Saturday, July 23, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 10

Chapter 10 – On M&M’s

“Worries go down better with soup.” – Jewish proverb

I was almost never sick when I was in grade school. My mom tried everything to get me to catch the chickenpox when a mini-epidemic was going around our neighborhood, but no matter how many pox-stricken children I played with, my immune system just wouldn’t allow me to join their ranks.
Years later, after anorexia had completely compromised my body’s ability to fight any illness, I would long for those days of health. Back then, though, I felt like I was missing out on something – the pampering from parents that comes with being sick. The extra attention my sister seemed to get as a child I thought was because she was thin and pretty. I didn't know at the time that it was really because she was so sickly.

Although my super-powered immune system fought off most childhood illnesses, I was unfortunately slightly accident-prone. When I was 10, I was so used to getting stitches that I didn’t even flinch when the doctor had to repair my bloody hand after a vicious dog bite. He told my parents how brave I had been. I was only trying to prove to the world that I wasn’t a baby, so I refused to cry when the doctor crammed a large amount of gauze into one of the open wounds to drain it, a procedure he later confessed had made grown men shed a few tears. By the time I was 12, nearly every body part had been stitched, bruised, broken or otherwise hurt. Some say that children who constantly have accidents are subconsciously seeking attention. I don’t know that I was aware of trying to get attention at age two when my dad was drunk and supposed to be watching me. I fell, hitting my chin on a glass table, but I suppose the two stitches in my tiny chin did cause a small fuss around me. It’s true that later injuries did produce several gifts, and heartfelt hugs and kisses that were normally kept at a minimum in my family, but eventually all the accidents led to people around me thinking I was faking or being a baby.

My sister, unlike me, rarely got hurt. She was, on the other hand, sick all the time. She nearly died of a kidney infection when she was four and a half. Because my sister’s illness was so severe, much of my parent’s attention was focused on her, while I was left to play by myself. I must have had some sense of not wanting to be a pest, because my mom declares that I was a well-behaved child who rarely cried. I was jealous of all the attention my sister got and envied all the extra goodies she seemed to accumulate from others as a result of her frail, thin appearance. Periodically, because my constitution was so damn strong, I would fake being sick so that I could stay home from school. On these occasions I would curl up in the big comfy chair we had in the kitchen and watch TV while munching on M&M’s I had stolen from the top cupboard. These were the times during which I felt safe. I had sweet chocolate melting in my mouth (and under the seat cushion where the M&M’s were hidden) to soothe my loneliness. Also, I was home, away from the insults of other kids. I knew the next day I would have to face it all again, but for brief moments at a time, I felt comforted and protected from the outside world. I was forever craving the nurturing and attention I lacked as a child.

At the time, I had no idea that I was seeking love through M&M’s. I felt deprived; felt that I was being denied what I considered my sister’s privilege. The M&M’s were, in fact, meant for my sister. My parents were trying desperately to put some weight on her tiny body, while at the same time trying to keep more of it from forming on mine. Of course, early in my anorexic years, the tables would turn, and the ice cream in the freezer would be dubbed mine. Everyone knew that ice cream was one of the few things I would eat, so it was essential to have some on hand at all times. When I was little, though, at least when it came to eating, I wasn’t to be trusted with my own decisions. I would eat too much or the wrong things if someone wasn’t watching closely. So I felt obligated to sneak and hoard candy any time I could get my hands on it.

Geneen Roth has written several books about eating disorders. In When Food is Love, she tells the story of a young overweight girl whose mother was trying to prevent her from gaining more weight. Geneen suggested that the mother provide the girl with an unlimited supply of the girl’s favorite food, which happened to be M&M’s. At first, the girl, who carried these M&M’s around in a pillowcase everywhere she went like some security blanket, gained more weight. But eventually she realized the M&M’s were symbolic of her mother’s love and trust.

Once she realized that her mother would not try to control her food intake anymore, she no longer felt the need to carry the M&M’s around. She had found solace in the fact that her mother had shown her unconditional love. Her mother had given her the M&M’s despite the fact that she initially gained weight, and had reassured her that she could have M&M’s whenever she wanted. The sweet treats would not be taken away from her, nor would her mother’s love. I don’t mean to imply that a Lord of the Flies scenario is optimal for raising children and that they should have free rein; I think it’s more a matter of providing a child with the right balance of guidance and freedom. As a parent, I’m sure it’s a difficult task to reassure a child that she will be loved no matter what. It must also be difficult to have faith that your child can learn to make the right decisions for herself.

I assume that reading the signs given by one’s own body is innate. It appears to be, because babies cry when they are hungry or wet or have some other unmet basic need. However, once a child experiences emotions or conflict, these messages can easily become confused.

Anorexics are often stereotyped as high-achieving, overly sensitive and intelligent individuals. This may be true in many cases, but at our worst we become manipulative, controlling and deceitful. We don’t do this on purpose. It’s more a matter of survival or an attempt to keep our strange mythical world intact at all costs. An anorexic may be alternately shunned and idolized as some kind of godlike creature who is able to deny herself the most basic of needs: food. Somewhere along the way, though, it becomes obvious that we lose the ability to trust our own hunger, our own bodies and our own needs. The longer this denial continues, the more out of touch we become with both our bodies and all aspects of reality.

When my illness was ruling my life, I never actually had any sense of my bodily needs. I had no idea what it felt like to be hungry or full. I knew empty, but I didn’t realize at the time that empty was very different from hungry. As a young child, I had been using food emotionally to help ease the bad feelings of loneliness and sadness. While food temporarily made me feel better, it had no lasting effect and ultimately made the situation worse by adding pounds to my already chubby body. Later, I found a new way to distract myself from the bad feelings, a way that nearly killed me.

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