I thought I’d moved on from my thing with food a long time ago.
But it came back to bite me last weekend.
Easter. Steve’s parents were with us, and it had been a tough few days. For a start Lena, Steve’s mother, has a brain tumour right now and, while she awaits surgery, tensions were high.
No-one was talking about it.
Steve’s dad, who is usually warm and chatty, was quiet. Steve himself said hardly a word. No amount of my leading questions was getting anyone to talk about what was going on. Instead, we all let Lena chat away about a recent trip to New Zealand, the joys of travelling business class, and how lovely it was for her to have spent time with her grandson in the Southern Hemisphere.
Add to the tension that they’d pissed me off by inviting themselves for the weekend, and then, almost as soon as they’d arrived, disappeared off to spend time with Steve’s ex. They’ve known her for years and remain close to her despite the divorce.
When I’d invited them, I’d assumed, as you might do when you have house guests, that they’d eat with us. So, I had bought food to prepare some of my favourite dishes for them. But in the end, other than tea and toast for breakfast, and some chocolate Easter cake I’d baked especially, they took little from me.
Instead, they ate their main meals with the ex.
And when they came back to our house, they said they were too full to eat.
“You need to say something,” I told Steve. “It’s not okay for them to come to us for the weekend, only to use our house as a kind of dormitory while they spend their days with your ex.”
“You’re right to be angry,” he said. “I’ll speak to them.”
But he didn’t.
So there we were playing Trivial Pursuit on the iPad one evening. They’d been at the ex’s all day and appeared back around 6 pm, just before Steve and I ate dinner. As we sat around the kitchen table, I realised I was still a little hungry.
So, while we played, I decided to fetch a snack. Without much thought, I went to the fridge and got myself some berries, which I topped up with Greek yoghurt.
I was about to tuck in when Lena looked across at my bowl and burst out laughing.
“How much food have you got there?” she said. “You’re surely not going to eat all that?”
It was the second time that day she’d decided to say something about my food. That morning, as I ate some poached salmon and spinach ahead of a weights session in the gym, she told me I was eating too much and that I’d be ill in the gym as a result.
“You’d be better off just having a slice of toast,” she said.
“I’ll faint,” I said. I had, in fact, fainted a couple of years back in the gym because I hadn’t eaten enough before a serious workout. Hadn’t, as it turned out, been eating enough full stop.
And the day before too, watching me eat a bowl of pro-oats and apple for breakfast, she’d laughed and commented on just how much food I was packing away. In fact, for most of the time I’ve known Lena, it seems she’s always had something to say about what I’m putting in my mouth.
These other times, I’d somehow managed to swallow my annoyance.
This time, I felt fury flood my body and my heart rate kick up.
“Lena, you know I’m not okay with you commenting on what I’m eating the whole time,” I began.
Steve kicked me under the table. “Christine, don’t,” he said.
“It was just a joke,” Lena said.
“Don’t,” said Steve.
“It’s not funny to me,” I went on. I was thinking, if no-one else is going to put their foot down about bad behaviour, I’m going to. If no-one else is going to speak their mind, I will. “It’s the second time you’ve had a go today alone, and it’s none of your business what I do or don’t eat.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but really, if you can’t take a joke, that’s your problem.”
I went to bed after that, leaving my food untouched. I spent the whole night awake, adrenaline pumping through me.
Some rational part of me felt very okay: I’d said what I needed to. I’ve been learning recently about Goddess Kali, and her beautiful ability to be creatively destructive. And I figured I’d just channelled some of that into the mix and that all would be fine in the end.
But some less whole part was convinced something awful was going to happen. Lena was going to walk out the next morning and never come back. She’d die, and I’d feel guilty for having been horrible while she was ill. Steve would leave me.
Next morning, we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. No-one met my eye.
“Look, I’m sorry I reacted so angrily,” I said to Lena, deciding again to be the one to speak. “But you touched a vulnerability.”
“I’m sorry too,” she said, and we hugged. “I had no idea.”
“I think maybe that was for the best,” Steve said later. “I think they think you’re big-hearted and can cope with anything. It does no harm for them to see you’re human.”
Feeding the pain
These days I have a good relationship with food. But it wasn’t always like that.
For most of my life, I’d been beyond conscious of what I put in my mouth.
It all started after my father died when I was eleven. He’d had inoperable liver cancer. He went from being a thirteen stone giant, to a nine stone skeleton whose tumour was protected from his bedclothes by a wire cage.
My family gathered around him, not saying a word about what was happening.
No-one acknowledged the tragedy of his dying so early in his and our lives. Our impending loss was ignored. Instead, my aunt spoke to him about how she was going to thrash him at golf, next time they played. And he talked about trips he was going to take my brother and me on when he got home from the hospital. But he never was going to get out of the hospital, other than in a box. And we all knew it.
At least, I did.
When he died the same silence prevailed. These were the days before family grief counselling. The days before anyone had any sense of how to talk to children who have been bereaved. In the aftermath of his death, my mother grieved. She could and did sit with friends and neighbours, spilling her sadness out to whoever would listen. But for my brother Bobby and me, there was no such time or attention given. We were, however, treated to cake. Lots and lots of it.
Complex trauma does weird things.
For a lot of my teens, I found school boring. I’d been the top girl of my primary school but now my grades dropped off because I stopped caring. How I got through these years, looking back on them now, was to eat. Chips and chocolate for lunch. Proper big dinners. Ice-cream from the van that came to our street corner every evening. And cake.
I ate to anaesthetize myself. It was my way of getting through. Of coping.
Of course, I put on weight.
I kidded myself for a long time that it was just me growing, and that no-one noticed. My mother said nothing. But one day a friend said right out.
“Christine, you used to be so pretty. And now you’re just fat.”
I burned with shame. It was like I’d been caught stealing or something.
In judging my size, my friend had by inference judged the one thing that was keeping me going.
Living or dying?
After that, I began to cut back on my food. No-one was ever going to have a pop at me for my size again.
For decades, my body weight was my battleground, and food was my enemy. During the rest of my teens and twenties, I either stuffed or starved. From my early thirties on, I deliberately ate less than I wanted to. I was wearing regular sized clothes. But it didn’t make me happy.
It has only been in the last years that I understood just how by not eating I was somehow also not living.
It was like I was telling myself all these years that it hadn’t been okay to be in pain. To need. To hunger.
The fainting in the gym episode had been my final straw. The thing that had taken me to a nutritionist and to start learning to nourish my body again.
Belatedly, I figuredt, without a healthy body, there’s no healthy life.
And, I’ve loved it. Loved allowing myself to eat food I’d disallowed myself for years. Loved kicking diet products into touch and deciding it’s whole food all the way. I hadn’t baked since my early twenties because cake had somehow become verboten. Now I’m baking again and enjoying what I produce.
And as my vitality has come back so has my love of moving my body. Now I strength train and can put more energy into my workouts than I ever have done. Also, exercise has become something that makes me feel alive, and not something I feel obliged to do to keep my weight down.
And yet when Lena began to comment on the volume of my food last week, something was triggered in me. Something I thought I’d moved beyond.
Maybe it was the context of silence and possible impending loss. Maybe her unintentional food shaming. Maybe insecurities about the strength of her relationship with me versus my husband’s ex.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to go back and give some more emotional feeding to that hungry little love-starved adolescent kid.