I Inherited My Anorexic Mother's Fear of Food

If I ate breakfast one day, I wasn't allowed to eat until lunch the next, and then dinner the following. With swollen cheeks, I feared blood on my toothbrush. It never felt as if I got "everything" out.

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Jul 15 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Madison Griffiths.

Every morning, my mom would walk.

Her stride was brisk. Ten laps around the local running track. Our dogs would often lazily collapse in the wet grass and watch her pace, panting contentedly. Once she was done, she'd continue on, walking to the office where she worked, her forehead thick with sweat. And throughout the day, she'd carry on sweating because every morning—before her walk—she'd encase her body in plastic wrap. She would leave it on all day, hidden under her clothes. The plentiful layers would draw out the water weight she so detested.

Come evening, she was a miserable, hungry heap of exhaustion—a fragile woman chewing on the collar of her jacket in front of the television. Her daily diet consisted of a watermelon Gatorade, a packet of soup, and a section of Vegemite toast she'd cut into quarters every morning. I'd usually find the other three sections strewn into the trash.

My mom has always been thin, sporting fine long limbs and razor sharp cheekbones. Illness aside, I've always found something particularly striking about her appearance. In the few framed photographs of her wedding scattered around our family home, she's a delicate 24-year-old vision, lost in a sea of pixelated white. When she married my father—an athlete at the time—he was spending his days sitting in saunas, fasting, and hungrily lusting over anything other than celery.

She lived on a diet of cereal and the occasional Mars Bar while teaching an unhealthy number of aerobics classes at the local gym. It shouldn't have been any surprise when she had a heart attack in her early 20s. Her frail body couldn't handle the pressure.

My mother has always taken a keen interest in other people with eating disorders. Friends of mine who've fallen victim have become particularly close with her. But it would never last. If, at any stage, they started looking thinner than her, she hastily began to ignore them.

Growing up, the channel we'd watch the weather on depended on how hollow-cheeked the weather lady was. The more stomach, the better. My mom once even told my father to ask one of his employees to take leave until she started gaining more weight. She felt terrorized by the competition that existed in the workplace.

When I started losing weight, my mom was the first to notice. She was happy, so long as I stayed anywhere between 119 and 125 pounds. Any smaller, and I was venturing onto her turf. Any larger, and I was astoundingly displeasing to look at.

It was as if my disinterest in food threatened hers. When living under the same roof, there could only be one winner, and this was a game she had perfected for more than 30 years. She'd open packets of chips, place them next to me, and leave the room. I would politely decline them, place them next to her, and walk away. The first to eat a chip was the weakest. When I ate out without her, I binged. I binged relentlessly. I ate whatever I could get my hands on, perhaps as some strange, sick form of rebellion.

Just before I moved out of home, I started seeing a doctor to monitor my weight and my attitude. But still I'd take photographs of my body in front of different mirrors and study them obsessively. My reflection always looked skinnier in the mirror in my bathroom than it did in my mother's wardrobe. Under the stark lighting in there, I was a pale image of stretch marks and bulging lumps.

So I'd play games with myself. If I ate breakfast one day, I wasn't allowed to eat until lunch the next, and then dinner the following. If I broke this cycle, that was fine; it just meant I'd have to purge. With swollen cheeks, I feared blood on my toothbrush. It never felt as if I got "everything" out.

The scales in my mother's bathroom revealed a weight 13 pounds heavier than those in my doctor's office—and those thirteen pounds made all the difference. No matter how dire my doctor's assessments of my health got, Mom's scales were always the ones telling the truth.

For a long time, I tried to be my mom's carer. My mom's mother, if you will. I chased referrals up and tearfully called the doctor's practice she visited regularly, insisting that she was lying about her disease. I wanted to tell them no, you idiots, she isn't suffering from "recent, unexpected weight loss" as a result of an "unidentified cause." She was sharing a bed with a ghastly disorder whispering deadly advice into her ears. One that had been there for three-quarters of her life.

But they were acquainted with a polite, timid woman. They couldn't see the vision of varicose veins who was too frail to even close her car door.

Every so often, when my mom feels particularly weak or controlled by her condition, she'll mutter, "I know I have a problem." It's no secret among our family. She'll say she wishes she had a desire to eat more, to eat at all. Her female friends will make insensitive remarks at her expense. Usually about how "lucky" she is that she remains thin in her mature years. It makes my head spin.

It's impossible to not become frustrated by her illness at times. It frightens me so deeply, and I love her more than anything. I just want her to be OK.

She still mashes up the food I've prepared for her so it's a baffling mixture of indistinguishable color and texture on her plate and pretend to chew. Sometimes, after just two mouthfuls of daal, she'll run to the bathroom with a "sudden desire to vomit."

What's hard to admit though is how often I adopt her tendencies. It's normalized: the calorie-counting notepads, hiding pieces of tofu under salad leaves, scraping food off my plate before anybody has the opportunity to question what has or has not been swallowed.

I've inherited my mother's fear of food, her shame and sadness. I envy her protruding ankles and bone structure. It's important to remind myself that this isn't what defines her—this is her illness. But her illness has developed a personality so real and so undeniably powerful that at times it's sometimes impossible to distinguish the two sometimes.

Just last weekend, in a tight dress, I exclaimed, "I look awful; you can see my bulging stomach." She put her arm around me in a comforting fashion and smiled. "You really are my daughter," she said, laughing.


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