Anorexia

Starving for Approval: Anorexia and the Mother Shadow

Mother and Child,  Mary Cassatt, 1897

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt, 1897

Originally posted February 7, 2012

View this article at elephantjournal.com

To-day's your natal day;

    Sweet flowers I bring:

Mother, accept, I pray

    My offering.

 

And may you happy live,

    And long us bless;

Receiving as you give

    Great happiness.

--To My Mother, 

Christina Rossetti

Ask any anorexic who has a shred of consciousness around his/her behavior and 99% of them will say “It’s not about the food.” And as much as it’s “not about the food,” it’s also not about the models in the magazines, the actresses on the TV or the media. Sorry to blow your cover, finger-pointers, but I am done using the media as my scapegoat.

Yes, I agree that a lot of the images shown are heavily photoshopped and are idealized versions of beauty that no one could possibly attain. I also agree that many of the images (especially of women) are dismissive at best (like when she plays the one-dimensional “love object” to a male protagonist) or deeply damaging at worst (like when she is a glorified corpse for abuse and rape).

But as difficult as it is to admit, they are giving us exactly that for which we are asking.

Honestly, how many times have you and I looked at the TV and said (or at least thought):

“How old is she?!”

“Check out that plastic surgery!”

“He has gained some weight!”

“Ugh! What a slut!”

We, inside our own personal psyches, have an internal war of judgment and hatred that is then reflected in the cultural ideals with which we are surrounded. And then that judgment is projected when we see something as “ugly” (that fat whore really needs to just give it up) OR when we see someone “beautiful” (she only got that role because she was fucking the director. Give that skinny bitch a hamburger!).

How can anyone possibly win when everything around us is a mirror of our own self-doubt and fear?

We as a society are all walking around starving for approval and are too full of pride to admit just how much we want it. This approval somehow validates our right to exist in the world, but it is a temporary salve—a fast-food, quick fix so that we don’t have to face the deeper hunger within.

For me, anorexia is the quick fix. For example:

1. It keeps my body small and childlike, so I get to have the concerned attention of those around me, rather than overtly admitting my desire and risking rejection.

2. It keeps my ovaries and pelvis frozen, so as not to run the risk of pregnancy (because that would require a level of responsibility that I could never handle).

3. It dulls out the hunger within. This way, I don’t have to face how greedy I am and thus won’t feel the shame that comes with admitting that I haven’t done the work to know what I want. Or oftentimes I know exactly what I want, but expressing that comes with a high price, usually in the form of people’s judgments (which is humiliating and hits my vanity in a deep way): “Are you sure that’s what you want?” “That sounds way out there.” “You just like the attention.” “LA is just not your kind of town.” “Is that really for the greater good?” “Be reasonable.” “Save some for the rest of us.” “You’re not ready for that yet.”

4. It keeps my world organized and sane—all I have to do is be the good girl and get the good grades and be president of all the clubs and eat the good foods and avoid the bad ones and then I will be liked and will have earned some sort of credit in your world and you will allow me to stay with you for another day (yeah, that one’s really warped, ain’t it?).

In my case, this hunger for approval shows up strongly in what I call my “Mother Shadow.” Caroline Myss talks about different variations of the Mother archetype, but the overarching one that every woman has inside of her is the nurturing, loving caretaker. Yes, every woman has this archetype in her. We are biologically wired to house and nourish life: breasts, hips, vagina, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, estrogen—the whole lot. Now of course, not every woman expresses this energy through giving birth to physical children. Some women are doctors, some found charities, some are community leaders, some save orphaned kittens. It doesn’t matter how this energy is expressed, but that it is acknowledged, integrated and given an outlet.  

What makes this energy a “shadow” for me is that somewhere down the line I have chosen to reject it. For quite some time I have had an intense phobia of getting pregnant—like, my life was going to end if that ever happened to me. I have also focused very heavily on being a “career” woman—someone so driven by her oh-so-important life purpose, that I didn’t have time for that weak stuff. And I will also admit that there is a residual shame leftover from the feminist movement that if I showed any signs of domesticity, I was not in favor of women’s rights.

