It’s a Family Affair

I got a surprise in the mail yesterday.

It was a copy of It Was Me All Along written by Andie Mitchell, “a 32-year-old writer, healthy recipe developer, [and] New York Times bestselling author” (check out her website for more about this amazing gal!).  I had been eagerly waiting this book for a few weeks, and as soon as I got the package in hand, I immediately tore open the wrapping and thumbed through the autobiography with a sense of anticipatory joy.  I started reading last night, and let me tell you…

Dang.

I am only three chapters in to this tale of a young girl who grew up in a household with an alcoholic father (whose temper would rage at a drop of a hat) and a hard-working mother (who was never home because she had to support the family), yet my parasympathetic system is working on overdrive trying to process all of the stories and memories Andie told.

I was outrightly saddened and frustrated and angry and, well, feeling EVERYTHING for Andie as she retold the tales of her life as a little girl.  The portion I just read was from when the author was only eight-years-old all the way to her freshman year of high school.  At that time she was so innocent and didn’t know the complexities of her parents’ relationship or the emotional hurdles both mother and father were dealing with.  To have to go through all that she did at such a young age…it is no wonder that Andie eventually turned to food for comfort and solace and peace.

I haven’t gotten past this beginning section of the text, but I can already picture psychoanalysts reading this book and hypothesizing, “Well, there ya go.  Her parents were not great–that led to And developing an eating disorder.  Substituting food for love–that was their problem and misstep, and look at what learned behavior Andie got from her parents.”

Hmmm.  Don’t you just love how people can make grand generalizations and claims about others even if they don’t truly know all of the details and components to another’s upbringing?  Case in point:  I’ve been to many treatment centers where the clinicians had me conjure up all of the memories from my childhood, looking to poke holes into my parents’ words and actions, all in hopes of finding the cause for me developing anorexia.

Because bad parenting leads to a person getting an eating disorder, right?!  RIGHT?!

Well, not always.

My childhood was actually pretty dang great.  I don’t think I ever saw my father drink beer, wine, or alcohol…and he wasn’t abusive or unemployed or any other title that could insinuate that he was a “bad” father.  My mother was an elementary school teacher who would still find time after school to do homework with me and show me how to make pressed flower greeting cards (she loved doing arts and crafts).

I knew my parents loved me.  A lot.  My mom and dad would tell me so almost every day.  I would go shopping with my mom on weekends and we’d walk around the mall looking at the different tights and puffy-sleeved shirts in the windows of Contempo Casuals and Rave.  My dad coached my soccer team and we’d spend Sunday afternoons practicing dribbling and skills.  They attended each one of my Christmas performances in elementary school and we took family trips to Disneyland almost yearly.  Of course, like any family, we had our squabbles, but there was no physical harm, no verbal abuse, no alcoholic parent or drug usage.

My parents were not horrible parents.  My parents did not cause my eating disorder.

Those with depression or anxiety or any other mental illness go to a doctor for help, and most clinicians already know that there’s something chemical/biological/genetic that is the root cause of the illness.  Some of the psychiatrist I saw, however, glazed over the fact that I may also have some kind of deep rooted biological predisposition to anorexia, and rather than evaluate all possible triggers and factors that led in to the disease, they instead wanted to talk all about how my mother or father were awful parents.

My parents were not awful parents.  But I was told that they must’ve done SOMETHING wrong for me to “turn out like this.”

I can distinctly pinpoint the instance when I told myself that I’d only eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a bowl of cereal for lunch, and then something incredibly “healthy” and small for dinner.  Where did I get that idea from?  Certainly not my mother or father.  My parents never outright told me that I needed to eat “healthy” or watch my weight.  They didn’t use food as a bribe or make me clean my plate before I left the table.  They really had no involvement in me deciding to restrict food and exercise like a fiend.

I can’t say that my relationship with them, their relationship with one another, or our family dynamics were the causes or root of why I became ill.

Those of you that know me also know that my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer the summer before my senior year of high school–coincidentally, that was the time when I developed anorexia.  Aha!!!  The psychiatrists I saw had a field day with this event, citing my mother’s disease as the catalyst for me restricting food.

Were they right?

Maybe there was a hint of me wanting to control an event that I had no ability to manage, and possibly, me only subsisting on vegetables, fruits, and some carbohydrates was my inadvertent way of saying, “HELP ME I AM SAD AND OVERWHELMED AND CAN’T COPE WITH MY MOM BEING SICK!”  If that assumption is true then, how can one explain how even after I was able to grieve and come to terms with my mother’s illness that I myself still stayed ill?  If I talked through and journaled and prayed and released all of the unpacked emotions and feelings surrounding my mother’s diagnosis, why am I still obsessed with food and exercise and restriction twenty-one years later?

My hypothesis?  It’s in my genetic make up.  My illness has more to do with nature versus nurture.  My illness did not develop because of my parents.

Why do I believe this?  Because of the crazy behaviors I exhibited in elementary school and thereafter.  When I was young, I was obsessive-compulsiveness.  Extremely obsessive-compulsive.  At the tender age of eight, I could not leave the house without touching the bathroom light switch 10 times, making sure the bath towels were lined up evenly (and I had to touch those towels at their frayed edges three times as well before leaving the room), turning the kitchen faucets all the way to the right so that they were stuck in the off position, and running up and down the stairs three times.  Also, my mother had to put my hair up half-up/half-down VERY TIGHTLY so that no stray hairs fell out of the rubber band, and then she had to spray it in place so that NOTHING WOULD EVER MOVE.  Doing my hair everyday for school took my poor mom close to fifteen minutes because I’d make her take out the rubber band and re-do the entire style if just one hair was out of place or if the ponytail was not so tight that it pulled my eyes upward in a slant (true story).  My compulsions got so bad my mother told me if I didn’t stop, then I’d have to see a doctor.

It’s pretty evident that before I even knew what a calorie was, I was already exhibiting odd mental health issues.

I know I sound like I’m beating a dead horse, but if eating disorders can be named as one mental illness with the highest mortality rate, shouldn’t doctors be looking beyond the claims that a negative parental relationship could be the sole cause of one getting the illness?  Maybe there are other factors that come into play, like a person’s genetic pre-disposition to the disease?  Maybe there are some other kind of chromosomal abnormalities that precluded one becoming obsessed with restriction/binging/purging?

Why am I so adamant about this subject?  Because I spent the last two decades of my life thinking I was the problem, that my parents were the problem, that I didn’t do enough psychotherapy and reflection and analysis and THOSE were the reasons why I wasn’t truly healed.

For the past twenty years of my life, I felt awful because I didn’t know WHY I couldn’t be healed from anorexia if I supposedly worked through all of my parental issues.  I felt like I wasted time.  I felt inadequate, like I had failed my family, friends, and myself.  I put the blame on myself.

But in reality, I am not awful.  I did not waste time.  I am more than enough and I am not a failure.  God healed the fears and anxieties and sadness and anger I felt surrounding my mother’s illness, and I can now see how he is using this current recovery process to further heal my body, mind and spirit.

Am I upset that I spent so long thinking my family was the problem and the reason why I wasn’t healed?  No.  Because in the end, I know that while my genetics may make me more susceptible to restrictive eating and obsessive thought patterns, I am a pretty strong person who can overcome any obstacle with the strength God gives me.  I know that I love my parents and that they love me–I don’t need any doctor to tell me that.

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