When I was a child my mother would always tell me “You know, we’re short [both of us are 5 feet tall] so we really have to watch what we eat or we’ll pack the weight on. And it only gets worse the older you get.” I remember the first time my mother ever telling me this. I was 10. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was planting the seeds for a lifetime battle with food. She planted the seeds when I was a child and it came to fruition that I shouldn’t eat them as I got a little older…about 8 years older than I was at the time.
When I was 18, I left for college. I went to Indiana University at Bloomington in 1999 and graduated from there in 2003. My freshman year was the hardest year I had down there. I wasn’t accustomed to living on my own and definitely not without my mother who, at the time, was my life-force and best friend. I found myself alone in a whole new world with kids my own age whom, I’ll admit, I thought were socially pretty stupid. These kids were foreign to me: they drank, they partied, they had sex in the dorm room next door to me and they acted nothing like I was brought up to act. I didn’t get drunk, go to a party or have sex until after I graduated college. I finally found a niche when I was down there. I joined the ballroom dance club down there and started competing, had a dance partner and finally made a few friends with some like-minded people. However, that first year all I really had at school was me to look out for. I would come home to my unair-conditioned dorm on the third floor of my cinder block single-room cell. My freshman year felt out of control. So I looked for something that I could control. Looking back, I know now that I was looking for something to control when everything was out of control so I turned to diet and exercise: things I could control.
I got tired of being lonely so I started dancing a lot. I had done some balllroom dance in high school during my senior year so I when I got to college I immediately joined the club. All my mom had ever let me try during grammar and part of high school was ballet and a little bit of ballroom dance. I never got to do hip hop or jazz or other styles of dance, so I immediately signed myself up for those as well. I also started walking 5 miles a day around the track at the gym and started lifting weights for the first time. I never gained the freshman 15! I lost close to 20 pounds in less than two months. I did this in part through exercise but also through diet. I pretty much stopped eating and believe me I was starving. I’d eat a doughnut and orange juice for breakfast, a small cup of soup and a light salad for lunch and would often skip dinner. I would go back to my dorm room and do my homework and then just lay on my bed and sob on the phone to my mother or grandmother about how much I missed them and how I wanted to come back home.
From the time my mom dropped me off at school in August and came to visit me in October, I had dropped from a size 10 to a size 2. None of my clothes fit. I remember having to strap my pants on with a belt and couldn’t understand why I had lost so much weight. I remember how proud my mother was of how I looked. In her eyes, I looked great.
The worst day I had at school was on a Sunday: I stayed in my room and cried all day. Not eating was a way to internalize the pain I felt from being so lonely and so homesick. I didn’t realize it at the time because I didn’t know what it was, but I know now that I was depressed. My world felt out of control and the only thing I could control was my body: what I did to it and the foods I put in it. The weird thing was it felt good to have control over something. Deliberately not eating made me feel good. It was my way of showing people how unhappy I was. By getting so skinny, I hoped someone would reach out and say, “Hey, is everything ok?” I wanted someone to notice the pain I was feeling on the inside.
My grandmother knew something was wrong and that I was depressed, but my parents didn’t. Either that or maybe they did know I was suffering with depression and just chose not to acknowledge it. They don’t believe depression exists which is why they are miserable in my eyes today. My mother is just like I used to be: she doesn’t hardly eat anything and she takes pride in that. She’s tiny and believe me she loves it when people point that out to her.
So when I returned home for the summer I had a decision to make: I could go back for another year at Bloomington or just stay home and attend school locally. Truthfully I never wanted to be in school. I wanted to dance and teach. But not getting a college degree and dancing full time the rest of my life wasn’t an option with my parents. So after a miserable summer of being with them, I decided I wanted to go back to Bloomington. The next three years of my life down there were really awesome! I’ve made some great friendships and had some amazing experiences while I was there. When I graduated, I moved back home and from there down-spiraled back to my old ways. I graduated at age 21 and finally ended the battle with my weight at Christmas-time of 2011.
I didn’t realize it back then but my mother has been picking at my weight since I was 10 years old. By telling me that I would need to watch my weight as an adult, what she was really telling her normal-weight daughter was that she was too fat. Those thoughts and that conversation have resonated with me over the years. My mother made me paranoid about my weight. Until Christmas 2011, she would pick at me. She would make comments about how thick I was looking when I ran Chicago marathon. Or when I was lifting weights in college and my arms bulked up she told me she thought I was taking steroids, which I wasn’t…I just tend to bulk up when I lift weights. When I was trail running, she thought it made the muscles in my legs look to big and told me I shouldn’t wear skinny jeans and that there was no way I’d ever fit in them anyways. There was a breaking point with my mother when she insulted me for the last time and I thought I needed to change my ways. So I pulled myself away from her. I haven’t seen her since Christmas for this reason and a few others too. It’s been one of the healthiest things I could’ve done for myself.
I pulled myself out of a toxic environment and now have a healthier perspective on diet and exercise to boot. I look at it now as fuel and entertainment. Food is fuel. Exercise is now training which is my entertainment. It’s what I like to do for fun. Eating vegan and now eating raw vegan only has taken how I view food to a whole new level. Training for things like marathons and triathlons gives me something to do while I get over the heartbreak I had when I gave up dancing. I’ll return to dance when I’m ready. I have to return to it. It’s what I’m naturally good at and it’s a shame to waste something you’re really good at and deep-down love the most. When I’m ready, I’ll go back. In the meantime, marathons and triathlons are filling the void.
I’m done repeating the exercise-bulimic and anorexic eating patterns. It took me a long time to get here but I realize now that those patterns are how I deal with grief. I know what triggers the patterns to start and know what I can do to prevent them from happening.
Be careful what you tell a child. You can plant a seed in someone’s mind at any age. It just seems to resonate more with a child because they are less judgmental than an adult and more open to trusting and hearing what you have to say. What my mother said to her 10 year old daughter that day led to lots of years of paranoia about weight and food. It’s a battle that will never be truly conquered but can at least be recognized and dealt with. I can easily say that day my mother planted seeds in my mind and they grew over time and her message was in the end: don’t eat the seeds I’ve given you. She meant it literally and in the end she was figuratively right: I never should’ve eaten the seeds she planted because she was wrong.