Now, I may get in a lot of trouble for saying this, but well…it’s my blog, so fuck it. While I am extremely grateful for the women’s movement and for what it did to bring to light the gender inequalities within society, I think it did a disservice to the deeper feminine energies within us. It taught us how to act like men—or rather, provide us with the false sense of masculinity that parades this planet as being “in one’s power.” Goal-driven, unwavering, never showing emotion, working non-stop, constantly producing, going up, up, up.

This particular flavor of nurturing Mother energy needs the soft, quiet receptivity of moment to moment connection and intimacy. This is at the heart of what we are missing within our culture and the very thing for which we are starving.

I was all good at being seen as Kali. Or the Bitch, the Whore, the Sex Queen or any other kind of wild and destructive feminine archetypes. But since I had rejected the Mother within me, I had to find secret ways to “sneak” her into my life (for that is how a shadow works—if you deny it in the conscious mind or body, the unconscious will find ways to get a hit through the back door, whether you like it or not). So, like a drug addict or an anorexic who has her once-a-week-secret-cookie fix, I would seek out the constant approval of women I considered to be authorities to me. Teachers, leaders, mentors, family members, even my own mother. I was morphing myself, moment by moment, into this person that would be likeable and loveable enough to receive the momentary nourishment of a Mother’s love.

Of course the problem with that is, somewhere down the line, I forgot who I was. My validation became a search of some feminine external, rather than the integrated feminine within myself. And so when I would slip up and my cover was blown, I revealed myself to be someone altogether different that who I pretended to be. It almost felt like an act of betrayal to those I loved, and most importantly, to myself.

I thank the Universe for my anorexia. Some may say “Oh my God! If only we had known then we could have prevented this from happening to her.” But what you are missing that anorexia is not the cause of my pain, but a warning signal that some other thing in my life is out of alignment—that I am not living authentically in my skin. To use the analogy of putting your hand on a hot stove, the anorexia is not the hot stove itself, causing the burn. The anorexia is the bundle of pain receptors sending messages to my brain saying, “Take your hand off this stove before you kill yourself!”

And so, here I am. In San Fran-Fucking-Cisco (of all the most random of places), facing the fertile Mother within me and learning to love her deeply. To expose my hunger and embrace the possibility of getting full and fat and pregnant with energy and giving birth to something. Receiving love, in all its forms, and knowing that I don’t have to produce anything in return or have all the answers. Redefining what success is for me and cultivating an unbearable amount of gentle patience with myself as I learn to take responsibility for my life. And to answer the most dangerous question of all—the one that may have me spinning in circles for lifetimes to unveil.

It’s a question we all have, really. We spend millions of dollars every year on gym memberships, guru books, self-help workshops, therapy sessions and calls to the psychic friends network in the hopes that someone will give us the quick answer. OR we spend billions on porn, alcohol, television, cigarettes, shopping, sugar and empty-calorie sex so that we can numb or distract ourselves to point where we don’t hear this question lurking in our basement anymore.

It’s time to turn on the lights. My shadows are quickly exposing themselves. And when the anorexia comes around again, I will get down on my knees and give thanks—for then I will know another rejected piece of me is waiting just behind that veil of fear. And in meeting her, I will have come one layer closer towards answering that ultimate question: Who am I?

Ketchup on Eggs: An Anorexic Gives Up Her Game

Originally posted December 15, 2011

"If you are a turned on woman, you are a special woman, and have likely paid for it--that very thing that has made you too much to handle, a little different, that makes you feel like your wants are too big--that thing that has been used against you, your huge appetite, is your power. It is not there to be fought or beaten down, it is there to be well fed!"--Nicole Daedone, from her post "Turned On Woman"
 

I’ve been in San Francisco for eight weeks now. Since coming here, I haven’t had my period. A spot here or there, but nothing more. This is always a red flag for me that the anorexia is back. Or at least my stress levels are up. And I feel a deep amount of shame when I miss my period. It’s a brutal reminder that I am somehow “less than a woman.” I am not a “normal, healthy, mature, sexual being.” I’m sick. A lost cause. Broken. Wounded. Irreparable beyond all measure (apparently with the anorexia also comes the drama queen).

