Once I became aware that eating disorders are not really about food and that the disorder served an important purpose for me at one time, I started to think about what my unfilled needs might have been and how ED helped me meet them. One of the themes that rose to the top was my parents’ physical and emotional unavailability. Now, the intention of this post is not to blame or shame my parents. I realized and accepted some time ago that they had their own issues and they did the best they could with their own set of skills and circumstances. So, while I do understand *now* that this was their stuff and had little or nothing to do with me, I spent many years internalizing these deficiencies and they became a key component in my core beliefs about myself. In order to start challenging and changing some of these core beliefs, it is important for me to acknowledge and accept this part of my story, again, not to blame or shame them, but to affirm and embrace mySELF.
I heard somewhere recently (disclaimer: I have not fact checked it and I’m sure it’s way oversimplified and over generalized) that we get our identity from our mothers and our self worth from our fathers. My mother felt like she had been cheated out of her dream job and instead of doing something she loved, she was stuck with having and “caring for” 4 babies in a 5 year period. I am the second among my siblings, so by the time I was 3, there were two younger children who were less self sufficient and whose needs were more urgent/important than mine. Apparently I was already fiercely independent by this time; I’ve been told that I potty-trained myself at 18 months, because I hated being in wet cloth diapers. I used to think that was funny and awesome, but now I feel sad, because it makes so much sense that I would have ended up with the core belief that I am the only one who can, or will meet my needs. It is suddenly so unsurprising that I have a difficult time trusting people and asking for, accepting, or feeling like I deserve help or support.
There are many examples of this self sufficiency through the very early years and the rest of my life. Being the needless, wantless, “grownup/big” girl who could take care of herself and everybody else, instead of being an added burden, became my identity and one of the ways I did that was with food. Instead of looking to my mother for comfort and connection, I soothed my sadness, fears and loneliness with food. I used food to get the attention I was craving without having to “need” it, by creating a body that had to be dealt with. When I was 5 I finally got the one on one attention and interaction I was missing when my mother and I started counting calories together. I was “big” enough to take care of myself, I didn’t NEED anything, but this body situation required some attention, which I could only continue to hold on to if I continued to grow (not that this was a conscious decision, but it certainly makes a lot of sense to me in retrospect).
My father was “in the closet” until his 60s, so I imagine he must have had a very difficult time with his own self worth. It must be very difficult to make children feel worthy and loved and accepted, when one is unable to feel those feelings towards oneself. Since he felt like who he was at his core, his BEING was wrong, he taught us that value and worthiness were in DOING (and doing improved through criticism). My value was directly tied to my accomplishments and actions and behaviors and the less perfect those things were, the less worthy and valuable I felt.
Food supported me in this distortion in two ways. First, it allowed me to distract from and numb the feelings of worthlessness and second, it validated my beliefs about myself. Child logic couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t good enough; I didn’t even really know, consciously, that this was the message I was receiving. My relationship with food and my imperfect body gave me a concrete reason to hate myself and to understand why others couldn’t love or care for me. And so food became the weapon in a war between filling the holes of identity and worth my parents had left, wanting to be seen and accepted, and hating my body and self for being merely and imperfectly me.
With this awareness, by identifying the needs that created my relationship with food, understanding how those early unmet needs became my current belief system and what my actual needs are now, I can finally start to figure out how to meet those needs without food/ED.