When I was a teenager, my mother exclaimed to me many times “I just want you to be happy!” Yet she didn’t want that enough to treat me with kindness, respect my boundaries and provide me with a good start in life. No, that statement was so sick and manipulative because it really meant “I just want you to make me happy!” My mother had a toxic sadness; a whole inside her that could never be filled yet she made me feel like I could fill it, that I should try to protect and make her happy somehow, and much of my childhood was spent in this pursuit. But her “happy” moments were naive, manic, and required heavy maintenance from other people. By the time of my adolescence, what she wanted was to live through me by dictating what I should do and feel so that I could conform to her fantasies. My mother entertained many pipe dreams where her children would magically fulfill all her dreams; by using me as a pawn for her projection, she could be distracted from facing her own life.
I remember in 8th grade I took the “late bus” (5pm) home from after school activities one day. When I walked in the door my father told me that my mother had been “worried,” which meant that in the half an hour that she was home before me she was already drunk and her voice was cracked. Looking at her there on the couch gave me a sick feeling deep inside. She had a fear of abandonment after the loss of her father and first husband, and always made me and my siblings responsible for that fear. Despite the fact that she constantly abandoned and neglected me, chose her sick emotions over my needs and feelings, she acted like I was going to “abandon” her. She could have called the principles office and asked if I was on the roster of students staying after school that day, but instead she got drunk and put all of it onto me. I couldn’t handle that.
My mother later laughed that she was always crying into my birthday dinner, supposedly on account of her favorite football team losing every year around that time. But that’s a perfect metaphor, as she cooked her depression, insecurity and emotional volatility into my food, but then I was expected to eat it and become happy. When in fact what I became was a dissociated vessel for all of her off cast emotions, desires, and needs. I ate and ate, but felt nothing, and was praised as a “good eater” by my mother for keeping up her illusions. My mother foisted this idea on me, teaching me very directly that happiness could be reached by food. But food can’t really do that. As I discovered through the years of my eating disorder, food can only act as a temporary distraction from the emptiness inside, and in a few hours more is needed. If I’m not having a good time, not feeling fulfilled, balanced, or experiencing healthy relationships in my life, then my emotions will be volatile and everything will be temporary.
I recently saw on the website for an inpatient clinic for people with eating disorders, the statement in bold “Eating disorders result from genes and, are not the fault of the parents!” In response I have to ask: How do you know? When my mother molested me as a child, she pushed food on me directly afterwards to “comfort me,” (but actually comfort herself and alleviate her guilt) and thus I can say with absolute certainty that my eating disorder was the fault of her actions. All of the people I’ve known who have an eating disorder have also not simply suffered from an aberrant gene, but great trauma and abuse, often at the hands of their parents, the ones who may show up to clinics wringing their hands contritely but not willing to see reality or take responsibility for what they really did do. There is so much wrong with the fact that clinicians would feel more of an obligation to protect the parents of their patients, and I have to wonder how many crimes are conveniently covered up by such notions. And how many people never get anywhere in recovery because their story is drowned in a sea of guilt and denial.
Celebrating with food only works if there is something to celebrate, if the focus can be on that other thing, not just on the food. And in my family there was nothing to celebrate, only abuse, depression, alcoholism, and there was nothing to talk about at the table because there was no real intimacy, close relationships, or mutual respect. So at holiday meals the food came first and we would unconditionally say how good the food was, and then the next night the meal would be rehashed, dry and tasteless from the microwave for an even more miserable dinner, where no one dressed, lit candles, and my parents didn’t feel any obligation to refrain from yelling at us. Thus in the last years of my living at home, my mother would pressure me to “eat what everyone else is eating,” because “I want you to be happy!” And somehow her disrupting my attempt to recover from my eating disorder by eating healthy foods that I wasn’t allergic to and wouldn’t trigger me to binge was going to make me happy.
She insisted that if I ate an amazing kale salad with all sorts of vegetables, seaweed, almonds and coconut oil: “We’d all just sit there and not say anything!” But when I relapsed and stressed myself out to make a more ‘vegan gourmet’ meal to please her, that was still the outcome, and I was none the happier. She did this again the first year I moved out, by sending me a check so I could have some “good food” (read: food that I your mother like, not healthy food that you like and will help your attempts to recover and/or manage your eating disorder) for thanksgiving. When she emailed me to follow up on this and I told her that I got some chickpea miso and great organic vegetables with the money, she never responded. That wasn’t “good enough” and apparently she was disappointed at not seeing the results of injecting her crazy-making into my eating disorder first-hand, because that was the end of that.
When I cut my mother off for the final time, suddenly I gained a sensation in my stomach that told me I was full after eating a normal amount of food. It was no miracle that after having an endless appetite for nearly two decades I was able to stop. This was my body’s rejoicing that the monster and her entire twisted web of lies, demands, and aborted needs was finally gone! I could breathe again, and didn’t have to eat to please anyone else. It wasn’t the end of my healing path, but a way forward to self- understanding and finding my own way. I don’t invest in the word “happy,” but pay attention to what I can do to meet my needs and feel good, feel inspired, interested, open and attracted to life. That’s much better then the toxic emotional ideals and shallow fantasies I had thrown at me as a child.
Today I realize that food doesn’t make me happy. That is not to say that I don’t like good, healthy food when I’m not relapsing, I do, but it’s not the focal point of my day and it doesn’t have to act as a chemical stimulant to change my mood or state of mind anymore. I don’t eat it to escape something, because I feel good and there’s nothing to escape. Many external things such as self-care can and do effect the way I feel about myself. But I’m very aware that my healing has to be both internal and external for it work, which isn’t a problem for me. I can face and process my true emotions. Unlike my mother, I don’t need endless fantasies where my life is somehow completely different. They would get in the way of the more amazing potential that I actually do have.
I know today that my mother didn’t want me to be content in life. In addition to her abuse, she made herself into a cynical, miserable voice throughout my childhood, putting me and everything that I genuinely enjoyed down. She was often jealous if I was in a good mood, especially if it was from having a good time with someone else. She worked hard to cast a bad light on many of the things that meant the most to me in the world.
Meanwhile, my mother’s face might brighten up for five minutes if I made the right gift or gesture, but it wouldn’t last. There was no way for me or anyone else to ever make her happy, despite her constant demands. I was not her therapist, I didn’t deserve that burden, and moreover I see today that she didn’t deserve to be happy after all that she did. She had her chance long before I was born to seek out healing and choose a different life, but she didn’t go that way and today she will never be healthy. She is an alcoholic pedophile, child sex trafficker, and child pornographer. A deeply sick, ugly person with so many non-integrated sides to her toxic personality. I don’t care if my ex-mother is happy or about what she wants anymore. It is not my responsibility to protect her unstable feelings or help her face life. I have myself, and I am good enough for me.