By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
My husband’s entire family has always been thin. Growing up, no one was interested in noshing, and no one seemed to care too much about eating either. Jon to this day is a person who eats to live. My family and I live to eat. Both of my parents are morbidly obese, and my siblings vary in degrees of obesity. My mother was always cooking and baking; in retrospect, I see that she was virtually force-feeding us.
Memories of my father include him half-jokingly concerned that there wasn’t enough food for dinner. I have always been turned off by their relationship with food. As a young child, I was ashamed to have friends over because of the sheer amount of food in my house and the gluttonous way my family ate at meals. The heavy chewing and my father’s greasy hands and stained face are reasons to this day that I can’t sit down to eat with them. In my teens, I completely stopped bringing people over.
I was very heavy as a child and young teenager, but in my later teen years I babysat to pay a nutritionist and took off a lot of weight. But my parents did everything to sabotage my path to a healthier lifestyle, always offering me unhealthy food choices and making me feel bad when I didn’t eat the food my mother had slaved over. As I lost the weight, I never got a compliment, only comments regarding how different I looked from everyone else or that I was a “bag of bones” at a healthy size 12.
My entire life I’ve been struggling to keep the weight off. I can gain and lose 30 pounds in a month. I feel like a sick person forever managing a chronic illness. When I am thin, I feel like an impostor; when I am heavier, I feel disgusting and want to hide.
Tragically, in recent years I have stopped spending holidays and Shabbosos with my parents. It became too difficult with my parents criticizing the way I feed my children, or telling them they are too thin. Being with Jon’s family is not easy either, because I feel like they are watching me when I eat. I am not happy anywhere. I am so angry with my family for not taking care of themselves. I wait for the phone call that one of them has had a heart attack.
My parents are getting older and they have health issues. I am torn up inside because I want to show them respect and be a family, but I am too angry. My options are to tell them for the umpteenth time about my concerns, or sit by and watch them eat as if their lives depended on it. By the way, my husband hates when they come over because I am full of anxiety and on the warpath. Do I just accept them for who they are, exposing myself and my children to the gluttony? Should I stay away and just have a civil, distant relationship? I don’t know anymore.
Dear Heavy Hearted,
Before we get to the “shoulds” and focus on the path you will take, I would like to reflect a few thoughts that came to mind as I read and reread your letter. Your commitment to a healthier lifestyle as a young girl is nothing short of remarkable. I do not know you or your family, but from your letter I feel there is a systemic food addiction. Food addiction, also referred to as compulsive overeating, is characterized by some of the following: binge eating; feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, or depression; obsessing over the “who, what, when, and where” of eating; weight fluctuation; and low self-esteem. I came across a common saying shared amongst members of Overeaters Anonymous, to the effect that for a drug addict to recover, he needs to lock the tiger in a cage; for an overeater to recover, he needs to lock the tiger in a cage but take it out three times a day for a walk. A food addict’s drug of choice is everywhere, and it is necessary for survival. This makes food addiction different from all others.
The commitment you made as a teenager to not only change the way you eat but essentially break away from the pack and risk being the “black sheep” of the family must have taken tremendous courage and persistence. I imagine you went food shopping, chopped your vegetables, and cooked your own food. Some may think, “Big deal. Her family was obese and she made a good choice. Kids should be taking care of themselves anyway at that age.” With food addiction, as with drug and gambling addictions, if it were as simple as just stopping, everyone would! Very often people ignore, don’t understand, or deny the emotional component of addiction. The addict uses his drug of choice (drugs, food, gambling, etc.) to escape or avoid unpleasant feelings or a painful reality, and in the moment this method of emotion management works. The chink in the armor is that the side effects can be detrimental or fatal.
I can feel the burden of your current struggle so poignantly. The commonly occurring scene from your youth in which your father is voraciously and gluttonously eating his meals sits with you and weighs heavily on your heart. You feel as though your parents attempted to derail you from choosing a healthy lifestyle. Heavy Hearted, you may even understand that your family’s attempts at sabotage were not plotted but that they simply did not know any better. Even with that knowledge, you still may be left feeling like roadkill.
You can’t seem to put it to bed, perhaps in part because the problem is alive and well. It seems you have tried talking to your parents many times about their lifestyle and possible health consequences. You desperately want to have a strong family unit, not only for yourself but for your children as well. Exposing the children to your parents poses its own set of threats. Additionally, you are not comfortable in your own skin. You feel different from your own family, and not really “one of them” in Jon’s family. Perhaps you feel you are being watched or judged when you go for a second piece of challah, or concerned when you show up to a family function 30 pounds heavier.
You are not in an easy spot. I almost sense that the lens through which you perceive your own self-worth and your familial relationships is wrapped up in the emotional struggles from your childhood, which hid themselves behind the family’s food addiction. To this day, no one acknowledges the addiction, let alone the emotions they are avoiding. Watching this unfold, you want to bang your head against the wall and scream from the rooftops: “This is sick! Get help!” You have screamed, but they don’t want your help. The truth is, you really can’t help a person who doesn’t want to be helped.
The anger you feel towards your family is completely understandable. I think that learning more about your anger may be a worthwhile pursuit. Are you angry because your hands are tied and you can’t help? Anger is great defense. I think of it as a great big tower built around a precious, delicate gem. Anger keeps us safe from our own uncomfortable vulnerabilities like sadness, fear, and lonesomeness that we don’t want to share with anyone. Some of us don’t even realize we are busy protecting the delicate gem.
You need to do some soul-searching and begin to process your own feelings. You have not yet given yourself the permission to love yourself, your body—all of you, with your food issues—and believe “I’m OK.” Before you contemplate accepting or rejecting your family, you have to contemplate whether you accept or reject yourself. Are you just as worthy of your own and others’ love when 30 pounds heavier as when lighter?
A practical suggestion while you possibly begin your journey: If you are not ready to completely dismiss your family from your life, can you meet up with your parents in an environment isolated from food? Would you feel comfortable spending an hour in a park? Would you consider inviting your mother along with you for a quick purchase or return to a store? In no way is this a solution to your complicated family dynamic, but it might serve as a band-aid while you begin to do the real work. You may want to consider inviting a therapist along with you on your journey if you cannot do it alone. I would also recommend joining a support group, such as Overeaters Anonymous, where you can meet others with similar experiences and feelings. Often, finding one person who “gets it” can be healing and reparative. I wish you peace of mind and contentment in the new year. I hope you find the answers you are looking for.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.