I’m telling you this story in hopes that it helps others who have experienced similar problems with eating or so-called “eating disorders” or have ever experienced anything as I am about to describe. I am also reaching out to any of my blood relatives or anyone who might have interest in my mom’s side of the family, although out of respect for privacy I choose not to call my mom’s mom and dad and her various family members, as I recount her story, by full name. If you are a family member out there, you know who they are because you know who I am.
Much of what I am now telling is, of course, speculation on my part. I am not a historian or researcher. I am a writer and I also have a wild imagination that I enjoy using. I enjoy entertaining. I’m not a fiction writer, though. I write memoir. So while I plan to tell you the truth, I’m going to try to put myself into my mom’s shoes. I’m going to ask myself, “Hey, if I were Mom, what would it have felt like to be her in such circumstances?” and then go from there. Can we agree on this?
You have to realize the unique position I’m in. My mom passed on a trait to me and didn’t even know it, that is, a genetic trait. No, she didn’t do this deliberately. Does a mom pass on hair color or eye color? Sure she does, but not on purpose, as one would give a Chanukah gift. I’m sure all would agree that these things are far from parental control, and aren’t predictable. In fact, we regard these as mysteries as part of the beauty of having kids, that we never really know. We are certainly surprised when lo and behold, a child is the only leftie, or can run unusually fast, or is allergic to peanuts when no one else has ever had this allergy. These are examples out of the top of my head. See, I can be as creative as I want.
The genes my mom passed on combined with the genes my dad passed on and made my genetic makeup, and made my brothers’ genetic makeup, too, and I can’t speak for my brothers right now, but I can speak about what I went through cuz I felt it myself and I remember it and much of it was recorded in my journals over the years.
It’s amazing, when I look back now, how little we knew about my mom. There’s a reason for this. First of all, you’ve got to understand that my dad was in the US Navy in WWII, so my parents were of that era. My mom is going to be 88 this next year, so you figure my dad would be turning 90 in the spring, if he were alive. I hope I’m doing my math right. Parents didn’t share much. Emotional sharing between parents and kids wasn’t the usual, accepted parenting style of that time. Maybe it had to do with the War and the Depression. Not only that, when you got to know my mom, you’d notice that emotional sharing was something she didn’t do often or feel comfortable with. My dad was by far the warmer, more easy-going of the two, but he, too, had a tendency to hold back compared to many of today’s parents who seem to be far more open with their kids. So this is the reason I never really knew much about her past. Even little details seemed a big mystery to me while I was growing up. I had to fill in the details using “what if?” questions and my own imagination, putting myself in her shoes, just as I’m doing for you right now. However, I didn’t have the insight I have at this moment, or, rather, hindsight.
My mom and I look alike. She’s short. I’m short. We both ended up nearsighted. We both have brown hair and blue eyes and we are naturally teensy people that can fit into small places. It’s handy. My mom once admitted to me it was one heck of a lot cheaper shopping in the kids’ department for clothes. You get the idea. I’ve overheard people saying about her, “What a cute little old lady.” I thought that was stereotyping a bit, but I didn’t say anything. She took advantage of being labeled “cute” and got all the discounts. I used to laugh at that one.
But of course, my mom had to endure childhood way back when. I can only imagine. I’m not sure if the gigantic home where I and my brothers and my parents traveled to for Passover each year was the home where my mom grew up. This place was amazing. You’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not sure how many floors it had. Three? Four? Naw, three with a basement. Secret corridors, I’m sure. Was it haunted? Servants’ quarters, too. And all sorts of hidden staircases and creepy-crawly places to hide. Some floors looked like marble checkerboards. If I recall correctly, the dining room where our Seders were held had such a floor. Here, there was a long table where all the cousins and aunts and uncles sat. In one room, my grandpa had a funny tree called a money tree and we weren’t allowed to touch it. My grandma had all kinds of expensive plants and she really did have maids, too. I knew them both and they stayed with her for a long time. One worked more hours than the other. My grandma had fancy soap in the bathroom. I was scared to wash my hands with it because maybe, the fanciness would wash off the soap and my grandma would yell at me.
That was the thing. My grandma yelled a lot. My parents yelled a lot, but you should have heard my grandma. Wow. No wonder my mom yelled…she picked it up from her own parents. Or so my little kid mind figured it all out. I never realized, though, till I was an adult, till I was completely grown…but I’ll be honest: My mom’s parents didn’t like kids. Plain and simple.
