Strawberries: Childhood Trauma and Eating Disorders

Strawberries were saved for my mother and I never knew why.
My mother and Me

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.

Sydell Weiner, PhD

My Mother’s Story

My Mother's Story
Janet Kay Horowitz

Losing a mother  in childhood or adolescence leaves many unanswered questions. My mother’s story has been pieced together from faded memories, old photographs and isolated anecdotes. I hope it does justice to the woman I knew for only 14 years. 

My mother was born on May 5th, 1917, in Rochester, New York. Her parents both emigrated from Eastern Europe lured by the promise of a better life. Her father, Abraham Kay (born Kosovsky), came from Minsk in 1911, and her mother, Edith Garelick, from Poland in 1913. They were married in New York City on December 22, 1913, when Abe was 19 and Edith was 17.

My mother Janet was their first child, followed three years later by Alice and by Beverly six years after that. They enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in Rochester, New York, where Janet learned to appreciate both opera and horseback riding. She was a better than average student, but by the time she was fifteen the family moved 300 miles away to Brooklyn, New York.

Abe had been a successful salesman, and in Brooklyn he ran his own business in the garment district. Janet was pretty, poised and popular, and easily made the adjustment to life in Brooklyn. She attracted the attention of many young men and made friends quickly. She was a natural born leader and took great satisfaction in running a girls’ club for teenagers who needed a big sister.

1937, she met Milton Horowitz. He may not have been as wealthy as some of her boyfriends, but he had a great sense of humor and was smart as a whip. She was the refined, beautiful girl from Rochester falling in love with the boy from the lower east side. But Milton had just finished law school, and he showered her with attention, kept her laughing and made her feel like the most beautiful girl in the world. It was clear they were a match and they got married on March 24th, 1939, in New York City when Janet was 22 and Milt was 25.

Janet & Milton Wedding

The wedding was an exquisite, formal affair with nine bridesmaids in matching silk gowns and nine groomsmen in tuxedos. Janet and Milton were both the oldest in their respective families, and her parents loved him immediately. Wages were low in 1939, but Milt got a raise to $6.00 a week as a law clerk when they got married and Janet worked as a bookkeeper. They honeymooned in Florida and returned to an apartment in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn.

They lived on the same block as her sister Alice and husband Jess, and they all became best friends. This made her first year as “Janet Horowitz” especially fun, and on May 6th, 1943, it got even better. One day after her 26th birthday, Nancy Roberta was born and the couple became a family. The war in Europe was escalating and Milt thought he’d be exempt from serving since he was a lawyer and had a new baby. Nevertheless, when Nancy was 6 months old Milt was drafted into the Army.

Janet followed her husband to North Carolina while he was in basic training. But when he was shipped overseas in 1944, she returned to New York and worked for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services). It was difficult raising her daughter alone, but when Milton returned in 1946 they went on a 2nd honeymoon to Miami Beach to celebrate.

Their 2nd daughter, Sydell Sally, was born on February 18, 1947, when Janet was 29 years old. Alice and Jess had 2 sons the same age as Janet’s daughters, so everyone shared responsibilities. It was a happy time for her, being close to family and staying home with her girls. Milt was doing well in his law practice in Manhattan, and they even snuck away on a vacation in 1951 to Toronto and Lake George, where Janet got to do some horseback riding. But when Milt bought her a mink coat she knew she had arrived. In the 1950’s it was a huge status symbol, and she was proud to be the wife of a successful lawyer.

Janet was ambitious, not only for herself but her daughters. Nancy was especially pretty, and Janet took her into Manhattan to get professional pictures so she could do some modeling. Nancy did well and when Sydell turned five, Janet got pictures for her too. But by 1952 the family was moving to the suburbs of Long Island, and going 30 miles into the city for photo shoots was just too much. The new house in Mineola was Janet’s dream, and when they moved in she couldn’t have been happier.

Although they didn’t see their families quite as often, they all still got together many times a year for the Jewish holidays. There were always at least 20 around the table, the food was plentiful and the atmosphere warm. Once Janet settled into suburban life, she and Milt got involved in the building of a new synagogue. My mother became President of the Sisterhood and began volunteering at many charitable organizations. She was a candy striper at Long Island Jewish Hospital and became President of the local chapter of The United Cerebral Palsy Association. She was great at organizing meetings and events, and loved entertaining friends at her home.

