Note: Normally, I try to keep things lighter; this subject, however, cannot be treated lightly. Be prepared before you start reading, but make it to the end; the end is the message of this blog.
The last couple of weeks have been nothing short of revelatory. I suppose, to fully do this blog justice, I should start at the beginning, but I find sometimes that it is difficult to pin down that “beginning.” Was the beginning when I was born? Was it when I was six weeks old, and my mother attempted to drown me so my cries wouldn’t wake my father? Was it the life I lived as the older sibling, struggling to care for two younger children and to, when I could, protect them from our parents? Was it my teenaged years, when I consistently broke every knuckle on the backs of both hands, bashing my hands against concrete walls to try to contain the rage, the anger that ran through me? Was it my first marriage, which granted me two amazing daughters … or my second, which finally broke me?
Was it my third marriage, where I began to learn, for the first time, just who I was, whom I wanted to be, how I wanted to shape my life?
I can’t tell you these answers. I can tell you the results of them, though. I can tell you that I’ve lived an entire lifetime rigidly holding myself in control. I learned to distrust decisions made in the throes of emotion; therefore, I clamped down on the emotion, hid it, buried it, and made decisions from a purely intellectual perspective. I learned that talking to people about my “issues” put a burden on them; either they felt compelled to help, or they saw me as weak, and disregarded my struggles. So I found ways to project all the things I admired — strength and determination, wit, joviality — and I pushed down all the things that I saw as weaknesses — care, compassion for self, grace toward self. Pushed them down, put them in a box, and slammed down the lid. Then piled on top of that box everything I could find to keep the lid down.
I can tell you that I did what so many horribly abused women have done; I became promiscuous. I became a party girl. I learned to open my mouth and discuss the banalities that everyone around me was discussing, and to hide any higher discussions for those very, very few whom I friended who were like me … struggling to stay whole in a world we couldn’t very well understand. I hid my shame, my sense of worthlessness, behind drugs and alcohol. I sought my understanding of love in the arms of many who could love me for a moment, only.
I developed, as so many traumatized people have done, coping mechanisms. At three years old, I began compulsively eating. I would sneak down to the kitchen, in the middle of the night, open the refrigerator, and find inside the bags (yes, you could buy them in bags in those days) of Chunky candy bars; thick, dense bars of chocolate that sometimes had nuts, sometimes not. I learned how to take one, or two, depending on the fullness of the bag, and leave the rest. I knew my parents would each think the other was eating their treasures. I also, at this time, began eating my food as a convict would — arm curled protectively around my plate, fork shoveling as much food into my mouth as I could get, as fast as I could get it there.
I have always enjoyed foods. Varieties of flavors, of textures; the silk of a mousse combined with the rich tartness of raspberry; white chocolate icing the top, making a delight for my mouth to enjoy. Crispy meats, the fat still sizzling from coming off the grill. Eggs, cooked in butter, served on buttered toast; the delicious flavors combining with the myriad textures to make a delight my mouth could lose itself in. Sadly, however, I never until recently allowed myself to actually take the time to enjoy these things. It was necessary that I eat, then that I be prepared for whatever came next; protecting my brother, cleaning my sister, taking care of the dishes, cleaning up so I could put the kids to bed … so on and so forth. So, for me, the compulsive eating allowed me to substitute quantity of food with quality of enjoyment.
At eight, I took some cough medicine; I’d read the label, and took what was recommended. However, my father saw me putting the medicine back and he pounced on me; dragged me into the bathroom, slung me over the toilet, and proceeded to put his huge finger down my throat until I vomited up anything and everything in my stomach. And I clicked. I was, at eight, stick-thin, but beginning to eat everything in sight as I was growing; also, because I was a compulsive eater. My parents had begun, even then, to chide me for watching what I ate, so that I wouldn’t “get fat.” And this, this episode with my father, taught me how I could eat as much as I wanted, as often as I wanted, without fear of getting fat.
Coping mechanisms are just that — they allow us to cope with something that is bigger than we can handle, at the moment we must handle or endure it. You get beaten, then your mother covers your mouth and nose with her hand so you can’t scream, and you learn to self-soothe with the Chunky bars. Or you get awakened in the middle of the night, you and your brother dragged down the stairs to find every single dish in the kitchen laid out on the floor; you have your parents screaming at you about a dirty dish they found, and telling you “clean and put away every single one before you go back to bed.” And you learn to nibble on the bread left on the counter as you do this, offer some to your brother, so that he won’t cry anymore.
