The funny thing about this post is, I technically should have written it last August. And then I should have written it by last October. And then I should have written it by the end of December.
And then it was January 31, and I finally got the first draft of this post in. I only mention all this because everything in life converges, and I’m pretty sure my deep inability to act during seasons of chaos and stress (which I have been in since last September), is related to “my story with food.” When things are up in the air and undefined, I’m overtaken by the opposing forces of all the things that could or need to happen, and I am gripped by such a sense of distrust in my ability to move the needle, that the forces cancel each other out and I don’t do anything at all. This makes me feel like a huge failure. And if I feel like such a failure who can’t make choices or take action in her life…or can even discern what that action should be…why go to the trouble of feeding her well…or feeding her at all?
My current bout of extreme uncertainty began on August 28th of last year, when I abruptly lost my job. Then, on October 12, I broke two bones in my left ankle and had to have surgery the next week, followed by an initial three months of recovery that left me with a limp to work out on my own even after PT was done.
And through all of this, I had to take care of myself, as a single woman living alone. Had to figure out how to shower. Had to muster enough momentum to keep applying for jobs in order to keep my unemployment benefits. And, had to feed myself.
In the beginning, that last bit was made fairly painless by the ready energy of my very enthusiastic church community. I had barely blinked, and I had a place on ground level to convalesce for a week post-surgery, and then a meal train that sent two weeks of lunches and dinners to my house. The feeling of security and care, without me having to do anything in return, was something I’ve seldom experienced. These people were willing and able to support my life while I could not support it myself, and I was bowled over by their kindness—at times even completely undone to the point of tears. It was like a gap I could never name was finally being filled.
But then, as my recovery progressed and I got better at getting around on one foot + wheels, the immediacy of the external energy supporting me pulled back (as it should have) and my internal feelings of doubt, uncertainty and failure raged back when there was no longer the exuberance of others to outmatch it. I was back on my own with only my wits as an adult, and my cat for company—unless I rallied and forced myself outside and to a coffee shop.
Friends, even in the best of times it sometimes hard for me to care about what food I put in my mouth, let alone taking time to prepare it. But these past few months? Most weeks I’m skirting the edge of complete apathy. There’s been a lot of cheerios and turkey sandwiches, and though I’m really embarrassed to admit it as someone on a limited income… Postmates.
The best I can figure is that one of the ways all the powerlessness I feel in trying to deal with the chaos of life (that is there even without unemployment or broken bones) shows up for me as feeling very ambivalent toward food. I used to think that “ambivalent” was a synonym for “I don’t care;” a mental shoulder shrug. But it actually means having two opposing feelings at the same time… on the one hand, my survival instinct drives me to consume enough calories to keep my body functioning for another day—but on the other, the darker part of me wonders “if I am so crummy at dealing with life, why perpetuate things by (literally) feeding the charade?”
If feeling two strongly opposed internal forces all the time sounds chaotic…well, it is, and brings with it its own sense of being powerless. Which, the more I learn, might be the crux of the whole issue. Learning that you are important and valuable enough on your own merit to feed and care for is one of the most fundamental things a parent can teach a child, and my mother’s relationship with her own feeding and caring was also chaotic and rooted questions about self-worth. Which is probably where I picked up a lot of my own patterns.
A part of me wonders if she even saw herself as worthy of good ingredients or thoughtfully planned meals, or if she was trying to control her internal uncertainty with rigid meal planning. We shopped a lot at places like Grocery Warehouse, or at this place we called “The Bang and Dent,” which I suppose, looking back on it, was some sort of place where factory seconds and food that wasn’t up to display standards went to get sold before it was tossed. I don’t remember being hard up for money, so all I can recall around this were intense feelings of embarrassment and confusion. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have Doritos and Lunchables and Squeezits in my lunch like everybody else at my elementary school instead of whatever “weird” off-brands we’d found that week.
There was a healthy-eating element to it as well that, as I grew up, just left me more and more confused and full of the repressed, self-righteous anger only a middle and high-schooler can have. If I had been told the things I wanted were junk food and were good as treats for sometimes but not for all the time, that would have been one thing. I *think* I would have been ok with that. But I felt a definite, pervasive energy that name brands and junk food were “Wrong,” with a capital W.