It was kinda obvious. My grandpa avoided kids whenever he could. Got away every chance he could get, saying he was doing stocks and bonds, making excuses, saying he had to “study” or “use his breathing machine,” a big emphysema machine he had, or whatever disease it was. He’d hide out and say he didn’t want the kids around. Now, I realize why. He wasn’t into it. What was it like for my mom to live with her dad?
Her mom was a tyrant. She was bossy and mean. I remember my grandma yelling at me once saying that she liked my cousins more than she liked me, simply because my uncle was more strict than my dad. So she said my cousins could stay with her for an entire month and make fancy soap, and she would never, ever allow me, a bad girl, to make fancy soap, and I was a bad girl to allow “those blonde boys who look like Dutch boys” to exist in our Jewish family. And what was I doing associating with non-Jewish friends and why did I not act more Jewish? On and on. My grandma was on a tirade and she wouldn’t stop. The old aunts lectured me, too, about “being more Jewish,” and they guilt-tripped me about everything you could imagine. One told me she would spare my brothers this lecture because of their blonde hair. I was quite relieved because I told myself they were too young to have to endure something this horrible. But I can only imagine my mom must have gone through all this, and ten times worse!
However, my mom was blessed with one, or, rather two wonderful things: sisters. I don’t know this for sure, but my guess is that this was what saved her from completely tearing her hair out. My mom was the middle child. Her older sister had amazing musical talent and her younger sister was, as my mom still says, “the jock.” So my unfortunate mom was the “sandwiched in the middle” girl and my guess is that my grandma was ruthless, but the two sisters were buffer. Yes, my mom was a dancer. No, not ballet. She shocked everyone. Modern dance. Oh yes. Pure rebellion. Consider the era.
Now if my mom was born in 1926, I figure in 1936 she was ten, so in 1942 she was 16. Or maybe it happened at 14 in 1940. I can only guess. It’s what happened to me around the time I was turning 22 in 1980, but I’m sure our experiences were the same, if not biologically identical other than our ages being different and of course it was an entirely different era.
Let’s call it “appetite gone haywire.”
No, not binge eating. Not yet. This certainly wasn’t something that was within the normal scope of “normal” that a teen experiences. It was a genetic glitch. Somewhere, something controlling appetite snapped inside her, and she went wild. Perhaps this was something she only felt, but didn’t act upon, or acted upon momentarily, or maybe she did indeed overeat, but when you feel this, it’s like the eruption of a huge volcano inside you. It’s terrifying.
What could she do? She couldn’t go to her mom or dad and tell them she felt “out of control.” Horrors! She’d get chastised. From what I know, the words she used, she’d been “chubby” as a teen and went on a “diet.”
My mom’s anorexia was her way of controlling the volcano. The thing was, she was very good at dieting. So this volcano, the “appetite gone wild” in adolescence (herself as a teen, me at 22) she passed on, and she also genetically passed on to me the ability to be unusually good at dieting. She confided in me that she didn’t have her periods for two entire years due to “losing too much weight too fast.” So she told me. Once. Folks, I’m positive she had anorexia nervosa, as it is now called, however, she and the people around her certainly didn’t call it that. It was a set of physical traits, or perhaps we could call it appetite and eating traits that can be passed on genetically.
I do know that my mom couldn’t skip a meal. It was “crazy mom” every Yom Kippur till finally, her doc said “no more fasting” and she was relieved of that duty. I believe that a switch was turned on in her when she didn’t eat. She refused to drive on an empty stomach, saying for sure, she’d get into an accident, and also, she’d say she “couldn’t think straight” if she didn’t eat. Don’t tell me this means nothing. I know what starvation high is. That’s why us folks who become anorexic are so good at dieting. We love being hungry. It feels good. This trait is passed on genetically.
I’m also very proud of her that she overcame it on her own. She never had “therapy” and no one called her “mentally ill.” She simply decided it was “unhealthy” and stopped. Eating disorders, which aren’t really disorders, but simply genetic traits or mutations, aren’t mental illness. They aren’t germs, of course, or sicknesses, or maladies. The reason she “got better” was because no one ever complicated the matter by giving her a mental illness label and forcing all kinds of “other diagnoses” on her that she didn’t even have.
Actually, had she known what I know now, she would have even been spared having to do the diet thing and having to go through all the fearfulness and the secrecy and missing her periods for two years and the risks she took. If I knew what I knew now, I would surely have spared myself three-and-a-half decades of immersion into the mental health system and all the bogus mental health diagnoses they gave me. If I’d only known that my “problem” had nothing to do with “mental health.” It’s not “psychological” at all. My mom knew that all along. If you asked her, she sure would have told you that it had to do with eating and appetite. Guess I didn’t ask. Or she didn’t tell.