Toni’s Story: Emotional Individuality

I participated in a Suppers pilot project for people who self-identify as carbohydrate addicts. We were there ostensibly to change our relationships with food so that we would stop craving things we knew were creating problems and feel satisfied on healthier food. On the first day of the pilot we realized that everyone at that table was an emotional eater. We were talking about biological individuality and realized we each have our own emotional reality too.

At a recent meeting we were talking about foods and beverages that trigger unwanted eating, but it wasn’t just about trigger foods and what we ingested. Every person at that table took a similar but different path into an uncontrolled relationship with food. For me, I cannot eat one of something. I cannot have a small sliver of something, or one bowlful. Or one glass. I cannot choose the smallest of something.

I have been binge eating since I was 16 years old. At that time, after gaining five or so pounds and becoming uncomfortably aware of my changing body, I decided to go on Weight Watchers. This, according to my mother, was a healthy, balanced diet of real food. After successfully losing 15 pounds over four months, and basically starving myself, I needed a break. However, I was confused about transitioning off of the diet. So, I stayed on Weight Watchers. But, I would eat all my points for the day before I left for school in the morning, convincing myself that I wouldn’t eat for the rest of the day. A feat I never managed to accomplish.

My mother and I bonded over Weight Watchers. She showed me what food to eat, charted how many points I could eat in a day, and microwaved Weight Watchers frozen entrees for my dinner. I disclosed my home scale weigh-ins to her and we rejoiced at each pound dropped and commiserated at each plateau or pound gained.

It was a good thing we had Weight Watchers, because in most other aspects of our relationship we were greatly divided. My mother seemingly disapproved of everything I did as I transitioned into an adult. My dream was to become a professional dancer in New York City and I worked very hard to make my dream a reality. I begged for my mother’s support to let me pursue my dream after I graduated high school. She would not agree and would only support a decision to attend college. I was too young and stupid to go against her. Years later, when rehashing this standoff, she cackled, Ha! I won that argument!! The instant bitterness I felt was only overshadowed by sadness as I looked back on a college experience filled with disordered eating, drug abuse and failure.

Our fractured relationship may not have been outside the realm of the typical mother-teenage daughter relationship, but her judgments were harsh and relentless and left me deflated and depressed. In my mind, there was no behavior I could exhibit that would not elicit a hostile response from my mother. I could make no acceptable decision until it was the decision that my mother had forced.

This caused me to become secretive. I disclosed nothing to my mother as a means of avoiding her harsh judgments. The more I withdrew, the more infractions my mother found of which she could disapprove. Like the day my mother went into my bedroom when I was not at home and found the journal I kept in my bedside table. She learned for the first time that I had sex with my boyfriend. She confronted me with this information, forcing me to confirm her findings. Her reaction was a sneer and the question, did you get your period yet? I was humiliated and felt violated. When I asked her why she read my journal, she shrieked that I would not tell her anything, so she needed to find out what I was doing on her own.

I also began to eat secretively. It was falsely comforting to gorge on pints of ice cream, containers of frosting and bags of candy bars, only shortly thereafter to be left empty with my thoughts: Why am I such a horrible person? What makes me eat like this? I wonder how much weight I gained? How long should I continue to eat like this before I get back on Weight Watchers? I don’t know which made me feel worse, being subjected to my mother’s unforgiving opinions or the shame and guilt after a binge.

The first Suppers meeting I attended was a Mom’s group. I told everybody at the table that I was at Suppers because I wanted to learn how to feed my family in a healthy way. That was a lie. The next day I followed up via e-mail with the facilitator and told her that I could no longer ignore the physical toll thirty years of binge eating had taken on my body. I was now suffering from severe constipation, yeast infections, inflammation in my hands, acne, insomnia, brain fog and fatigue. What I left unsaid was that I needed to stop binge eating because the shame, insecurity, depression, rage and guilt that resulted were crippling.

I have been attending Suppers for six months, and I have finally identified the thing I didn’t even know I needed the most: a place for me to be where I am treated in the way I ached to be treated by my mother. I am in a warm kitchen with delicious aromas. I have discovered that for reasons I don’t understand the fires inside me calm down when I eat any kind of squash. I love cutting an acorn squash and filling it with chili, scrambled eggs, or hash. When I go to meetings, I’m greeted by people who look genuinely happy to see me. People listen to me, understand me and make me feel valuable. I am still working to control my binge eating. At my weekly Suppers breakfast, I lurk around in an attempt to put the biggest piece of frittata on my plate. But I feel safe and warm and do not worry that someone will judge me for it.