And I have to admit, for the past few months, the voices have been coming back stronger. And very seductive. They tell me that if I am going to be successful in LA, I have to look the part. And that part is of a thin, well-dressed, sophisticated, powerful woman. And anything less than that is simply unacceptable. They tell me that going down just one more pants size will really put me in the competition. They tell me that eating too many carbs/fruit/meat/fat/sugar/fill-in-the-blank will leave me bloated and fat and undesirable. And even more frightening is they know how to hit me where it really hurts. They tell me that if I am not successful in LA, then I have failed my mission on this planet. That all the people who invested in my being here will be disappointed. I will have let them down. Failed them. And then everyone will be wondering how could someone with so much potential end up just a nobody on this planet.

It goes beyond simple vanity. This is my life purpose we are talking about. And anything that feels beyond my control leaves me paralyzed in fear—I mean literally, frozen in a life-or-death struggle in sheer terror. So I reach for the one thing that I can control.

The food.

I recently had lunch with a friend. I had an omelet with salad. He had a fat, juicy burger. And there was a part of me that didn’t want to show him how hungry I was. I also didn’t want to show him how low-brow I could go by dumping about 1/3 of a cup of ketchup all over my eggs. Like somehow I was exposed and my dirty little secret was out. A refined woman should be content with salad and eggs and should leave about a third of the food on her plate. She should use only the finest quality ingredients, not go slumming with Mr. Heinz. And she should take very small bites, take the time to chew thoroughly, never use her fingers and never, ever lick the plate clean.

And yet, everything in me wanted to dump a mound of ketchup on that plate, use my hands to shove it in, over-salt and over-oil everything, lick up the scraps from my dish—and then polish off his burger too.

And this raw, deep hunger leaves me so crippled, that I will go to extreme lengths to manage it so that it never sees the light of day.

This whole internal exchange lasts about 5 seconds. My eating disorder is rather sophisticated at this point, so it looks completely effortless as I gently pick up my fork and take a small bite, lightly dipping it in the tablespoon amount of ketchup I have neatly dolloped on the edge of my plate.

As the conversation continues, my friend makes an admission to me that he has been smoking for the past few months and that he has a whole routine he has in order to hide the secret. My ears perked up. I wanted access to his taboo little world.

“Give up the game,” I told him. “Tell me your routine. Tell me how well you hide your shame. Tell me about how you feel each time you get away with it.”

He smiled. His face got a little red. The balloon of orgasm swelled between us and we shifted a little closer to each other. Then he started to tell me about the certain clothes that he wears. The place around the corner he walks to smoke. The tree he hides behind. The place where he keeps his cigarettes hidden. The concomitant feelings of shame and euphoria that come when he doesn’t get caught. The backup plan he has should someone catch him off guard.

I felt so close to him in that moment—and profoundly grateful that he trusted me, that I gave up one little secret of my own. I told him that I felt a little shameful putting ketchup on my eggs. That somehow, this was a marker of how low and dirty I was. That I hesitated in doing it, and in fact put less on my plate than what I actually desired. He quietly took that in, with only a slight uplift of the corner of his mouth to give away his amusement.

Now I am here. The controlling has gotten worse since the huge change from NYC to SF. And now with the desire to move to LA coming on (with a projected date of April 1 in sight), I feel the fear deep within my core. I feel how utterly helpless I am. I feel like a liability on anyone who comes within 20 feet of me. I feel like I flash bright and exciting in the first few seconds, but when people see the dirt under the shine, they run away in terror and anger that I sold them a false bill of goods. A human “bait-and-switch” if you will.

