For My Mother, Who Runs

304
32
Illustration for article titled For My Mother, Who Runs

My mother couldn’t stop running.

Every morning at five a.m. I would wake up and look out my childhood bedroom window. There she would be, in our backyard, doing stretches, reaching up towards the sun but never quite touching it. I’d watch her for a bit, then snuggle back under my Little Mermaid covers and wait for her to return.

Advertisement

After every run my mother would come and check on me. I could smell her perspiration before I’d see her. She’d pull back the sheets; I’d pretend to wake up. I’d peer up at her large gypsy eyes and take in sweat glistening on her taught, tanned body. I’d reach up and finger the ever-protruding collar bone.

“Pretty,” I’d say.

And then she would start crying.

My mother was the first anorexic woman I ever met, and the first woman I ever loved.

It seems a day does not go by when body image issues aren’t discussed in some form or another– whether on Jezebel, Slate, The Hairpin, The New York Times or whatever morning show is en vogue. Recently, artist Colleen Clark produced a comicthat got some note and much praise for its truthful telling of body image issues. Fat or Skinny, Curvy or Straight, the consensus seems to be that every woman feels like shit.

I read these statistics daily. And I wonder, if such self-hatred is so widespread, why don’t we do anything about it?

This is not an article demanding women Stand Up and Speak Out. Plenty of women — and men — are doing just that. There are a multitude of blogs and columns devoted to discussing the pressures society puts on individuals. Dialogue is a great place to start.

The problem is, I fear, we’ve been in the starting position for a while now, and I wonder — I worry — we will never move onward. For every one shuffled step forward, we take two steps back.

Advertisement

My mother was my role model in life. She never wished for me to follow in her footsteps. She wanted me to be healthy and happy and love myself for myself. Every mother/child/friend wants that.

That didn’t stop her from accidentally passing down some bad habits. No matter how vigilante a mother she was, children are perceptive. And since I wanted to be like my mother, maybe that involved worrying constantly about my attractiveness, too. Maybe I shouldn’t eat carbs, I’d fret as early as ten years of age. A chubby middle schooler, I’d pull at the skin of my stomach and sob when looking in the mirror. Apparently I wasn’t the only pre-teen to experience this horrific anxiety and depression. But I didn’t know that. Everyone else was beautiful. I was ugly.

Advertisement

“But you’re beautiful,” my mother would say as I ran into her room sobbing and slapping myself. ”You’re being ridiculous. You’re beautiful and smart.”

I didn’t care that I was smart. I knew that. But I wanted to be beautiful. And I wasn’t– not when I compared myself to everyone else.

Advertisement

In an effort to help my self-esteem, my mom took me shopping for makeup. ”Maybe we’ll highlight your eyes,” she said as the ladies at the Macy’s counter taught me how to use eyeliner. Instead of my usual baggy jeans and X-Files t-shirt, she suggested we buy a hip new outfit from Limited Too. That morning as I dressed for school, I felt like a different girl. I was in costume, complete with makeup.

It was a moment out of “She’s All That.” People noticed me all right. Suddenly I was invited to sit at the popular-kids table. My best friends — all boys — stared at me open mouthed, unsure of what to say. Girls who had never dared–or bothered–to speak to me before asked me where I got my pants. An invitation to a pool-party was stuck in my locker.

Advertisement

The lesson I took home, however, wasn’t that I was beautiful or that kids were shallow. It was that I required makeup for people to think I was the least bit interesting.

Nonetheless, to celebrate my success at school, Mom took me out for Italian. We treated ourselves to Tiramisu. After completing homework and thanking my mother for the sweet new clothes, I went to bed. At two a.m., I woke up to my mother running on the treadmill in our garage.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled For My Mother, Who Runs

The sweat dripping down her face didn’t stop her from noticing my look. ”I’m not like you,” my mother said. ”I can’t eat sugar without repercussions. I don’t have your young metabolism.”

Advertisement

That was honestly the last time I’ve eaten Tiramisu. It’s been almost twenty years.

My mother was a wonderful mom. She was so kind and loving and supportive to me. The problem was, she wasn’t loving to herself. And so, like mother like daughter, I wasn’t loving to myself.

Advertisement

By the time I hit 21, I was eating 700 calories a day at most and running on a treadmill for at least two hours– going so far as to skip class to do so. When I collapsed while running around the school campus, I was nearly hospitalized for anorexia-nervosa. Instead, I moved home where my parents could keep an eye on me. I was finally a legal adult with all the legal abilities, and I had to be watched like an infant. If it weren’t for the kindness of my professors, I would have had to drop out of college.

There are a lot of factors I can attribute to my recovery. The support of my loved ones was the biggest. My parents paid for my daily trips to therapy. My best friend Keagan, who was studying abroad in Italy, wrote me weekly emails and put up with my one-line suicidal confessions. I started taking an anti-anxiety/depression pill called Lexapro. But, most importantly, I became friends the awe-inspiring Stella, a fabulous fellow writer and classmate who didn’t give a shit what she ate or what people thought of her. She introduced me to a group of people who could have cared less if I weighed 85 or 145 pounds. All that mattered to them was that I was having a good time (and that I was healthy enough to do so). They made me happy, and for the first time I could eat a burrito without wanting to kill myself right after– the guilt would come a day or two later, and by then I was once again wrapped up in a cocoon of friendship and peace. To this day, I attribute Stella (and therapy) to my recovery, and the fact that I did not die.

Advertisement

Anorexia is like alcoholism. You never fully beat it. I still have those dark thoughts. The Santa Anas and PMS do not help. Just the other day I ate three slices of pizza and had to stop myself from immediately looking up the caloric information. I can’t join a gym because the likelihood that I’ll grow obsessive about the amount I run or eliptical is just too terrifying. My boyfriend, bless him, still has to tell me some days that I’m attractive– and then has to work hard to make me believe it.

