I mentioned in my last post that I spent Easter weekend with my family, and that I had had a pretty good week, recovery-wise, until I went there.
Family is always tough. Visiting your folks is like some sort of twisted time machine – you immediately forget what a capable, mature adult you are, and instantly regress into the persona you wore as a teenager. In our normal, everyday lives, we’re psychologically on trend with midi skirts and fringe, but step into the kitchen of your childhood and mentally you’ve teased your bangs, popped the collar of your polo, and pegged your jeans. I don’t know WHY this happens, but it’s pretty common. It doesn’t make much sense, though – my psychological leg warmers were itchy, and didn’t warm the parts of me that really needed some heat….but in my mind, I’m reaching for them every time.
My childhood was, on the surface, quite tame and non-dramatic. Two parents, married to each other. No drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancies, or arrest records. (Well, there was that one cousin who gave us gossip fodder at family potlucks. But it was pretty minor stuff, relatively speaking.) I have a sister and a brother, and our biggest issues were spending too much time on the phone (sister) and occasionally stretching curfew (me, because my siblings didn’t have one, not because Mom and Dad were unfair, but because my sibs had the sense to come home at a decent hour.)
What is clearest about my childhood (given my issues, it’s pretty obvious) is the dieting dichotomy. We had a dual-food household – meaning, Mom dieted, and Dad did not. We had two of everything in our fridge: real butter and diet margarine, soda and diet soda, Miracle Whip and Light Miracle Whip, whole milk and skim. By middle school, my brother was a bit chubby; and one of his comments was what sent me down the path of messed-up eating. I got a bit too skinny in high school; I suppose, in hindsight, that may have been discussed by the relatives. I remember being called down to the guidance counselor’s office once, and I fed her a complete BS line of eating healthy and exercising, and never got any more flack for starving myself. I also remember being dragged to the doctor once. He very helpfully encouraged me to eat more. My blood pressure at the time was 80/40. (Yeah, I’ll get right on that cheeseburger, doc. Thanks for being clueless so I can continue counting how many Cheerios I can eat today without pesky interference.)
So my brother and I dutifully counted calories and watched our belts all throughout high school. My baby sister, though….well, she was the pretty one. Petite, blond, and blue-eyed, she ate WHATEVER THE HELL SHE WANTED and just did not gain weight. She was a notoriously picky eater, often eschewing our family dinners for a bowl of cereal. As she got older, she’d supplement these meals with Burger King runs, and she drank non-diet soda, and snacked on Fritos dipped in Miracle Whip. (I am totally not kidding here. FRITOS. And MIRACLE WHIP. !!!!!)
Suffice it to say there was significant resentment there. I didn’t help matters much; I found out which boys she had crushes on, and dated them. (Yes, I realize that this makes me a horrible person. I feel bad about this to this day. But if I couldn’t be the pretty one, I could be the fun one, and high school boys were pretty receptive to the funny girl who was forward enough to ask them out. I was just desperate to be pretty, to be acceptable.) The end result is that my sister and I barely spoke for nearly eight years; we didn’t reconnect until I filed for divorce and found my voice and stopped competing/comparing myself with her and got to know both who she was, and who I was. We actually have a pretty solid relationship now, and I’m so thankful for that.
It didn’t occur to me until I tried therapy a few years ago that perhaps my childhood wasn’t as happy as I recalled. The only “benefit” I got from that therapist was the realization that my mom favors my sister over me. Honestly, I think I was happier not knowing this. Because now, every visit is punctuated with that realization. Every slight and favor is highlighted with neon-green clarity. It hurts my heart, and I either eat my feelings or resolve to starve so I can fade away into nothing. This visit, I chose to eat everything in sight, because if Mom made gluten-free Chex mix and sweet potato casserole and peanut brittle, I can show her that I love her best by accepting her offerings, right?
On Sunday mornings, my folks usually go out to breakfast. This is good for my dad, who is recovering from two strokes and a massive heart attack he had in December (he’s doing really well; not quite 100% where he was, but considering he should have died, the fact that he gets up, gets dressed, and works every day is nothing short of miraculous.)
