Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The War Zone

I once, with a great deal of trepidation, showed a blog entry to the person it was written about. It didn't depict them in a great light, although it was written with much love, which was the reason why, after much internal debate, I decided upon showing it to her. I told her that I had added and changed a few things to make the story more free-flowing but the truth remained and the story told itself. I also wanted her opinion on my writing, as she taught literature, and after she read it, she took her reading glasses off and said, 'Elaine, YOU are a writer. You have a real talent, a natural gift and you have many many books in you. You must write and don't ever censor yourself worrying about how someone is depicted, if you're telling your own truth because you will stifle that gift and that would be criminal. Don't worry about offending me or anyone else.'

That was one of the best pieces of free advice I've ever gotten and I soaked it in, like a sponge, heart and soul and that's why you read what I write, written honestly, candidly, with my heart and soul, regardless of the cost, because secrets are kept by those who know it's wrong.

When I was growing up, food was a huge consuming issue and source of great strife. My family had always lived in a two-family house, common in Hudson County, NJ, and my maternal grandparents owned the house, and my parents were their tenants. When we lived in one town, we lived downstairs. When we moved to the other town, we lived upstairs. No matter where we were, we were always under my grandmother's and by association, my uncle's (her youngest, and older than me by only three years) thumb. He was a monstrously spoiled brat and she was a petty tyrant. My grandfather was smart, handed over his check, and never said a word. He spent most of his free time in the basement workshop or sneaking a cigarette when he wasn't working extra hours at a meat-packing plant in the Bronx. When he had mandatory vacation, he would arrange for his boss to call him on the second day to tell him to come back because of some fabricated emergency and my grandmother had free-reign to rule our world. She did with the zeal of a Grand Inquisitor.

In her own capacity, I knew she loved me, us, all of us, by varying degrees but it was overshadowed by the ability to make even grown men shudder in fear or avoid her at all costs, nevermind little children. She felt (and still does) she had the right to run my parents' marriage, our upbringing, every aspect of our lives and often tag-teamed with my mother in terrorizing us with threats, shame and humiliation. We were beaten or whipped with switches regularly. My father was not a reliable breadwinner and she made sure that he was aware of that even when he was working regularly.

Although he'd been to technical schools (and would earn several technical diplomas over the course of his lifetime) he didn't have any jobs that had anything to do with his schooling and could only find work doing menial labor, usually as a warehouseman. When he did come home, my mother would have dinner waiting, and then he would either lie down and read or watch TV in the den. I would often join him until a certain age where he told me that I was 'too big'. I've mentioned my complicated relationship with my dad before, but most of the bad stuff revolved around food. In fact, most of the bad stuff with everything was permeated by food dysfunction.

My mother often begged my grandmother for money so we could have milk or bread because she couldn't make ends meet from payday to payday or my dad just wasn't working. He would mysteriously quit or lose jobs and it was always someone else's fault. Often, my grandmother would waive the rent or let my mother float it. Both women were in charge of finances by sheer necessity. The men were neither interested nor skilled in household finances. This was rather common in our area, so it wasn't odd at all, in fact, this was the case in most of my friends' families.

To teach my mother a lesson and shame her, my grandmother would make her beg for food or money and there was always an atmosphere of tension and anxiety in the house whether or not there would be enough of anything. My grandmother also made my mother ashamed of each of her pregnancies (I was born six months after the wedding) and reminded her of the humiliation the family (meaning she) suffered because my parents had 'no self-control'. The night of my sister, the youngest's birth, my father came home ecstatic to tell them all about her and my grandmother was shocked because my mother was so afraid of her that she hid her entire pregnancy. My grandmother cut-off my father's happy descriptions and demanded that he 'stop production' or she would throw them out on the street. To this day she sees nothing wrong with this behavior. She fed us grudgingly and we ate fearfully. If we didn't eat what we were given (and we did, we did) we would be given a beating instead and food, for as long as I can remember, was used as a weapon and the threat of its lack, a torture device.