I’m better, though. There are days I actually think he’s right. And the number of days is increasing.

Advertisement

Sometimes, when I’m out for a walk to clear my head, I see a mother running, a child trailing behind. The mom circles back, just like my own mother once did, to check on the child– then runs forward yet again. The child stares forlornly after their mom, then glances at me. I give them a quick smile they do not process. The kid is focused on their mother’s back, wishing they could catch up. And I don’t have the heart to tell them that they never will– and more importantly, if they’re healthy and happy, they’ll never want to.

This piece originally appeared on Peaceful Dumpling. Republished with permission.

Advertisement

Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. She currently lives in her native Los Angeles with aspirations of moving to France. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative and she currently writes weekly columns for Peaceful Dumpling and ReadItForward. Visit Emily on Instagram and Twitter @LiteraryQueen.

Advertisement

Image via Halfpoint/Shutterstock.

DISCUSSION

vanillabean48
vanillabean48

I can related to this on so many levels, and it's heartbreaking.

I 100% agree that anorexia is like alcoholism; but there's a difference. We need food to survive. We do not need alcohol to survive. Anorexics/bulimics/ED-NOS/compulsive over eaters must find a balance; we must find a way to coexist with food so that it does not take over us. So that the disorder does not become us. It can be a piece of us, it may always be a piece of us, but there has to be a part of us that focuses on self preservation that wins. That desperately tries to find the balance between the irrational and rational thoughts, that finds some level of peace with food, with calories, with wanting, with needing, with accepting that it's okay to need food to survive. That without it we don't survive. If we don't find that place, if we don't allow that survival instinct to kick on, to realize that we are worth it, we become like so many others. Like our mothers, who live half a life, or worse, like those we know from treatment (I went to Renfrew and Wilkin's) that didn't make it. That couldn't find a middle ground; who let the irrational, and let the disorder define and become them.

My mother was anorexic. I never saw her eat. She didn't have an obsession with working out; she just had an obsession with food. With avoiding it. Once I hit puberty I became the next obsession. Every bite of food was too much. She put locks on the cabinets so I couldn't eat. There was a chain lock on the refrigerator, and all of the keys were stored on her key chain and my father's.

As an early teenager and throughout my teenage years I was put on every diet known to man. I popped phen-phen pills (she found some corrupt doctor who would write the script. I popped other herbal pills that accompanied diet instructions such as "eat plain tuna 3x a day". I ran miles late at night. I would cancel plans with my girlfriends because I put on clothes and felt fat, felt like I was just TOO MUCH; and my mother would agree. I would strip off the clothes, don exercise wear, and run and run and run until I couldn't anymore. During high school she would happily pack me a lunch of plain iceberg lettuce - nothing more. And for her, this was normal. For me, it became normal. My father watched but never uttered a word.

In college the disorder became mine. I embraced exercise bulimia. I told people I was too busy studying, devoting hours to the lab, and exercising to waste time eating. I wanted to get into a PhD program and I wanted to be thin: both required discipline. Sheer dedication to discipline. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. My body wouldn't listen. My breaking point was a visit home to my parents; my mother thought I looked fine, but I'll never forget my grandmother trying to spoon feed me meatballs while I hid under the covers.

I finally sought help on my own. My mother never told me I was too thin. She never acknowledged I had an eating disorder. Later in my life, after my breakdown in college, I embraced bulimia because I felt I was able to hide my secret. I could appear normal and happy on the outside, but inside I was torn into a million pieces. I would eat, and not beyond to think anymore until I found a bathroom. "must purge. must purge.mustpurgemustpurgemustpurge" was a mantra that went through my mind non-stop.

I sought therapy. I'm almost 30 now and I've been in therapy since college. I've battled my eating disorders since I was 12 years old; it was puberty, it was the onset of breasts that triggered my mother's focus onto me. She takes no responsibility for what happened to me, but promised to never do it to my sister. And she didn't. I like to think I saved my sister, but who knows, I'm sure she has her own internal battles and food with weight from living with my mother and seeing what transpired between the two of us. She's 10 years younger than me, and I like to think she's stronger. There have been no indicators, but that doesn't mean there's not an underlying current.

Now, my mother and I have an ok relationship. She's still anorexic. She boasts that at 5'9 she's bordering 100lbs. She gained a bit for awhile, and it was her own version of hell. It was hell for her. I don't dwell on what happened between us, on what festered inside of me and what grew at her hands. After years of therapy, I can forgive her for what happened. I wish she could seek treatment for her own issue, but I think for her it's part of a larger set of problems that she faces.

And, while I forgive her, my husband does not. He has a much more time being in her presence than I do. Perhaps because he sees the impact of my childhood on the adult that I have become; perhaps because he thinks that I would be a stronger person without the anorexia, perhaps because of the extra effort that has to go into our marriage because of the years he heard me vomiting after every meal. For all the times he took me to the ER because I overextended myself on a run when I hadn't consumed enough calories. Perhaps because, at times, he feels like he's married to the eating disordered child/adolescent/teenager as opposed to a 30 year old woman. Whatever the reason, or the set of reasons, he is steadfast in his resentment. He's the one who now has to make me feel beautiful; who has to reinforce that I am "okay", that I am not "too much", that I do not "encompass too much space". He has taken on the role of helping me build my self esteem, my security; basic tenets that my parents should have instilled in me from a child. We have been married 6 years (but together on and off for 10), and without him, I'm not sure where I would be today.