Trigger Warning: This story contains a graphic portrayal of my mother’s struggle with anorexia nervosa. If you are currently struggling, or are recovered, you may find elements of this story triggering. Reader discretion is advised.
I’ll never forget the sound. The painful retching from behind the bathroom door. Most mornings, I would wake up to the sound, as my childhood bedroom was just one wall away from the bathroom. When I was little, I had no concept of bulimia; no concept of throwing up at all, really. I would hear the strangled sounds emanating from the bathroom and panic would swell up inside of me; my mother was in pain, she was hurting. I should rescue her.
I would pound my small fists against the bathroom door, crying. I would ask her what was wrong. I would always ask if she was okay. Her answer was exactly the same every time:
“I’m brushing my teeth.”
This is the first time I remember knowing I was being lied to. At night, I would hold up my toothbrush, inspecting it carefully. First, to attempt to figure out how it could make my mother make those sounds. And second, to make sure it didn’t have blood on it.
Sometimes, in her post-purge haze, my mother would grab my toothbrush instead of hers to clean up. Sometimes, I would go to brush my teeth before school and find that it was already damp and had a peculiar, sour taste.
My mother had suffered from anorexia nervosa since she was a teenager. Without going into too much detail, in order to respect the privacy of many people who are still alive, her childhood was not a good one. After her grandmother passed away, her one true solace in a world of cruelty, her eating disorder appeared. It comforted her. It gave her control. It calmed her frayed nerves. The chemical shifts in her brain made her feel that she could survive. And she did — she held on.
When she was in her early 20s, about the age that I am now, actually, she met my father. He was divorced, quiet, hard working. They got married. She was actively bulimic at this point and had been for about five or six years. I don’t think my father knew, or if he did, he didn’t understand it.
She stopped menstruating shortly thereafter. She was five feet five inches tall and extremely underweight. Her doctor told her she wasn’t going to be able to get pregnant. I don’t think that disappointed her and with her doctor’s blessing, she stopped taking birth control pills.
But she did get pregnant. She gave birth to me when she was 24 years old. After my birth, she was sick. Her body hadn’t been ready to nourish a child when it was hardly nourishing itself. She was worn out. I was a fussy baby with colic who she didn’t understand and struggled to bond with. For the first few weeks of my life, my father was my primary caregiver. I guess it all fell apart when he finally went back to work.
By the time I started school, my mother’s bulimia was a normal part of my life. But as I grew, her focus on my looks and her fears weighed heavily on me. It would take me years to figure out that it was never about me at all.
Anorexia is hardly ever actually about weight
My mother was an addict. There were kids I went to school with whose parents were alcoholics, drug addicts and gamblers. Whatever the poison, these people all had one thing in common with my mother: they needed their fix and would get it, whatever the cost.
Mum was addicted to the “high” she would get from purging whatever food she consumed. Subsequently, she was addicted to the “high” of early starvation. Not everyone will experience this high, but if you do, you know what I’m talking about. Brain chemistry has a lot to do with it, and when that internal systematic flaw meets the right environment, addiction is born.