My mother was cowed by her mother but she had additional concerns. She was 26 with four small children and desperately needed help. She was very overwhelmed. Neither her mother nor her husband could be counted on for emotional support and rather than look for work, my father would spend his days across the street at his mother's house. His mother didn't approve of my mother because she wasn't Italian and my grandmother was offended by this and it further stoked the coals of resentment in her heart against my father and by association, us children who should not have been born.

My mother and father were both fat. In today's world, they would be considered 'chubby' but in the sixties and seventies, it was fat. My mother never spoke about her size nor did she even put me down for mine, as I was the oldest, and the heaviest child. I look at photographs of me from back then and clearly see that I myself wasn't fat, and barely chubby but was made to feel that way by my father and his mother. I don't ever recall my mother dieting, or discussing dieting, nor did she put any of us on one. She cooked healthy meals on a very tight budget and there was no money for junk food of any kind. When she had a good coupon for a sugary-type cereal, we would descend on it like a pack of wolves, because we believed we might never see it again. That would be the tone in the household when it came to treats or extras, feast or famine. We learned no moderation because we were always afraid there wasn't enough to go around. We gobbled everything up and often would later be sick. At holidays we would eat to discomfort and sometimes vomit, and then eat again, so afraid that there would be no more. The truth was that we never starved. Having a grandfather who was also a supervisor at a meat-packing plant had its privileges. He was allowed to bring home the bacon, literally, and my grandmother kept an old-fashioned ice-box in the basement full of bacon only. She knew exactly how much was in there so we could never go and take anything  although she had a king's ransom of it. Instead, my mother had to prostrate herself as usual, and endure the litany of her sins, and I think that there was some small rebellion in my mother that wasn't beaten out of her, that she refused to beg, hence we had many oatmeal and macaroni weeks.

My father himself could cook because his parents had their own businesses and he was a latch-key kid, meaning he had a key to the house on a string around his neck, during the Depression. My paternal grandmother owned a beauty salon and my grandfather owned a barber shop and kept the entire extended family employed during the hard times. Because of the power they wielded over the livelihoods of everyone, they were highly regarded and all swore fealty to them and had to make an appearance at the mandatory Sunday Dinner where my grandmother cooked a feast for the entire clan but during the week, my father, as a child was on his own and had to cook for himself because after work, his mother and father would close shop and play cards all night long. My dad consoled himself with food. His mother told him, that because she had him at 40, he ruined her beautiful figure and never let him forget that and that he was fat. She would continue to berate him for his size, while feeding him and the rest of the clan. She especially loved Eugene, one of my father's brothers, who carried on a family tradition of running the last of a chain of butcher shops and would bring home choice cuts of meat for my grandmother to make for Sunday dinner. Eugene, or Genie would lord over the entire table, and had first pick. My father, the youngest, was persona non grata, it seemed, everywhere. He continued to and still does, console himself with food, his only friend.

My mother refused to bow and scrape to her mother-in-law, I would imagine because she was really tired of being the scullery maid to all the lords and ladies, her own mother included, yet they shared a common hatred for my father's mother because she rejected my mom and her family. There is nothing like a common enemy to make two enemies allies and that was yet another spire in the crown of the food dysfunction, so many, so many, as a child it was too dizzying to comprehend that everyone hated each other, or was offended or dismissed this one or that one or thought who the hell they were.

My childhood memory of the dinner table, and the dining room table on holidays is one of dread and the silent prayer that it be over soon. My brother Donny, for some reason had always, seemingly from birth, displeased my father and in fear, would always knock over his glass of milk at dinner, like clockwork. In response, my father would backhand him and my brother (smallish) would scream in fear and pain and this would replay at every meal. My father's worst abuse of Donny was at the kitchen table and even in Donny's high-chair. My mother, for some reason, didn't defend Donny, ever, and I think out of survival, nor did my brother David. It would be easier for a child to not be a victim by playing up to an abuser than risk injury, though at the time, and for a long time after that, I didn't understand this and hated David for this. I loved him for so much more, but this was unforgivable. My sister, the baby, was treated as a treasure by all of us and escaped most of the harm, or so I thought. Later, after she died accidentally in her sleep at the age of 35, I realized that she had not escaped. To have witnessed abuse is to also be abused and all the shielding that I could manage for her and Donny were in vain. I fought my father. I fought my mother. I fought my grandmothers and I fought my uncles. There were very few men, women or children I could trust as a child. Food became my consolation too.