But then…sometimes we bought the “Wrong” thing anyway. Or, we could have the “Wrong” thing if it were cheap enough, like buying Hydrox cookies instead of Oreos. Or, we’d go through the drive-thru of our favorite fast food place after errands “because we’ve earned it,” when last week, fast food was verboten. Or, I would be searching for a pot in the kitchen and instead unearth a box of grocery store bakery brownies at the back of a cupboard. I knew it wasn’t my dad’s—his vice was forkfuls of tuna fish packed in oil and dipped in mayonnaise—and so the feelings I never let myself feel would stir: why is she hiding these? There’s no problem with brownies. Why did she buy these for herself when she won’t buy them for us? Does she want them all for herself? She could just say so. Heads were tails, up was down, and the behavior of those I needed to take care of me and wanted to love mystified me, which made me fall apart in sudden rage and sadness at being able to neither understand nor fix it. In a significant way, I think having experiences like these over and over when I was younger taught me that the world was a fundamentally unreliable place, and that while other people might have grown ups to help them figure it out, I had go it alone.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with making healthy food choices, sticking to food budgets, or dietary limitations. Heck, this blog is based on it! But even as a kid, I felt in my bones that something about my mom’s self-worth was expressed in how I saw her act with food—to which my response was my own kid logic to try and help her calm down and “be better” by performing and being as good and uncomplicated as possible. Which of course is impossible: no one can make a person change their behavior—let alone a child up against a full-grown adult.
But that was the task I undertook, and at which, of course, I was setting myself up to fail. Which gave me a belief that I was a failure who couldn’t do anything right, especially the things I care about or the things I felt could rescue me if I could just figure them out. I’ve tended towards overeating most of my life, driven by the twin certainties that “nothing I do will matter, so why not eat the cheeseburger?” and one I’ve only recently become conscious of around “good” food (restaurants, name brands, party food, thoughtfully cooked meals): that I don’t know when I’ll next be able to eat well, so I’d better load up now. And (recent body positivity movements aside), in a world that privileges skinny over heavy, my desire to be invisible for fear of being unmasked as the fraud I still fear I am is supported by giving myself a body type society is set up to ignore.
But for some reason, even after all this, there’s a part of me that still hopes she’s valuable and has gifts to offer the world, and that’s the part that continues to spar with the part that deduced she must be very bad because she couldn’t fix mom. And though that sounds hopeful, it’s the type of hope that tears your soul—there have been many nights when I’ve begged for it to leave me alone and let me live my life of quiet desperation. That’s the true internal ambivalence towards my care and tending I’m only just now—even through the process of writing this essay—coming to terms with.
Luckily, there have been glimmers of light that are making that hope over into something life-giving. Finally understanding the roots of my feelings of futility…experiencing those members of my church take joy in caring for me instead of seeing me as a stressor or something unmanageable…and most crucially, Ashley and Elizabeth’s dinner group. By now, I know enough of recovery to know that my feelings of inadequacy and the dysfunctional eating that comes with them might not ever go away completely. But, being a part of a group of people who come together weekly around a table that is equal and level, where we’re all seen as a valuable presence in our own right, where I have seen that it’s possible to work through conflict without relationship-ruining fallout, has been an experience that continues to “live” me back into the world. The safer and more seen by others I feel I am, no matter my ability, the less I feel like I have to measure up to some standard I fear I’ll fall short of. The more I’m shown I’m valuable, the more I let myself believe it, and the easier it is to pay attention to what I want. Food-wise, it’s easier to both feed myself in a way that will support my energy and health so I can do the things I have been given talent to do, indulge in moderation, and have the internal security to know that, if I’m eating something I really like, it is in my power to get it again if I decide I really want it.
It’s still a journey full of ups and downs, and I fall off the wagon all the time, but for the first time in my life I feel like I might be empowered to actually live, and not just talk about it. And when it gets hard, I know I’ll have friends I can get around a table with, cook some food, and we can work it out together.