In previous posts on eating disorders, I’ve often discussed the importance for those with an eating disorder to unpack and understand their personal story with food, fat and their body. Knowing what the rituals, phobias and obsessions surrounding food, fat and the body are communicating about individuals’ toxic relationship with self and how this came to provide a map to possible long-term recovery.
To heal and overcome the all-consuming addiction (an eating disorder is) is to return to past scenes of injury to inspect the wound/s manifesting as a maladaptive behaviour. This is not to point fingers at or blame and pass responsibility onto others for the resulting addiction, primarily because it doesn’t facilitate the change required for recovery.
Furthermore, in doing this writing exercise, it quickly becomes evident that there is an intricate web of interconnected factors contributing to the development of an eating disorder. What is important is to come to know the injured, split off parts of the self that are ultimately destructive and why they are this way. What useful, protective function are they trying to serve? Knowing what’s compelling disordered eating illuminates the necessary self-information for recovery. Once sufferers know how their eating disorder works within themselves, they begin to have power over it. What’s important is that they choose to assert this newfound empowerment to start shrinking the fear they typically have of themselves, fat and food.
To acknowledge the adverse effects specific experiences have had on the disordered eater is to engage effectively in the recovery process. Ideally, this will take place with the help of a professional to guide and support those with an eating disorder. To see, hear and move beyond their wounded relationship to food and the body with a healthy life-affirming practice and connection to self alongside taking in sufficient amounts of nutritious food.
To address the root causes of disordered eating and take the time to honour and rewrite the inciting incident, break it down into something digestible, is to assimilate and ultimately let go of it. Without this process, those with an eating disorder never entirely exit the roundabout this maladaptive behaviour has them circling. They remain locked in their unresolved issues or experiences, that will continually resurface to wreak havoc on the body and mind through self-hating behaviours symbolically pointing at or repeating the original wounds.
To constructively look at and engage with the personal origin and history of individuals’ disordered eating is to observe their automatic associations with certain foods that have developed over time. The idea is to sit with one food item at a time so the mind and body can further remember and connect more of the pieces to what is always a much larger picture.
To Demonstrate what is meant by this I use my Associations and Experiences with Potatoes:
Potatoes. As a kid I loved potatoes. Cooked in all kinds of ways and served with either salt, oil, mayonnaise or tomato sauce. I enjoyed them mashed, boiled, scalloped, as hot chips, crinkled crisps, wedges, potato cakes, potato salad, potato gems, roasted, gnocchi, potato gratin…
The evening that I went from loving all types of potatoes drenched in tomato sauce to being unable to touch them happened in an all you can eat restaurant where I found myself being ridiculed for having unwittingly filled my plate with potatoes cooked in various ways. The men making fun of me had been speaking to my father and started laughing at him for having paid all this money for me to fill my plate with the cheapest item on the buffet.
All I could see and hear was that I had embarrassed my dad. As a kid who idolised her father and craved his love and approval, my world was caving in at my feet. He scratched at his stubble and reached for his cigarettes like he always did when he was about to get mad.
I trembled with the large white plate of potatoes in my hands, my legs like jello. Again I’d been bad when all I really wanted to do was be good. I was on the brink of wetting myself and at the same time collapsing. My body always had a way of failing me right when I needed to run. Like always, fear had arrived in freezing me, ridiculing me in its own way, so I had to be ready for how angry my dad was about to get with me over potatoes. Potatoes! I now hated them as much as my dad was about to hate me again with the strap.
It seemed like forever as I stood there waiting for him to begin so I could commence waiting for it to be over. I stared at his livid face and felt like I was choking on my heart, shocked he wasn’t yelling or removing his belt to act as a strap. Instead, his anger broke into a smirk across his face as he joined in with the men making fun of me for filling my plate with potatoes. His ridicule hurt in a way that was different from his belt across my naked thighs and bottom. I’d become accustomed to that kind of pain, but this type was new, unexpected and broke at my heart differently.
I couldn’t have been more confused over the references made to the war being over and there being no need for me to live off potatoes even though it was all I was fed at home. My dad blamed my mum saying that he was never home. This was true. He was a chef that had to work all the time. My mother was very young and had lived a very sheltered life in her extremely tight-knit Italian family and community. My father is barely home made her upset and lonely. Her family and friends, except for her sister, lived in Sydney where she was accustomed to very social life.