As I grew older, there was a lot of manipulation and mind games when it came to jockeying for position for favor with regard to who would get the extra pork chop. There were never leftovers. If I called ahead to the house to tell them I would be late coming home from work and to please save my dinner, most of the time, my father would have eaten it. Even if he wasn't hungry, it was there, it was his, he was showing his dominance by taking my own dinner. I retaliated by picking up my dinners on the way home from work and eating them during the commute home. My diet consisted solely of fast food and a lot of it, but with little nutrition and I packed the weight on. I told myself that I deserved it, especially since my mother would confiscate my paycheck because my father couldn't keep a job and I had to go to work to become a breadwinner, although, ironically, there was no bread for me to come home to. I was the only child in the family who was forced to pay my mother 'rent'. For a brief period, I think my brother David did, but then he decided not to and she never pressed him after that. He found an apartment with a buddy and moved out and my mother needed my money even more. Since my sister was in school, my mother was no longer a homemaker and worked full-time herself. We still fought to make ends meet. I remember asking her for a dollar of my own money and her crying because she said that dollar was going to be her lunch, a diet decaf Pepsi from the soda machine in her office building. Her tears made me feel guilty for wanting any of my own money because she said she sacrificed more and here I was secretly gorging myself on Wendy's and Burger King. I was ashamed and ate even more.

My brother moved back into the house to begin saving for a wedding. Of course he could not pay rent. Another mouth to feed, and I was working overtime already. My hopes of going to college were screwed. My father told me I didn't want to go to college and their church pastor came to the house and had a talk with me telling me the profession I would have chosen was ungodly and not acceptable within 'our' faith. My parents forbade it. With no support and no self-esteem, I continued to work overtime, working my way up slowly through the ranks of customer services and sales offices. Like my grandfather, I would work on weekends and through my vacations to meet the financial demands of my family and to avoid them. I had no idea that I could be independent and have a life of my own. I was told that I didn't want this or that but I wanted this or that (whatever was to their benefit) and I was miserable.

I don't know why but in my mid-twenties, I got a bit of wanderlust and the roots that I felt chained to, couldn't keep me from going on short road trips alone and soon I found myself wandering Amish Country in Lancaster, PA. I felt that someday I would live there. I mentioned it to my mother and suggested she come for a weekend with me and she loved it so much that she joined me on many trips. She became more relaxed and would talk about it to coworkers and one mentioned that she had a trailer up on one of the lakes in the Poconos and offered to let us use it for a weekend. We had a blast and I remember standing on the deck saying to myself, 'One day, I would love to have this place, here. It's so beautiful.'

I began to look into jobs in that area with the hope that I could relocate. This was a gigantic step in independence for me. I went on a few interviews but soon found that the employment situation in the area was dire, especially in my field. I still hoped for that trailer, with that beautiful deck.

My paternal grandmother died and my father inherited a moderate inheritance and my mother purchased the trailer and began talking of relocating. I felt as if she had hijacked my own dreams and began for the first time ever to establish healthy boundaries which she would challenge and challenge again and again. Eventually, the military base my mother worked at closed and she relocated to the area anyway and found a house and sold the trailer. I found an apartment and discovered the simple pleasure of cooking for myself, putting food in my refrigerator and opening the door, day or night and the food would still be in there when I looked. I could bring leftovers home and let them rot if I wanted. I could eat junk if I wanted or healthy and I chose a reasonable mixture of both. I lost 100 lbs., naturally in less than a year. I also noticed that any food aggression and hostility or anxiety about it was gone. I felt as if a great weight was lifted off my shoulders.