On a December morning in 1954, however, she got a phone call that rocked her world. Her father, Abraham Kay, had been found dead in his factory. They assumed it was a heart attack, but when they arrived the next morning he was hanging from a rope. It was clear that Abe had committed suicide. Was he embezzling money from the business? Was ending his life the only way he could see out? Or was there a long term issue with depression? This was traumatic for Janet, who adored her father. Nonetheless, she fought to maintain a façade and kept the shameful secret from everyone she knew.

There is a lot written about the relationship between mind and body when it comes to disease. Could the trauma of her father’s suicide have activated a dormant genetic anomaly? Regardless of the root cause, in February of 1956, when Janet was 38 years old, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She was a no-nonsense woman, and matter of factly told her daughters that she was going into the hospital to have a breast removed. Nancy was 12 and Sydell was 8, but the word “cancer” was never used, and she reassured them that everything would be fine.

Janet recovered well and life continued as if nothing had gone wrong. To help other women who’d had the same surgery, she visited them in the hospital to encourage them to get well. There was no chemotherapy in those days, and radiation was only done sporadically. Janet continued her normal routine and several months later the whole family went on a vacation to Washington D.C. It was a great trip where everyone had fun, and no mention was made of her recent mastectomy.

But by 1957, there was a lump in the other breast. The doctor told Milt that it was probably the breast cancer coming back, but to remove her other breast would be too upsetting. Without including Janet, the doctor and Milt chose to treat it with radiation and avoid further surgery. I know it’s astounding by today’s standards, but in those days husbands made decisions for their wives. They often decided if the wife should even be told the truth about her diagnosis. Janet was not told.

By the end of 1958 the atmosphere around the home changed as the cancer silently progressed. Janet’s health and state of mind were both unpredictable. She was in and out of the hospital, one day quite ill, and the next getting dressed in nylons and heels to attend a Charity Luncheon. On her bad days she was short tempered and frequently irritated by her daughters, who were also kept from the truth. She yelled at them, and seemed to blow up over the smallest infractions. On her good days, however, she would play her opera records and bustle around the house. She continued to get her long beautiful nails manicured in her signature bright red, and she also remained ambitious for her girls.

In 1959, she took 12 year old Sydell into Manhattan to enroll her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Nancy had been the model, but Sydell would be the actress. Going alone on the train into the city was fun for Sydell and kept her distracted from what was going on at home. Janet was weakening, but she still had her good days.

She was proud of her daughters, and enjoyed planning Sydell’s Bat Mitzvah in February of 1960. At 42, she remained a gracious hostess and looked beautiful at the party. In some of the pictures one of her eyes seems to be closing. The cancer had reached her brain by that time, and nobody said a word. Several months later when Janet became so sick she had to be rushed to the hospital, the cover up continued. It was hepatitis, she was told, and everyone went along.

By February of 1961, Janet had more bad days than good. But she and Milt celebrated the 5 year anniversary of her mastectomy, as evidence that she was cancer free and getting well. But by May, she had taken a turn for the worse. One afternoon, she got out of bed to go to the bathroom and was so weak that she fell right there on the floor. Sydell called in a  neighbor to help her up and Milt subsequently hired a nurse’s aide to assist during the day. No conversation took place in the family. Milt went to work and the girls went to school, and it was never acknowledged that she was dying of cancer.

Inevitably, on May 26th, 1961, just weeks after turning 44, Janet Kay Horowitz passed away. She left two daughters, then 14 and 18, with no explanation or words of goodbye. Did she know she was dying? Did she know that the cancer had returned in 1957? Or was the need to be strong more important than the truth? Cancer was whispered about in those days, and breast cancer in particular was stigmatized as a curse. There were no marathons, pink ribbons or celebrities trumpeting their cause. There were only secrets and lies. And in that environment the life of my mother was cut short.

Just as illness was kept secret in the 1950’s, so was grief. After she died, my father  couldn’t talk about her, so my sister and I followed suit. The memories faded and the subject became taboo. But her life mattered and she deserves to be remembered. Janet Kay Horowitz was a beauty in her youth, a leader in her community, ambitious for her children and a proud and loving wife. My mother was tall and slim and always confident in social situations. She loved her parents, her sisters and their children, and was equally warm to her husband’s extended family. She was strong and efficient, always looked her best and did what was expected. I remember her cooking dinner every night in high heels and dresses and she never complained about it.

My mother left behind a beautiful legacy. Her husband of 22 years found love again and continued to make people laugh. Nancy had 3 children, all of whom distinguished themselves in their careers, and 4 grandchildren that Janet would have loved.