My mother adored fashion and loved having places to go and people to see so she could dress up. This was not the case in Melbourne. Although Italian, my father’s family wasn’t the same as her family and she had trouble adjusting to this, motherhood and living in a different state where very little of her former life remained intact. My mother didn’t drive, and her sister had her own family, so she managed as best as she could as a stay at home mum, making do with my baby sister and me as the only company she kept until my little brother arrived much later.
All that stuff about potatoes being cheap and about war and famine had me totally flummoxed. My mum didn’t cook much at this point; she fed me heaps of hot chips, mash potatoes, potato cakes, hash browns, wedges and McDonald’s fries with tomato sauce because I liked them just like I loved pizza, Chiko Rolls, Cheeseburgers, Fillet-O-Fish burgers, chicken soup and deep fried dim sims. I didn’t say this though, I didn’t say anything at all. My cheeks just burned and my whole body felt like it was on fire.
At the kids’ table, I sat staring at my plate full of fries, wedges, gems, mash, scallop potatoes and hated myself for failing to realise they were all the same thing except for the tomato sauce it was drenched in. Everyone else at the kids’ table ate happily, dunking their few chips in gravy. On the rest of their plates was roast, fish, chicken, vegetables, rice, salads and noodles. I felt so stupid and repulsed at my plate greedily stacked full of potatoes and blood red sauce.
I felt like I’d committed the worst crime, but I wasn’t exactly clear on what I’d done wrong. I just knew it had to do with potatoes and I’d never so much as breathe near them again. I felt fatter, greedier, stupider than the other kids because I was a mistake that kept making mistakes. I hated that I’d become Miss Piggy from The Muppets, she was my least favourite character. I hated these greasy, oily, disgusting potatoes growing cold on the plate in front of me as much as I hated me for being so stupid for liking them.
It seemed like I just kept getting everything so wrong because I’d gotten it wrong since the day I was born. My mum wasn’t ready to have a child when she got pregnant with me at twenty-one and regarded breastfeeding to be disgusting. She found it gross that I was always hungry to eat from her breasts, so she put me on formula, insisting it was the only way to keep up. Even my grandmother went on about how all I ever wanted to do was eat and sleep like a baby. She never stopped giggling over my first word being ‘more’. Not ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ but ‘more,’ as if I was starving even though I was always eating.
No one then would’ve guessed that by the time I’d reach puberty, ‘more’ would have no place in my vocabulary. It’s unlikely that they could’ve foreseen that I would stop eating, insisting that I wasn’t hungry because every time I ate I felt sick and was lucky to make it to the toilet in time to projectile vomit it all out. But this is jumping too far ahead from the all you can eat restaurant with that plate of potatoes reminding me of just how wrong and full of mistakes I believed I was.
At the table my head filled with guilt over how my dad had banked on me being a boy to carry on the Mirabito name so he could make his dead father proud. He had wanted to have the pleasure of calling me, son. I don’t know if boys are more important than girls in all Italian families, but it was indeed seemed to be the case in mine. The rules, attitude, expectations and value for boys was utterly different from that of girls. If I had of been a boy it would’ve proved my father was a man in a way that my being a girl never could. My name was supposed to be Angelo after my mother’s father, not Angelina after my mother’s grandmother.
My dad had wanted kids under the presumption that it would be entirely different than the experience of fatherhood I was giving him. I was supposed to make him happy and proud not embarrassed and angry all the time. Like right now, sitting at this table full of food with a plate of potatoes that had made him so ashamed. My stomach felt as though I’d never been able to eat again as I continued sitting there sweating, burning and confused. This is the first time food confused me. What was expensive enough for me to have put on my plate, so my dad didn’t waste his money on me? At seven I had no idea.
Continued: Part 2
As demonstrated above, with the example of potatoes, I will proceed in future posts to include concrete examples to show what I’m talking about coming to know one’s story with their disordered eating. I will share the story of how my eating disorder evolved further from eleven and outline a detailed account as to my understanding of why.
I wish to be clear that within the next two posts I will begin to discuss how my disordered relationship to food and my body, since the onset of puberty, is significantly bound up with and informed by, experiences of complex childhood trauma. Should this be triggering for you please do not read further, however, if what I’m sharing is of any assistance to you it would be much appreciated if you could let me know. Also feel welcome to share it with those it would interest and benefit.
Dr Angelina Mirabito
PhD on the therapeutic value of writing fiction and its potential value in the post-traumatic growth and recovery process.
To book a complimentary ‘Meet and Greet’ session over Skype to discuss the possibility of working together using story, please feel welcome to contact me via https://writingthroughtrauma.org/contact/