Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mom and me

I published this on October 12, 2007. My parents had come back to California after living in from Moss Point, Mississippi for only two years. They had to come back; my mom was extremely ill, and my dad was in denial about the extent of her illness. Somehow, my sister and daughter convinced both of them to come back out West so we could keep an eye on both of them. People in Moss Point were knocking on my parents' door and asking for money. Not borrow, or work for it. Just ask, or rather demand. Hurricane Katrina made desperation a permanent home for some folks. We had to get my parents out of there.

The problem was, Mom and Dad had sold the house our family had lived in since 1973, and they didn't have anywhere to live right away. So they moved in with me. At the time, I was living in a two bedroom, one bath duplex. It definitely wasn't big enough, but it was all we could do for them at the time. Of course, a lot of old, unresolved issues came up for me. I was struggling mightily with my food addiction, and I had re-gained 85 pounds. And, I didn't know how to deal with my parents without resorting to what I had always done--put a lot of food in my mouth to make me numb. It worked, of course. It always did. The problem was, the numbing effect always wore off, and I had to eat more and more to REMAIN numb.

This post is a recounting of one interaction that was indicative of the type of relationship I had with my mother. She's gone now, and although that makes me sad, I realize now that I had a part in the emotional roller coaster that was typical of our conversations. Mom was not "the bad cop" trying to manipulate my emotions all the time. She was just doing her, being who she was. And I was stuck in being a five year old kid who didn't know how to cope with her mother as an adult. So I kept eating. It's sad, really sad. Luckily, she got to see me losing weight and getting recovery before she died. Our communication did improve because I became a lot less fearful and quietly angry about the past. For that, I am humbled, grateful and relieved that God for granted that grace to my mother and me.

In part, we're afraid to face the fact that daughters with eating disorders are carrying their mother's disowned pain and anger. Mothers have a powerful effect on their daughters' lives because girls watch their moms' every move. No matter how much mother's try to cover up their pain, they still serve as models for womanhood, and their daughters have a keen and vigilant eye. Too often the mother-daughter wound is based on unconscious enmeshment, a blending of boundaries, a failure to see where you begin and your mother ends. This failure creates self-destructive behavior that is played out on the plate.
Preface to Women and Food Obsession: Fat and Furious by Judi Hollis, Ph.D.

I was getting ready to leave for work one morning when my mother lifted her head off her pillow and pushed herself up from the pull-out bed in my living room where she spends most of her time when she isn't in the hospital. She looked at me with her eyes shining with an inexplicable mixture of pride and pleasure that seemed incongruous with the fact that she is very ill and never going to get better. Like mother, like daughter. Always unbelievable contradictions.

"Angie, come here a moment, honey."

My stomach lurched because I knew she was going to tell me something that I didn't really want to hear, especially since I was trying to get out of the door to catch a bus. But I'm an obedient daughter. I went over to her bedside and held her hand. She grasped my hand with both of hers, looked up at me and cleared her throat.

"Did you know that I now weigh 122 pounds? I'm the same weight that I was back in high school!" she kidding? I stared at her. My mother is pretty much a collection of bones with loose skin hanging off them. Her eyes have shrunk back into her head, and they have an out-of-focus look to them. The doctor's had to cut off her right leg because she has diabetes and developed an infection there. There's a stint in her heart, the latest in the long line of procedures she's had since her eight bypass surgeries and a debilitating stroke back in the early 90s. She cannot feed, bathe, or dress herself. And she is incontinent. Yet, she is thrilled that she back down to the weight that she carried while she was still a teenager. But at what cost to your health, Mom? I wanted to ask her that, but I couldn't. The mother-daughter enmeshment rules forbids that level of honesty, especially about weight. I was horrified, though. Does she actually believe that it's good to lose 150 pounds through chronic illness? I shuddered, told my mother to have a good day, and hurried off to work. Thank God for the Learning Resource Center.

Mothers suffer a great unhealed woundedness because the myths surrounding being a wife and mother promised them things that didn't come true. And then they've had to stand by and watch their hopes for their own daughters end in glaring disappointment.

My mother took me to see a doctor about my weight issues when were living in the Philippine Islands. She never said this out loud, but I believe she was embarrassed that I weighed 135 pounds, which would be fine if I was a 25 year old woman. But I was nine years old, and I stood five feet four inches at the time. I was upset that she would humiliate me by sending me to see a military doctor about my weight Not only that, I was suspicious of her motives. I had come to believe that my mother's actions concerning my body had more to do with her than me. Of course, I couldn't say that. I would have been slapped for "getting smart" with her.

The doctor, an Air Force captain, handed me a ditto sheet that had a copy of the weight loss diet that was given to overweight draftees during the Vietnam War. I felt a lump gather in my throat as I stared at it. One hard-boiled egg. One slice of dry toast. Eight ounces of grapefruit juice. Tea or coffee, no milk or sugar. Lunch was a tomato slice with a scoop of cottage cheese. Dinner was a broiled hamburger patty, three ounces, with carrot sticks. I would to lose weight on that diet, that was certain. I could almost hear Mom's brain calculating how she would make me stick to the diet. My plan, however, was to undermine my mother's well-meaning weight loss goals for me, and failing that, commit hari-kari.

"Don't worry, Doctor, I'll make sure she follows this diet," Mom assured the captain.

I went from despair to rage in a nanosecond. I'm not doing this. She can forget that. My mother followed me like a bloodhound whenever I walked into the kitchen. There was no escaping her. She was more upset by my weight gain than I was, and she wasn't the one being called "Aunt Jemima" at school.

We've been doing this dance nearly all of my life. Even now, she seems to be hoping to "inspire" me to lose more weight through her "example". When I was in high school, she told me that I would never get a boy interested in me unless I took off the pounds, and bought me a membership in Weight Watchers to "help me out". She helped me to be offended by her concern. I would walk out of the door, climb into my 1970 Ambassador and take off for Wendy's with my friends. What's a boyfriend compared to a double cheeseburger, large fries and a large chocolate "Thick and Frosty?

"You're starting to look good, Angie," she told me a few days ago. "Just keep up your diet, honey. Don't worry. You'll get there."

I winced and escaped into the safety of my bedroom before I could say something to my very sick mother that I would later regret. I turned on my computer and started playing Funkadelic. Best cure for the mommy blues. Don't get me wrong; I don't blame my mother for being concerned about my health, if that's what it really is. But it's never been that simple. I'm a reflection of HER, and as she has told me over and over again, I represent her whenever I'm out in public. If I'm fat, she's failed in her duty as a mother. It doesn't matter that I'm now nearly 50 years old. I'm still her daughter.

Unresolved issues in the mother-daughter relationship does not mean that your mother is bad, or that you are bad. It means that the innate dynamics of this relationship create profound tension around eating. The only way to address disordered eating is to fearlessly examine your relationship with your mother.

It ain't easy, Dr. Hollis. But I'm doing it. One day at a time.

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