I became a Drama Professor, thanks to my mother’s push, and then a Marriage and Family Therapist. My son is a rabbi, a hospital chaplain and a leader in his community. My daughter has the poise and confidence of her grandmother, with a successful career to boot. Between the two of them I have 6 amazing grandchildren. Janet Horowitz’s life was all too short, but   as her youngest daughter, I will always honor her memory.

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I Miss Those Years

As a young mother with my son

“Mommy, can you sew a button on my P.E. uniform?” “Ma, I sat on my homework and it’s wrinkled, can you iron it?” “Mom, I signed you up to bring cookies on Thursday, OK?” These are the sounds that filled my home for over twenty  years. So many things to do while going in so many different directions. They were frantic days, but they were filled with love and a sense of purpose. I miss those years.

My home is quiet now. My husband died more than two years ago and my children are out on their own.  So I  hold on tight to the memories as I try to find a new purpose.

My son was an active child, always testing the limits. He crashed toy trucks into walls, colored outside the lines and was “all boy.” Sometimes, when my 8 month old puppy starts running around in circles, I call him by my son’s name by mistake. He reminds me of that playful boy who was full of the dickens. Without thinking, I repeat the phrase I used too often with my son: “What is your problem?!!”  but to no avail.

Ny son and daughter in bed with me

My boy had a deep, sensitive side as well. I sang to him at night and read Dr. Seuss until I knew those books by heart. When he couldn’t sleep and wanted to be near me, he’d sneak into my room and crawl under the bed. Dr. Spock had told us that co-sleeping was bad, and my son knew he’d be sent back to his room if he was caught. I wish I had followed my instincts and let him curl up in my arms and stay there all night.

My daughter’s self confidence always amazed me. Although she got glasses at 15 months old and had bushy, Jewish hair, she thought she was the cutest thing in town. I watched her on the playground with a trail of blonde haired, blue eyed girls following her every move.

My ever confident daughter

When she decided to run for 6th grade president, we practiced her speech night after night. She walked confidently onto the stage, looking like a 10 year old Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I mouthed every word with her as she gave her speech, and when she won I said, “Today 6th grade, tomorrow the world!” We laughed for days over that line.

When she was in 7th grade we moved to Palos Verdes, and she was teased for the first time in her life. Some girls made fun of her glasses and she came home that day in tears.  I immediately made an appointment for her to get contact lenses. I urged her to leave the “mean girls” and find a nicer group of kids. She was smart enough to find her way through a difficult transition.

How I loved being at the center of my children’s lives, being the one they came to for comfort and approval. I remember watching my son play little league and praying for a “ball” so he’d at least get on base.  And what fun we had with my daughter’s costume fittings for ballet recitals, and bringing roses backstage. What joy I felt watching my children’s faces light up when I came home early from work. I was loved, I was needed, I was their mommy.

My beautiful grown childrenMy son is 40 now and my daughter is 38. They have successful careers and children of their own. They have spouses who come first, as well they should. I know they love me, but the dynamics have changed. Instead of playing a leading role, I am now one of the supporting players.

I’ve retired from my career as a college professor and age is catching up with me. There were many days when the loneliness overwhelmed me. I was up at 6am and sat on the couch until 10, waiting for a reason to get dressed and get out. There was nobody there to ask how I slept, or keep me company while I make coffee and watched the news. Day after day the monotony continued, as I search for a new direction.

Today I try to be grateful for all the good in my life, and it actually makes me feel better. There are so many ways to reach out to others in similar situations.  I am discovering a new freedom and enjoy getting involved in more social activities. Writing is a new form of creative expression for me, and it’s helping me find a new purpose.

Yes, I miss those years, but how fortunate I am to have had them. How fortunate to see my children thrive as adults and to know that I had a big part in it. The future is not just theirs, it can be mine too if I just reach out and grab it.

It’s time to move forward…past time.  I’m a little scared, but I’m also excited. I will welcome the next chapter in my life with the courage and hope. Watch out, I’m back in the world of the living! 

Sydell Weiner, I Miss Those Years

November 8, 2018

Count My Blessings

Count My Blessings

For so many years my purpose was clear: wife, mother, professor, director, therapist. I knew my roles and they gave my life structure.

Then you left me Rex. You promised you’d always be there, but you died. I couldn’t even connect with you while you were so sick. I was scared and caring for you took all my energy and I had to protect myself so I wouldn’t fall apart.

I have so many wonderful things in my life, yet I am paralyzed by fear. My foot hurts–is it bone cancer? If I drive too fast will someone sideswipe me and leave me in a pile on the side of the road? Irrational fears, but they keep me from moving forward.

