How can I eat normally?

I grew up with a bizarre set of family rules about nutrition. Now I'd just like to eat regular food

By Cary Tennis

Published March 7, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I've read your column for years and have finally decided to come to you for advice on an issue that's very painful for me.

I am 32 now. During my childhood and adolescence, my parents had very maladjusted approaches to food and eating. For my father, this is a kind description of his food madness. A few years ago, he ate nothing but soybean flour mixed with water to form gruel for every meal. This sort of obsession with a type of food (if you could call it that) is completely normal for him, and has been happening most of my life. My mother was simply weight-obsessed — she used diet pills and constantly denied herself food, even though she never weighed more than 140 pounds. She didn't deny me food, but constantly made comments about the fact that I should eat less, and denied herself dinner most nights while watching me eat. When we went out, she would binge on food and desserts because she "loved food," and then feel great shame and regret for it later.

My parents divorced when I was 3, and I spent one day a week with my father from when I was 7 until I was 18. During those days with him, my food was severely restricted. One piece of pizza for dinner. One slice of bread for breakfast. Often my father would forget to eat, and there would be no food in the house, so I would likewise go hungry. He would get angry and mock me if I ever asked for food. His motivation (and my mother's — who did feed me normal meals) was generally to restrict my food so I wouldn't become overweight. This was perplexing to me since I was never an overweight child to begin with, and they were both stick-thin.

When I went to college and started to make my own food choices, my weight ballooned to 220 pounds, and over the years it has bounced back and forth between 170 and 250 pounds. My relationship to food is completely broken. From my parents I learned that it was always better not to eat, and I also developed a terrible certainty that I should eat until I was overstuffed, as the food could be taken away from me at any moment.

What I most desperately need your advice on, Cary, is how to deal with the emotional impacts of this history. This set of commandments and fears has been a part of me for so long that my ability to feel emotions around food is deadened. How can I heal myself?  How can I forgive my parents for their flaws and beliefs? How can I learn that the need to eat is not shameful?

This is even more important now because I am pregnant with my first child. I can think of no horror greater than to pass these anxieties and fears on to another innocent mind. I need to find some way out of this cage of food messages, but it feels impenetrable to me.

Any advice you have would be most welcome.

Caught in a Food Web

Dear Caught in a Food Web,

If I were you I would find others who have learned to eat normally and do what they do.

Begin today. Read about normal eating. Read more about normal eating. Read even more about normal eating and get to know some people who are like you and watch what they do. Do what they do. Follow them around. Form relationships with them. Stick close to them.

You might also find a psychotherapist with experience in this area and begin working in that way.

I'm confident that you can change. It may not happen fast but we humans do seem to be able to change our habitual feelings and behaviors in regard to an astonishing array of behaviors and emotions. So it seems reasonable to assume that you can change yours in regard to food.

But you have to do it. It takes action. It might be tempting to simply read about what others have done but my experience has been that reading and thinking about things is rarely enough to change behavior.

So spring into action. Find people who have grown up with unusual teachings about eating and learn how they came to eat normally. Find out what they did. Contact them. Begin to change.

I wish you luck. I feel confident that you can do this. You do not have to live the rest of your life with painful and distorted feelings about food. It will take time but you can change.

Cary Tennis

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