I started my first diet when I was 19. Atkins. All hamburgers and cheese and bacon for two weeks. It was pretty miserable, but it started a new way of relating to food that has continued to torture me for the past 12 years. It’s an enemy. One that must be vanquished every day. And the less I put into my body, the more superior I feel. The more “together” I think my life is.

I was in NYC when 9/11 happened. 4 days after I turned 21. Quite a traumatic experience for a girl coming into her womanhood. And instead of fully feeling the fear, I hid it in my body and pushed on, using work and relationships to cover up the fact that I felt so frightened and out of control.

I had 3 months of counseling the beginning of 2003, but since then, all the work I have done has been on my own. Co-writing a play about my experiences has helped. Getting coaching has helped. Practicing Orgasmic Meditation has helped. Yoga teaching has helped. Raising $1000 for the National Eating Disorder Association has helped.

But it keeps coming back. Subtle. Convincing. And it just feels so goddamed good each time I make it through another meal without those weak fuckers knowing just how slick I have been. How I avoided eating the “wrong” foods. How I ate even less than them. How little I need and yet I can still top them all.

Except I can’t anymore. I am getting sloppy. Tired. And living in a community with 50 pairs of eyes always around me and other people cooking my food has left me scrambling to adapt my game. But I can’t hide it anymore. I don’t want to. It’s a cold, hard, painful place to live. It’s a second job. Managing your food. Managing your fear. Managing the hungry shadows that bark louder and louder each time my Orgasmic Meditation partner puts his finger on my clit or a steak is put on my plate.

So here I am openly admitting that I am not recovered. Recovering. But not recovered. Perhaps I went into a bit of remission. Sure, since 2009 I have gained 15 pounds. I am no longer playing the how-close-to-under-a-hundred-pounds-can-I-get game. And though that may seem like “progress”, there is still a powerful anorexic inhabiting my mind—and the closer she gets to getting everything she wants, the harder she plays. The stricter her rules become.

The self-sabotaging, anorexic girl needs to stop. Or I at least need to make friends with her. So I have started seeing a nutritional counselor. It’s embarrassing for me to admit that I need help. That I am powerless to handle it on my own. That I am not really an inspiring leader to help others in their process of transformation, but just a tired, hungry woman with a lot of issues. But there you are. My little admission.

And in the spirit of full disclosure, I am writing this down for the world to read. Yes, I am giving up my game. Maybe a healthy dose of vulnerability will disarm the power the anorexic girl wields over me and then we can sit down together for a cup of tea.