You learn that when you hate yourself, when the shame is more than you can bear — if I were a better child, my parents would love me; if I were a smarter, stronger sister, my brother would not be hurt — when the shame of constant failure becomes overwhelming, you can punish yourself for not being enough. You can eat, then you can force your finger down your throat and vomit up every bad thing you believe you are. You deserve this; you deserve to not enjoy your food. You deserve your food to be your punishment.
Coping mechanisms serve their purpose; they allow us to endure what should not be made to be endured. But when their time is past, they become a weight on the soul that drags you down. My bulimia allowed me to live my life as thought there were nothing wrong with it. We won’t even talk about the cutting; perhaps, another time, though I think maybe not.
When one pursues healing, one must find ways to make sense of what is insensible. I never deserved what was done to me; no more did my brother, or my sister. We never deserved to be beaten, to be sexually abused. To be locked in our bedrooms for days on end, with everything but a mattress removed. We never deserved to be turned out of our home, half-dressed, to march up and down our neighborhood asking neighbors if they would be our Mommy, because our Mommy didn’t want us anymore. We never deserved watching our father nearly kill our mother because she antagonized him, and he had no ability to control his own anger.
Yet, in order to manage our parents, I assumed responsibility for all these things. Let me be a good enough daughter, and we won’t be beaten. Let me be smart enough, and my brother won’t be hurt. Let me be strong enough, and I can keep my sister from suffering the same fate my brother and I suffered. The truth, however, is that none of these tasks were mine, and I could not manage them. My parents would always be who and what they were, unless they decided to change; I couldn’t change them. My brother would always be hurt, regardless of what I did, until my parents stopped hurting him.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to separate oneself from this tyranny of should, to accept what is. What does that mean? I struggled for so long to be what I thought I should be, in order to protect myself and my brother, and those struggles always ended in failure. How could I see myself as anything other than not-enough?
Recently, I took my Advanced Reiki Training (ART) class. Just before taking it, I’d reached out to one of the instructors from my school, for accupuncture. You see, I’ve reached a point in my life when everything tells me I should be happy, content. I should be able to just relax, grow in my profession, move forward … yet I found that bulimia still had a strangle-hold on me, literally. Failures, setbacks, stress — all would trigger a bout of compulsive eating; the only method I had of fighting back was to refuse to stick my finger down my throat. Not fun, that … cuz ya know what? That’s how ya get fat. And I, now, am fat, which led to yet one more reason for me to hate myself.
In my ART class we learned a technique that can help one release emotional pain and trauma. I won’t go through the whole procedure, but I will say that as I was learning this, I was crying. I could see an application here, for myself; however, I didn’t know the people in the class with me, so I couldn’t allow it to be done for me, then. I contacted my Reiki Master, who graciously consented to work with me on this.
I went to her home office, and she performed the procedure. I was frightened; I mean, we all know when you take something away, something else has to take its place, right? If I took away this coping mechanism, what would fill its place? How hard would it be for me to give up this, my earliest coping mechanism? My earliest means of self-soothing? As it turned out, it was gentle. It was … I can’t say easy, but it was definitely gentle. Slowly, I felt it diminish, this weight of self-loathing and -hatred I’d always carried. I felt it just drift away from me. She followed this technique with a Reiki session; during part of it, I felt as though light flooded me, clearing out the darkness that I’d used to hide everything I hated about myself. Where that light flowed in, I learned love. Love for self. Grace for self. Forgiveness for self. And healing, for self.
I walked away from that, literally, a new woman. I can look at myself now, see my fat stomach, and my over-developed arse, and I can touch them and say “It’s ok. I accept you. It’s ok.” My relationship to food has changed; I think it may be more correct to say that my relationship to me has changed and, thus, my relationship to food has changed. I can slow down, now, enjoy myself as I eat my food. I can stop, when I recognize my stomach is getting full, and be content. I can finally, after nearly 37 years, not feel the urge to shove my fingers down my throat and purge myself of all the perceived “badness” I’ve felt I carried, all my life.
I can just be. If you have never experienced the joy of feeling grace for yourself, find someone who can work with you, help you, help you find your light to fill in your dark places. For the first time in my nearly 48 years, I am at peace with myself. I have no expectations of myself, except that I live. That I treat everyone I meet with kindness and compassion; if they don’t wish that, then I choose to have no truck with them. For the first time in my life, my life is my own, to choose what I do with.
For the first time in my life, I am finally able to spread my wings, look into the sunrise, and choose the direction I will move in. The heights I will fly to. The shadows I’ll make on the ground as I pass over; I can choose how light or heavy they’ll be. I can choose … well. I can choose anything.
Healing is amazing. It’s a lifelong journey, sometimes a struggle to attain; but it is also just the beginning. Now that I’m here, I’m even more excited to see what each day will bring to me.