So on Sunday, he was asking Mom when they were going for breakfast. I was awake, as was my son. My daughter and my sister were still asleep. Mom got dressed and ready to go…but as we were getting our shoes on, I found out that she wasn’t going to breakfast, after all. Why? Because she didn’t want to leave my sister alone. My sister, WHO WAS ASLEEP and most likely would STILL be when Mom got back. (Plus, my daughter, who is a champion sleeper, was home too.) But Mom decided she’d rather stay home with my unconscious sister than spend time with me. It is what it is, I guess….but yeah, that stung. My son and I did take my dad out to breakfast, and I cherish that time spent with him, since we really don’t know how much more time we’ll get with him. It was just soured a bit by Mom being really obvious about preferring my sister’s company. (And yes, she WAS still asleep when we got back. Sigh.)
Anyway. Back to childhood. My sister was beautiful in high school. (Let me clarify right here that throughout this, my sister was, and is, and will always be, beautiful. This is more of an outline about weight….and while her weight has changed over the years, her soul has only grown, and she’s a gorgeous person and always will be.) When she went to college, she, like so many of us, gained weight. And, sadly, entered the club of hating her body. I watched her gain the Freshman 15, and a few more. She lost some weight before her wedding, but being married to a guy who loves his food…well, it’s HARD because dudes can eat a LOT and not pack on the pounds. <whine> IT’S NOT FAIIRRRRRRRRRR Her hubby had decided long ago that he was going to enjoy life, and if that meant he was fat, well, then, he was going to be fat. And it’s tough to pick at a salad when the hubs is downing nachos, ya know?
About three years ago, she lost the extra weight. All of it. She now weighs what she did in high school. And she is gorgeous.
The end, right?
Sadly, no. Her struggle with her weight gave her free admission into the “I hate my body” club. And I hate that for her. This is a club that isn’t terribly discerning about accepting members…but once you join, it’s nearly impossible to leave. <cue Hotel California>
I honestly didn’t realize the extent of her struggle until we were driving home on Sunday afternoon. We made a pit stop at Dunkin Donuts, because the kids NEEDED coffee (read: coffee-like drink laden with cream and sugar that is basically dessert in a to-go cup) and a donut (because Dunkin is THE BEST. No Krispy Kreme for this family. Their offerings sit like a wad of lard and concrete in your gut, and who wants to eat something with the name “Krispy Kreme,” anyway? It sounds like something you dropped jelly-side-down onto a dirt floor. Bleck.)
My sister came into the store with me to buy a diet soda. (Don’t we always start out with that sort of good intention?) Once she faced the rack of freshly-baked donuts, she HAD to have one. She made her selection, and then proceeded to put on her verbal boxing gloves and give herself a prize-winning flogging.
I don’t need this. I’ve eaten so much this weekend.
I’m not even hungry.
I’ve gone over my calories for the day and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet.
I can’t keep doing this….the fat will come right back.
And on and on and on. It’s a song I know well; one I have memorized and perform pretty much every time I eat. And, like any well-rehearsed performer, I wanted to sing along. But this wasn’t the part I knew. It was as jarring to me as putting Rhett in a dress and having Scarlett utter “Frankly, my dear….” It was as unnerving as hearing Britney Spears attempting to channel the Rolling Stones. (Don’t click this. Really. It’s bad and there isn’t enough ear bleach to scrub it out.)
But I tried. I parroted to her the things I was used to hearing. Enjoy it and start over tomorrow. You’re beautiful. It’s just a donut, not a statement of your self-worth.
Words I’d heard, but never believed.
Words I firmly believed were true for her….but not for me.
I love my sister. I love her so much that I wish we didn’t have this in common.
I wish there was a hypnotist or a lotion or a hug that would make the self-doubt and hate go away. If they made a pill for this – only one – I’d give it to her with a big glass of water, and I wouldn’t leave until she downed that thing.
No one deserves admission to this version of hell. But after hearing this from her, this thought hasn’t left my mind: Am I causing my husband this much pain when I break out into a chorus of the same song?
I’m trying to be more aware. Trying to censor these thoughts a bit; trying not to share every insecurity out loud. Because maybe it’s not all about me; maybe it tears at the joy of those around me.
Maybe someday, I won’t have these thoughts at all. Maybe I’ll be OK with what I look like, even if that body has been through childbirth and a few too many chocolates and pizzas.
Maybe that gift will come with smaller thighs and a rainbow unicorn.