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What is the source of the pain we numb & avoid with food?

Hands holding junk foodEven before we’re born, we are part of a complex, ever-changing organism: our family. Either through their presence or absence, they play a significant role in who we are and how we make our way in the world.

Most parents do the best they can but regardless, many of us are nursing a lot of unhealed hurts. One of the most important milestones in a WISE group is an exercise in which participants look back at their childhood and its influence on their lives today:

Catherine is a 50 year old financial analyst of European descent. She has twin boys, 18 years old, and has been married for 20 years.

My mom is a very proud woman who was a homemaker but also worked as a secretary for my dad’s business (logistics company). She had definite ideas about what foods you should and shouldn’t eat, or mix together, as well as their supposed health benefits and I grew up with some peculiar food preferences. She didn’t yell at us or overtly criticize us but I always felt I wasn’t living up to her expectations…I think it was tied to the fact that she was not very affectionate and didn’t talk (or encourage talk) about feelings and emotions. I remember when my grandmother died, she didn’t shed a tear. But a week later I found her crying and it struck me because I had never seen my mother cry. She died three years ago from kidney failure.

My dad was born in a rural area of Croatia but after the war, his family moved to a large city. Now in a cramped apartment, my dad was sent to boarding school for 8 years and it really affected him. Although I remember him as loving, he could also be critical and demanding. He was a self-made man (he owns a company with 40 employees) and often thought me and my siblings were lazy. This made me very determined and career-focused and I always wanted to please him. When I started to put weight on in my late teens, he was very critical. He died 6 months after my mom of a heart attack - I think he was lost without my mother. I never heard them argue.

We were four children: three brothers and me – I am the third born. Two of my siblings are now dead (see below). My first memory (I was three) is going to the hospital to see my little brother when he was born; for some reason, I felt that it was my job to take care of him – he was like a little doll for me to play with.
I began having weight issues in my late teens. I had quit sports (I was on the school volleyball and softball teams) and had been dumped by my boyfriend of 2 years. I had no idea what I wanted to do but my dad was pressing me to take the science prerequisites so that I had “options”, which I didn’t want to do. It was a tense time.
Around the same time, I remember feeling completely lost…and that no one really understood the “real me”. But I continued to be the peacemaker, always reminding siblings of family birthdays, patching up little disputes, telling little white lies – we were a big family with a lot of personalities and this became my role.

Two of my brothers have died in the past ten years. They were both severely depressed; one died of a heart attack and one accidently (?) took too many pain pills (he had been disabled in a construction accident.) I was taking care of both of them at one point or another and had lent them money, taken them in, drove them to medical appointments. Each death was like a little part of me died (and that I’d failed) – I gained more weight with each funeral. My husband (a carbon copy of my father) was not supportive of my time with my family (they never liked him) and blames me and them for “letting myself go”. I feel miserable and lonely and see that I am over-involved in my son’s lives to compensate for the loss of my family. I still feel as lost as I did in my early teens.
The link between my childhood and being overweight is that I basically traded one difficult situation for another. Being criticized is very familiar to me and I see now that it is something I put up with because I think it’s normal. I am also still driven by the same feeling I had when my brother was born: not only is it up to me to take care of the family, it is my obligation to the exclusion of my needs. But instead of being happy about this, I am angry, exhausted and stressed and find relief in front of the TV at midnight with a bag of popcorn or chips.

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