This past week I had so much fun. And the second I walked back into my home it evaporated like so much hot air. On Sunday morning I babysat my son’s 4 kids, ages 6 to 14. Don’t tell my daughter, but Jason’s 9 year old Ayden, is my FAV. She started talking to me the second I walked in and didn’t stop until 4 hours later when my daughter-in-law came home. Ayden still wasn’t done, so we took orders and walked to Baskin Robbins so we could bring back ice cream for all the other kids. She is such a joy, and she’ll be at my house for Thanksgiving with my 5 other grandkids.

My son is a mensch, but he’s very busy and doesn’t call me often. He answers almost immediately whenever I text him and is always engaging when I’m at his house. Yet weeks can go by without him initiating contact. So Thursday, after listening to a client talk about why her grown son doesn’t call, I thought about Jason. I sent him a text: “It would mean so much to me if you could call me once a week.” His text back simply said, “OK.” I was on my way to the market so I didn’t have time to obsess about his response.

I got home, sat on the sofa with my puppy and vegged out in front of the TV. And then my phone rang–the screen said Jason–I picked it up. “I know you’re busy,” I said apologetically, “but sometimes I get so lonely.” “I know,” he said. He told me about his stint as Scholar in Residence the past week-end, and I told him how much fun I had babysitting for the kids. “Kayla is really starting to take school seriously, now that she’s in high school,” he said. “Yes, I noticed a change in her attitude,” I answered. “And that sweet Aydenie has become such a delight. Remember when she was in pre-school and wouldn’t listen to anyone? I remember you saying you felt sorry for her future husband.” We both laughed, and then I thanked him before ending the call. Yes, I asked for what I needed and believe it or not it was given to me!

This morning my daughter started texting me at 7:15 in the morning, we’re going to the theatre together tomorrow. ”

Eric is playing poker tomorrow night, so why don’t you stay for dinner after the show and keep me company? Or maybe we can go out to eat with the kids.” “Either way, is fine” I texted back. Then she called. “I just told the kids and they’re so excited you’re coming for dinner.” I know it is 43 miles to her house in Costa Mesa, but after a conversation like that, it is more than worth it.

Life is challenging for me these days, but easier when I appreciate what I have. I know my roles, but I’m still redefining my purpose. I can make it through the difficult days, when I just remember to take my time and count my blessings.

Sydell Weiner

November 26, 2018

Divorce: How to Keep Your Child Out of the Middle

Children and Divorce

Children are the innocent victims of divorce. They don’t ask for it, they don’t cause it, but their living conditions are often disrupted by it. Here are some ways you, as a parent, can make it easier for them:

1. Divorce is Not Their Fault:

Most Kids will internalize the conflict in your relationship or act up to divert attention away from from it. They need to be reassured that you will both love them and continue to be their parents even when you’re living apart. Remind them that the divorce isn’t because of anything they’ve done wrong and you will never divorce them.

2. Communicate Appropriately:

Remember that you’re the adult and they’re the child. It’s tempting to use them as confidantes, especially when there are no other adults in the home. Unfortunately, this creates parentified children, who worry unnecessarily and feel burdened by your problems. If your partner had an affair, for example, an 8 year old will not understand what that means and become anxious or upset. It’s more loving to just comfort them, and share your problems with friends, family or a therapist.
Continue reading “Divorce: How to Keep Your Child Out of the Middle”

Communication Basics: Stop Yelling At Me

Non-Violent Communication

If your relationship is stuck in a cycle of blame, you probably wonder what happened to the communication that brought you together. It may work in politics, but blaming your partner will never get your needs met in a relationship. You have a better chance of recapturing the intimacy with a few simple tools from Marshall Rosenberg’s in Non-Violent Communication.

1. Observations:

When you start a sentence with “you” or “you always…” your partner will hear it as criticism and probably become defensive. For example, “You’re always late, I can’t believe how inconsiderate you are!” is filled with blame and bound to start an argument. Instead, try calmly stating the behavior you observe without evaluation. If you say, “you’re 30 minutes late,” or “when you’re late I feel…(impatient, angry, worried, etc),” you’re off to a better start.

2. Feelings:

Expressing feelings is trickier than it sounds. For example, “I feel like you’re always criticizing me,” uses the word feel, but is more about your partner’s behavior than about what you feel. A healthier way to phrase it would be: “I feel hurt when you tell me that I didn’t do a good job.” To keep the feelings about you, try words like: angry, discouraged, scared, worried, frustrated and heartbroken. Your partner’s actions may trigger your feelings, but they are rarely the cause. More often, your feelings are rooted in unmet needs. Continue reading “Communication Basics: Stop Yelling At Me”