I always wonder if I’ll recognize the things in my children that I managed to hide when I was a teenager. More often than not, these thoughts linger on the usual suspects; drinking, smoking, hanging out with questionable company. I’ve heard parents of older children say they always thought they would be hip to what was going on – until they realized that they weren’t. Will my kids be able to hide things from me?
When I think about the things I hid in my teens – my struggle with disordered eating is definitely the thing that stands out to me the most. It almost trumps my fear of alcohol, drugs or any other thing parents of teenagers have to deal with. Will I recognize the behaviors of a person trying desperately to disappear?
Will I notice the extra trips to the bathroom, the watery eyes and runny nose when she* emerges? Will a calloused knuckle ring a bell? Will I see her look away when people tell her she looks “great?” I had an eating disorder for over ten years and not a single person in my life ever seemed to realize it. I had boyfriends. I was close to my family. I was fully emerged in a very social life with people constantly around me. Nobody ever asked me anything.
Nobody wondered why I dropped twenty pounds my senior year in high school; they were too busy applauding me for how amazing I looked. I know what it feels like to go to bed hungry – and not because my family couldn’t afford food. I became addicted to that feeling, of my stomach growling at night and the weakness I felt in the morning. Nobody ever knew.
My mother grew up poor and hungry, there is no way she would have conceived that one of her kids wouldn’t eat. She also grew into an immense vanity that appeared in a lifetime of senseless diets (she never had any weight to lose) and an obsession with the weight of my older siblings. I think it’s true that older siblings always bear the brunt of the pressure for perfection; my siblings suffered through the constant nagging, while I was able to vanish into the background – almost literally – as I lost more and more weight.
I think about the statistics; eating disorders are a daily struggle for 10 million American women and 1 million men and four out of 10 people either have personal experience with one or know someone who has – and I can’t believe I never had one conversation while I was struggling with this. It wasn’t until I got into my thirties that I met women who admitted to struggling with one in their pasts. I have yet to meet someone who owns up to having one at the time that they have it. This, I understand. It’s why I am so afraid of not noticing the behavior in my kids.
I know at some point I became paranoid of gaining weight, but I’m not sure what led me to the decision to stop for years allowing myself to digest food. It seems so far away from me now – but still so close. I am someone who has never had professional help dealing with this, so these behaviors are always present. I used Weight Watchers after the birth of my first child, lost 25 pounds and realized that it wasn’t for me. I can’t track every bite I take – it becomes an obsession that I refuse to live with.
I alternate between a deep depression when I look in the mirror and see this body looking back at me – and a relief when I realize I’m not abusing it anymore. This is the healthiest relationship that I have ever had with food and I’m heavier than I have ever been. How do I reconcile this? How do I teach my children healthy habits when I am clearly still so flawed?
I haven’t figured that out yet. My daughter is only nine months old, so thankfully I have some time. I guess the most important thing that I can do is be honest with her early about what I went through and why I went through it. I never want her to feel ashamed of her body. I want her to be proud of the space she takes up and nourished well enough to think clearly and speak her mind. Most of all – what I want for my daughter is that she will never try to disappear.
*I’m using “she” here for simplicities sake, but I fully realize that eating disorders are not purely a female problem.