  1. I eat by myself as often as possible. Pretty obvious, but this keeps anyone from feeling my hunger and watching me in my weakest moments of giving in to eating. It also keeps the annoying questions to a minimum (Is that all you are eating? What is that? Can I have a bite? Why don’t you eat meat? Want some of mine?)
  2. I prepare all my own meals. Again, obvious. It allows me to know exactly how many calories are in it and ensures that “safe” foods are only included.
  3. If I have to go out to eat, I try to go to a place that has some sort of “serve-yourself” buffet line. This way I can control what goes on my plate and portion sizes.
  4. I restrict certain foods from my diet in the name of health or personal intolerance.And the beauty of this one is that I can easily get away with it in our culture. We all know that we shouldn’t eat McDonald’s or sugar or too many carbs. Because Oprah/Vogue/Morgan Spurlock/my yoga teacher tell us so. So if I tell you that I can’t eat “that” because it has meat/soy/gluten/dairy/white carbs/sugar/non-organic/GMO products, you will completely understand, give me a free-meal pass, and no one will be the wiser.
  5. If I have to go out to a restaurant, I look at the menu online ahead of time and decide how I will mix-n-match my meals to include only acceptable foods. This way I won’t fumble in front of other people and give up my game. What’s even better is when I can call the restaurant in advance and find out what substitutions they will allow me to do.
  6. Since I live with other people, I hide the “good” foods to the back of the fridge and put the bad ones out front. This way everyone else will eat the “bad” food and the “good” will be leftover for my meals. Even better is when I can set the “good” food to the side somewhere, with my name on it, to ensure that no one will eat it.
  7. If I go out to eat and I don’t have the option to order a meal of only “good” foods, then order as much “good” food as possible, then give the bad food away. This not only ensures my safety, it also makes me look like a selfless and giving person because I am sharing.
  8. If I go out to eat with others, I convince them to order the “bad” foods that I am really craving and then order just a small plate of “good” food for myself. This way I can be around the “bad” food, maybe even ask for a bite (which is also a good cover for looking like I am a “normal” eater), but I am silently sitting back superior while watching others give into their animal cravings.
  9. I have my list of excuses of why I can’t eat ready. There are truly a million I could come up with, but the top ones include: I’ve already eaten, I’m not that hungry, I can’t have that in my diet, I am not a fan of that, I’m feeling sick today, I’m too tired to go out, I don’t have the money to go out, I cook healthier anyway, I’ve still got plenty of leftovers, etc.
  10. I stay in charge of the kitchen in all its aspects. Harder now, but still doable. That includes shopping for food, cooking the food and packaging the leftovers. This way I know what foods to offer others (the “bad” ones) and which ones to set aside for myself (the “good” ones). Also I can make sure that my portion sizes are acceptable (i.e. small) and offer bigger ones to others. This gets the food out of the house faster. Because there is nothing more terrifying for an anorexic than lots of uneaten food just hanging around the house. It’s like an alcoholic just hanging out at a bar. The constant call of temptation is only 20 feet away.
  11. I have lots of gum, mints, water, tea, coffee, vegetables, cough drops on hand. This keeps my mouth busy and my belly filled up so I don’t actually have to feel the real hunger underneath.
  12. I bring “safe” snacks in my purse for when I am “on-the-go.” This keeps the hunger away as well, especially if I am in an area of “unsafe” foods or end up at a restaurant with “bad” foods. What’s really classy is when I can sneak off to the bathroom, shove the food in my mouth while standing in the stall, then head back to my friends with no one knowing the difference. My rebel is satisfied, my hunger is squelched for a moment and no one saw me in my ugliness.

So here I am. Naked in my shame in front of my friends, family, enemies and strangers. Each day is a package of excruciating choices—this food and that food; in front of this person and not in front of that person; this indulgence and that restriction, etc.

Because as slick and sophisticated as this game is, I also know that a bigger one awaits me on the other side of addiction. One where I am acting in film with major Hollywood players. One where I am teaching Orgasmic Meditation to thousands of people. One where I am making a lasting impact on the evolution of human consciousness. One where I am building and fostering deep and intimate relationships with friends and lovers. One where I have the energy, speed and skill to keep up with the best players in the field. And one where I feel my true power and the freedom that comes with making friends with my appetite.

Quite frankly, I am just tired. Exhausted. I want to feel alive. I want to feel like I am surfing on top of the wave, rather than fumbling and drowning each time the ocean swells. I want to feel the thrill of surprise and the freedom of being in flow, rather than the bondage of fear each time my edges are stretched. I want to be a responsible adult—making a living wage and consistently being well-used in service.

This is where you come in. To keep me awake. For the price of playing a bigger game is the dropping off of the old one. And now that you know my secrets, I can’t hide anymore. I can’t slide back into lazy, destructive patterns that keep me small and safe. I have no choice now but to burn through this piece that has consumed the past 12 years of my life.

My friend gave up his entire game in exchange for just one secret from mine. Ketchup on eggs. And this one admission has changed everything.

I will make the same offer to you today. I have given up my game. If you want to play, I’m only asking for one secret from yours. You don’t have to post it to the world. You don’t have to tell me. You don’t have to tell anyone. All you have to do is tell yourself (that’s the only person that really matters after all). Write it down. Admit your dirty, little secret. Acknowledge it. Feel it in your body. Take the time to listen to what it’s saying. Why it entered into your life. What function it serves. What gift it has to offer.

You have little to lose (5 minutes and a sheet of paper) and a world of desire to gain.