I reach for some strawberries as my father unpacks them from his grocery bag. “No, sweetheart,” he says, “we’re saving those for mommy.” I’m 12 or 13, and my mother is sick in bed. My father reassures me that she’ll get well, so I go to my room as he tends to her needs. But she doesn’t get well. She doesn’t get well at all.
Three months after my fourteenth birthday, my father picks my sister and me up from school a little after noon. We have no idea why until he starts driving to the hospital. On the way he tells us the shocking truth. “Mommy’s had breast cancer for the past 5 years. She was rushed to the hospital this morning because she’s dying. She will probably be gone by the time we get there.”
When we get to the hospital, we take the elevator up to her floor. My father goes by himself to the nurse’s station. It is very quiet so I’m able to hear every word that is said. “I’m so sorry, your wife has passed away, would you like to go into her room and see her?” The nurse asks matter of factly. My father replies, “No, I want to remember her alive.” And then he starts to cry—big heaving sobs that sound like they’ll never end.
I am standing by myself, and all I can think of is eating a huge bowl of strawberries. I’m not physically hungry, just empty and shocked and feeling totally abandoned. Why has my mother’s cancer been kept secret from everyone but my Dad? How am I supposed to deal with my feelings? What are my feelings and who can I talk to about this?
When we leave the hospital my father seems to close up. I don’t want to upset him, so I try to act normal and go on about my life. My father hires a housekeeper to clean in the afternoons and prepare dinner. She goes about her daily tasks rarely interacting with me. I stay up in my room and find solace in my own little secret.
When the housekeeper isn’t looking I put two pieces of thin sliced bread together in the same slot of the toaster. When they pop up, I separate them and smooth butter on the soft, untoasted insides. “Umm…. delicious, just like fresh baked bread.” After I stuff down about 6 slices, the housekeeper approaches from the hall. I tell her I’m going to the store on the corner and get out of her way.
Grabbing some money, I run down the street. When I get to the store, I stand at the counter and my mouth starts to water. Through the glass I see the tempting treats: freshly made donuts with gooey, glazed topping. My mother didn’t allow us bread with dinner, nor did we ever have sweets for dessert. We had jello, canned fruit cocktail, or when we were lucky, fresh whole strawberries.
I reach in my pocket and tell the clerk at the store I want six donuts. I feel scared and guilty, like I’m breaking some kind of law. So I hurry home and go quickly up to my room to hide from the housekeeper. I wolf down the donuts as fast as I can, afraid that if I stop my mother will appear and grab them away from me . But she doesn’t appear. She’s dead. When I finish the bag I am relieved. I haven’t been caught and my heart finally stops racing. But I am far from satisfied.
In the first year after my mother died I gained 25 pounds. I also grew 4 inches so I was able to keep it hidden. When the weight started to show I would starve my self to compensate. I’d eat huge amounts of food and then punish myself by dieting mercilessly. Food became my best friend and worst enemy.
It’s hard to believe by today’s standards, but it was 20 years before I got any help. After years of denial, I found a therapist and started feeling my feelings. I learned healthier ways to reduce my anxiety. l began to understand my feelings of guilt and how to let go of them. And most importantly, I learned what it means to self sooth.
Even though my eating disorder is a thing of the past, I still struggle with my relationship to food. Sometimes I’m in remission for years at a time, then someone I love gets sick or dies, and I’m 14 years old again.
Today I’m in a period of grace, even though I’m grieving for my husband who died a year and a half ago. But instead of numbing my feelings with food, I am expressing them through writing. Yes, I have actually learned to comfort myself by telling my truth. And to me, it’s a lot more satisfying than eating donuts or forbidden bowls of strawberries.