My mother was a single mother and we were very poor. She worked around the clock, except on Sundays and holidays when she operated from a different place inside herself and produced flat out amazing food. I was raised by my older siblings. Both of my parents grew up in South Carolina; my mother moved to Maryland with her parents and my father came in his 20s seeking work.
There was always alcoholism and drug addiction in my family. As a kid I thought getting drunk was normal. I thought smoking weed and cigarettes was normal, that is until my brother and sister became addicted to drugs like cocaine and crack in the early 90s. My brother spent 23 years in prison because of his bad choices; he was released in May 2015. Now he is working and trying to create the life he lost. He suffers from anxiety. Who wouldn’t?
My dad has high blood pressure and has had two hip replacements, a back surgery, a fractured bone in his leg and is scheduled for another hip replacement. His bone issues may be directly linked to his years of alcoholism.
My oldest sister was diagnosed with high blood pressure and bipolar disorder. One of her sons may also have bipolar disorder. They both drink and do drugs. Then there’s my second to the oldest sister. She is still addicted to drugs and she has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Her oldest son was murdered in 2002. Her daughter is being raised by my mother, who has had high blood pressure since her 40s. She takes medication for it still and she is in her 70s now. She’s pre-diabetic and shows signs of severe depression or maybe bi-polar disorder. Our relationship is estranged. That’s my family.
When we were growing up, we rarely had food Monday through Saturday. But like I said, on Sundays and holidays my mother would cook amazing meals for breakfast and dinner. The house filled with wonderful smells, the smells of nurturing the only way my mother knew to provide it: collard greens with smoked neck bones, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried potatoes, fried fat back plus rice, grits, potatoes, bacon and sausage. And if you weren’t yet full there was scrapple, buttered toast and jelly. You get the idea.
She showed her love through food, not affection or compliments or showing up at school events. It’s hard for me to share my story, but I think it’s important because my family is not the only family that got a food-is-love message. The attachment to soul food runs deep in our community. And I don’t think I’m the only one whose lack of affection and abandonment showed up in later relationships with food and people.
In my case, I have a history of buying things for people and doing things for people who don’t deserve my generosity. I have a history of compulsive shopping to avoid feelings, to compensate when I deny myself food or just to get a “shopper’s high” to block out feelings. Somehow my relationship with food relates to wanting to be liked while hiding the real me.
People have criticized the way I eat since I was a young child. My aunts and cousins were cruel about my weight. Even now while I am eating healthy whole foods, people tell me I should be smaller. They think I eat weird. Maybe from their point of view there’s no point eating healthy food if you don’t lose weight on it. But guess what, I’m eating the healthy food!
Through the help of my therapist and Suppers, I have overcome many of my sick behaviors. But let me tell you, it’s not easy. I had to form a whole new community and family for myself. I had to make a personal commitment to live according to my intentions instead of my impulses. Not only do I have to transcend the emotion-rich and memory-rich food-is-love soul food of my childhood, I have to stand up to family members who ridicule me for making healthy choices. Their whole lives are defined by their addictions, street drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol.
It was an act of grace that Suppers gave me the idea that if my real family community couldn’t support me, I could create one of my own for myself, my husband and for my daughters. As bad as it was for me, it’s worse for the children growing up poor in the south today. When we go to South Carolina and I look at what food is available now, I see each generation slipping further and further away from traditional food preparation. OK, so I’m estranged from my mother and everyone else is an addict. At least I can cling to the memory that she did have a way of expressing love for me. She made soul food.
As for lessons learned at Suppers, here is my short list:
I learned that I suffer from a disease of isolation. As soon as I was welcomed into the bosom of Suppers, I started sharing things that could only continue to harm me as long as I kept them buried deep down inside.
How I feel is data! Fear triggers my anxiety, but it also triggers the desire for French fries and chocolate. Now that I can feel how my brain uses food like drugs, I can tell I use food to quell my fears, but the effect is only temporary.
What works for me is slower than drugs and soul food but more lasting: whole food, supplements, positive affirmations, deep breathing, lavender tea, and this community.
The best reinforcement for me is helping other women, sharing my story, and hosting Suppers so that none of us has to feel alone.