I am writing you this letter as an anorexic, bulimic, compulsive overeater in recovery. I am writing you this letter as a daughter. I am writing you this letter as a mother.
Dear Mami and Papi,
Remember when you used to go out to dinner or to the movies when I was a kid and I’d write you long, multipage letters, which I’d leave taped to the garage door so you’d find them hanging, undeniably waiting to be read as soon as you arrived home? Now I am writing you this letter as a full-on grownup from my own computer in my own home. I am writing you this letter as the person who is still that sensitive, insecure child. I am writing you this letter as an anorexic, bulimic, compulsive overeater in recovery. I am writing you this letter as a daughter. I am writing you this letter as a mother.
I was eleven years old when I began cutting out pictures from magazines of beautiful people I desperately wanted to be like because I firmly believed that if I was like them, my life would be perfect, that I’d be perfect, that I’d be inarguably lovable. I was eleven years old when I began standing on the edge of the forest green bathtub, naked, so I could look at my full body in the mirror, and tug and pull. I was eleven when I threw my lunches away, furiously wrote down diets in a spiral notebook, when I started to lie, cheat and steal. But I was twelve years old and dozens of pounds lighter before you asked me what was going on, and I was twenty-one years old with my hair falling out and my nails breaking before you really got involved. I was thirty before I was able to admit that eating disorders are family disorders, and that the dynamic in our home, in your home, played a part in my hurt. That it wasn’t all because of some messed up inner wiring in my head. I was thirty-three the last time I relapsed.
I was thirty-five years old when I first became a mom.
And now as a mama to two amazing daughters, tiny humans who are full of fire and emotions and adventures and, yes, also full of too many requests, I fiercely want to parent them another way, especially when it comes to food. But how do you do things a different way when you have limited experience, little practice, and no modeling? The only thing I can think to do is ask questions, the very questions I wish you’d asked me.
Here are the three biggest questions I wish you’d asked me, that I now ask my own children, that I hope parents who’ve had strained relationships with food or who have kids who struggle with their bodies might chew on:
- What does your body need right now?
I ask my kids to feel their own bodies, with their physical senses, and also with their inside scanner. What a powerful question this would have been for me to hear, encouraging me to get to know my own mind, instead of being afraid of my own thoughts, to take stock of my body as if it were a friend, instead of looking at it like an enemy I had to keep a vigilant eye on.
- Close your eyes and check in with your stomach – is it hungry? Is it full? Is it feeling something?
I realize right about now in this piece that I may sound like a whiny middle-aged middle child, still blaming her parents for her pain. I want to push back on this and declare the truth: I don’t blame my parents. They did the best they could. They love me. But that doesn’t mean I got what I needed, and that also doesn’t mean I have to blame myself. It means I had to learn later in life that there are tools, that I could draw, write, punch a pillow, go to a meeting, I could deal with any feelings that came up without turning to food or obsessing over my jean size.
Mom and Dad, I wish you knew that those tools are at your disposal too, but your decisions are not my business. As for my girls, I insist that they have access to healthy coping skills earlier than I did, and for them to feel certain that I will stay in the room with them when they break down, in case they want to share with me (and it’ll be totally okay if they don’t.)
- What can we do, what can this whole family do, to support you?
This is the million dollar question. This is the one I say to my own inner child every day as well as to my kids. To me, it means I understand that we are a team, and that each member of the team is equally important and worth listening to and has input to offer. It means we shape this family we’re a part of, together.
If you need me to define love, Mami and Papi, I’d define it as a willingness to change for somebody else. I’m not insinuating one throw out one’s own needs and opinions and dreams to be somebody’s Frankenstein doll. I am insinuating, however, that when someone you care about lets you know, this bothers me or I need you to hear me/see me, then I think loving them is receiving the information, mixing the feedback into the recipe of your life, and adding a moment to pause and consider it before you act.
You have both told me, since as far back as I can remember you telling me things, that you are too old to change, that you can’t change. And what it made me feel like constantly – which is my own doing, is my side of the street, is how I decided to make sense of things – was that what I needed, what bothered me, was a colossal inconvenience. That I had to change for wanting anyone else to change. That I was the problem.
In your thirties when I was a kid, now in your seventies when I am a grown-ass adult still writing letters to her parents, you have consistently pleaded the fifth. And although I obviously have many rounds of fourth steps to write, I forgive you. I forgive you, and yet, let me tell you something about bulimia: it’s a very active disease where you make an hours-long entire event out of the very simple activity of eating a meal. So suffice to say I cannot stand inertia. There are many things I don’t like about myself but one thing I do like is that I change constantly, with my eyes open, with honest intentions and even enthusiasm.
Doesn’t mean I’m right. I get that change is scary, that it feels like you have an entire life built on the foundation of beliefs you’d have to let go of to shift, and then what? Would everything come crashing down? Would you fall into the earthquake of your collapse? How lucky for you both that you did not have an addiction that made change imperative, forced you to accept it, and challenged you to figure out in real time despite the fear, that change will not kill you. No, it will free you. Maybe I am the fortunate one because I did.
But you still comment on my body. You still talk about lunch and dinner over breakfast, describe the last six meals you’ve eaten in such detail I wonder if we’re talking about art. You still judge other peoples’ bodies in front of me, and discuss my dog’s weight, and joke about the days where all I would eat is mango. That wasn’t a phase in which I was trying to be difficult, that was me trying to disappear so that you could miss me. And so the best I can do is draw boundaries, not rant about you behind your back, not work myself into a tizzy, but draw real lines in the sand about what you can and cannot say to me, to my kids.
Because for my daughters, my precious daughters, I will continue to change. I won’t be able to control what happens to them, and I hate that. I won’t be able to control if they have addiction, if they love or hate their bodies, if they go on dates and enjoy a meal or if they spend the whole time counting fat grams in their head. What a pill to swallow, that I don’t have guarantees. But at the very least I am secure in who I am and what I can survive, in my resilience, which I’ve acquired on my own. The biggest gift I can give my girls then will be to be silent as they hold whatever they hold or ask questions if they’re in the mood to hear my voice and to change as they change, in tandem, witnessing them proving to themselves that they are secure and resilient too.
And because resentment only hurts me, I will continue to hope that you can grow with me, Mami and Papi, not for my sake anymore, but for your own. Say yes, yes to evolving, yes to feeling, yes to me, yes to your grandkids, yes to yourselves, yes to love. Because it’s not a static force, love is motion, morphing always morphing, beautiful and slippery like a whale, and my children are swimming ahead and I’m going to go after them, I’m going to float with them, I’m going to glide through the big blue ocean. And I don’t want to leave you behind. But if I have to, I will, because I won’t leave them, because I won’t leave me.
No matter what, there will always be this note hanging on a garage door by somebody who hopelessly cares about you. Somebody who wakes up every day remembering, as I nudge my own children to get dressed, what it was to wake up to your curls tickling my face, Mami, or your harsh cologne, Papi, as you kissed my forehead before you’d leave for work. And every morning, it still makes me smile.