I’ve been anxious for most of my life. I can trace my anxiety back to age six, the year my parents officially separated.
Back then, we called my dad an alcoholic. Now, we’d call him what he really was: bipolar, self-medicating with alcohol.
I remember sitting on a blue velvet couch in our living room, as a police officer, a friend’s father , came to haul my dad away. Our dog insisted on getting into the squad car with him, so the officer took her too. Just moments before, dad had arrived at our house to find himself locked out due to his volatile behavior. Enraged, he smashed a window trying to get in and cut the phone line ensuring we couldn’t call for help. A retired cop himself, he knew all the tricks. Thanks to our neighbor whose phone line was not cut, that’s as far as he got before the cops arrived.
My father’s violent and erratic behavior continued, several days later, when he arrived at my elementary school, trying to convince my teacher that she should release me to him. Thanks to this episode, I would soon have a restraining order against him. I was terrified: nowhere seemed safe.
I cried every single day of school through second grade, so much so that my second grade teacher pulled me into a closet alone, crying herself, to ask, “Why do you hate me?” I didn’t know what to tell her, since I certainly hated her for making my tears about her when what I really needed was for her to understand what I was going through, to acknowledge that what was happening at home was far from normal.
I felt misunderstood and confused, but I also discovered that there was one thing that made me feel better: food. I decided to let the adults have their own feelings – let them cry in closets – while I buried mine under chips, cookies, cake, whatever was at hand. The more I ate, the more I started to shrink in personality. I became shy and withdrawn, yet larger in body, an attempt to make myself harder to dominate and control.
“I decided to let the adults have their own feelings… while I buried mine under chips, cookies, cake, whatever was at hand.”
Ironically, until that point, I didn’t care much for food. Before the incidents with my father, my mom made me these shakes she called “Specials”. I gag thinking about those little numbers — a mixture of milk, raw egg, and vanilla. But back then, I loved them and felt special drinking them. They were something my mom made just for me. I vividly remember when the Specials stopped; the rare occasion when my mom withheld her love. I asked for one and she looked at me and, with a vague gesture of her hands towards my body said, “You don’t need those anymore.” While trying not to feel feelings I could not name, I had eaten my way out of being special and into a lifelong battle with my body and my weight.
As I got older and “deepened” my medical training through episodes of General Hospital, I learned that I was using food to numb my feelings. Evenings were always the toughest times as, after dinner, I found myself alone with my thoughts. And my thoughts liked company, so they would invite more thoughts over until my brain was outnumbered and overwhelmed.
After dinner snacks were probably the most important thing to me. I had to make sure there were enough in my apartment to meet all of my emotional needs in the hand-wringing window between 8 and 11 pm. Heaven forbid I be caught anxious without enough chocolate to get me through to bedtime!
Living in New York after college, I’d carefully plot my stops on the way home from work to satisfy my cravings. I bought candy bars and cookies and chips at bodegas and bakeries. I always told myself I wasn’t overdoing it THAT much. It wasn’t like I was eating an entire cheesecake, right? Just a slice, plus a small bag of chips, and a cookie. That’s all. Practically nothing. I found myself lying about mythical friends and boyfriends and children, saying to cashiers who couldn’t care less, “My kids love these chips!”
During the most stressful episodes of my life, food worked to calm my anxiety. But there was one thing it couldn’t tackle: my mother’s illness and passing.
My mom was sick for many years and I was very close to her. When it became clear that I would have to envision a life without her, I was completely devastated, yet oddly numb. My mother had always been my closest friend and biggest cheerleader. I found myself looking to a future without her and not being able to see it. I kept up my routine, visiting her on Long Island as much as I could. Even when I took a leave from work, I constantly felt a deep grief I just couldn’t shake.
For the first time I felt true depression. It felt scary, dark, and awful. But I also felt…nothing, and that was a problem. I didn’t care about anything at all, even food, and I’d stopped eating. Without my mom, the person who had been with me through everything, what was the point of anything?
In the depths of depression, I became very matter of fact about my life being meaningless, and I told my mom about it. I hadn’t meant to tell her but one night on the phone, I sensed she wasn’t paying attention and I got angry about it. She was yes-ing me and fluffing me off. It was like I’d already lost her and I wasn’t ready for that.
“My thoughts liked company, so they would invite more thoughts over until my brain was outnumbered and overwhelmed.”
I wanted her to hear me. So I blurted out, “You don’t get it, mom. The doctor, my friends, people, they are worried about me. I’m feeling suicidal.” I wasn’t really cognizant of wanting to end my life, but I wasn’t thinking logically. I just knew that I felt terrible and didn’t care about much of anything anymore, including my own life.
If I was looking for a reaction, I certainly got it. She cried and yelled, her weak voice filled with emotion, “Lynn, I can’t handle this. Please don’t tell me this. I spent years dealing with this with your father. I cannot handle this right now. Please.” Even though her words hurt me deeply and I was sorry I had shared my feelings, I took comfort in the fact that she was still my mother, and she still worried and cared about me. Her words reminded me she was still there, and maybe that’s what I needed.
It was her reaction that drove me to get professional help, not because I wanted it for myself, but I wanted to make my mother’s life easier. She had already lost children: my brother to cancer at age 5; another brother a few days after birth; and others – I don’t even know how many – before full term. I knew in that moment that I could not add my own loss of self to her burden, that I would get better so she wouldn’t have to deal with that grief again.
Over the years, I’d tried food, exercise and therapy to regulate my moods, but I’d never tried medication. I was certain I wouldn’t live through my mom’s demise without more help, so I agreed to take a low dose of Prozac. Then, I assured my mother that my bad mood was chemical, and that as soon as I took the right meds, I would be cured. At least she didn’t have to worry about me anymore.
While compulsive eating had made me feel nothing in the moment, it came with shame and the sense that my physical weight represented the depth of my emotional problems. But taking antidepressants didn’t cause me body shame, and it did just as I had been promised for my mind: It took the edge off. It also turned the lights back on in my brain and in my life. I slowly started to enjoy things I liked again. I was still living through an incredibly painful situation, but I could see myself on the other side of it.
Four years ago, my mother succumbed to her illness, and I made it through. I still have anxiety now and then, but my depression is managed. I check in with myself a lot especially when I feel the urge to overeat, and I am more thoughtful about the connection between food and feelings. I still find myself looking for a cookie or a bag of chips when I’m anxious, but if I name the feeling, sometimes I can stop the behavior. At other times, I acknowledge what I’m doing and eat the pizza anyway. Like all of us, I’m doing the best I can, and pizza is still delicious.