder."
Holy Munchausen by Proxy, Batman. I couldn't put that label on it at the time, of course. But it seemed that, once someone became suspicious of my condition, Karen made some phone calls to tell everyone how "desperate" she was to "get me some help." Needless to say, her quick thinking ensured that by the time social services got the report of a young girl looking malnourished and complaining about her mother, there was already a report from a family counselling service describing the same girl as "showing signs of anorexic tendencies." The woman is evil, but not stupid. Of course, part of the blame falls on the counsellor for taking her at face value rather than actually working with me for any length of time, but still...this shit will fuck up a ten year old.
From there, it was medical evaluations and constant therapy for two years. My "quick recovery" (when they put food in front of me, I was fully willing to eat it) was attributed to my "condition" having been a "cry for attention" in the face of "the stress of being the eldest in a large family and feeling lost as attention fell on the younger children." That's right, kids-anorexia is just attention whoring! The internet trolls are right! *headdesk*
Of course, I still went through the physical pain of re-feeding, though not nearly the way "real" anorexics do. But I did learn that suddenly having a normal food intake after months of starvation is a whole new level of suffering. I desperately wanted to eat, and the vomiting, bloating and pain were still almost enough to make me give up on myself and food forever. I can't imagine what that process would be like for someone who was legitimately anorexic. But I came out of the process "fully recovered," if somewhat underweight and prone to illness. I still wonder what effect that period of my life had on my later developing diabetes and the other health problems that plague me.
Check back for the next installment, in which I discuss disordered eating in pregnancy, or "why I was a terrible mother before I even started."