I lost my first apartment and luckily found a second as a tenant to an old friend. She had her own issues with food which alarmed me, but we didn't eat together that often. I still was in charge of my own intake, my own refrigerator, my own choices. Then my mother was struck down with stomach cancer and my whole world caved in. Then 9/11 hit and I lost whatever inner-compass I had left. I quickly put on weight. My boyfriend was delighted with my weight gain and encouraged me to eat. I was miserable and only wanted my mother to live. I got engaged and when my mother's prognosis was given, we had to rush the wedding for her to attend. It's a blur, I don't remember a lot. I do remember so many people helping us to make the wedding a beautiful reality but to me, I didn't even feel like part of the event. My mother was dying, my mother was dying, my mother was dying.

On Mother's Day, the week before my wedding, I shaved her head. Her hair was falling out in clumps from the chemo. A friend would lend a gorgeous wig. My mother and I both cried. I kissed the top of her head 'for luck' and I gave her the last thing she would ever eat, a St. Joseph's zeppole, which to the uninitiated is vaguely like a giant Italian cream-puff. From that point on, my mother would be unable to eat or drink. My wedding was her last social outing. She lived off the remaining fat of her body. She told me at the end that she secretly always wished she was thin. She told me she was sorry she was so hard on me. She asked me to forgive her. I wept at her feet and washed her forehead, face and shoulders with a warm soapy washcloth and helped her pick out her jewelry to give to others as a token of her love. She was dead six months after my wedding. I ate to console myself.

I began to gain weight, alarmingly so. I became nearly immobile and suffered debilitating anxiety attacks. My husband delighted in my size and weight although I felt as if I was waiting to die. My aunt died suddenly. My godmother. I became sick, in fact had been sick for a long time and was hospitalized with pneumonia. A bariatric bed which also served as a scale was brought in for me. They tared down the bedding and then had me sit on it and then asked me to wait in the bedroom to finish putting on the sheets and blankets. My husband excitedly came running in and asked me if I wanted to know how much I weighed. I said no and he insisted and told me I weighed 679 lbs.  I wanted to throw myself out a window. I wanted to die. I wanted to live. I decided during the course of that hospital stay that I would live and would do something about it. I stopped eating.

My husband retaliated. He stopped touching me in any meaningful way. He wouldn't sit next to me nor would make eye-contact. I begged him to pay attention and as I lost weight, I did everything I could to seduce him into loving me back. He retaliated further by controlling every aspect of my life, including sabotaging my now slightly healthier eating. I considered having weight loss surgery and he forbade it. I lost 200 then 300 lbs and I became invisible to him. The war of food had never ended. The parties had changed, the battlefields, but there was no end in sight. I was so miserable, I considered swallowing a bottle of pills. I became sicker, sicker than ever and then my only sister died. I quit the painkillers I was on so I could grieve for her and as I became more lucid, I began to recover. I also realized my marriage was over.

I would try to fix it. I would try to fix me. I even went so far as to gain 80 lbs. back to please him but he didn't want me anymore. My brother Donny suddenly died and the night before his burial, pretending to want to comfort me, my husband sexually assaulted me. He degraded me to show me he was boss. He shamed me for wanting more of life and less of me. I considered the bottle of pills again but instead began to plan an escape.

One year later, I am legally separated, soon to be divorced and am 150 lbs. lighter. I am happier and healthier than ever. I don't know if I'll ever fully recover from the damage I did to my own body through the eating disorder of restrictive anorexia, something I struggle with daily. I don't recommend what I did to anyone. It was absolutely NOT a diet. My war with food is not a war I started, but a symptom of family dysfunction and it will finish with me. Food is not the enemy nor is it a punishment or reward. It is fuel that I can enjoy freely and with responsibility. I do not live to eat; I eat to live. I have lost 400 lbs. in five years and have no illusions that this will be a cakewalk from this point on but I am alive and able and am finally my own person making my own choices.

1 comment:

  1. You ABSOLUTELY do write honestly and beautifully. I identify with your food related memories, it's a painful road to travel, I know. One step at a time, you will change your direction. I see that in you! :)