You wouldn’t expect an eating disorder to bond a hurting family, but Julia Newman’s family has learned how to thrive because of the work they’ve all done.
I’m a thirty year old woman who at one point in her twenties lived in an apartment with absolutely no furniture. Just over two miles from the house I grew up in. I had an eggcrate mattress pad, a few sheets and pillows, and my laptop which I used mainly as a DVD player. I borrowed the DVDs from the library. Which was a big deal because the library doesn’t deliver. This was not as crazy as it had been.
Prior to that first apartment – what I now call ‘The Pod’ – I had been living with my parents. Struggling to recover from anorexia, I had begun binge eating which sent me in such a spiral of shame that it motivated me to move out. All I was moving was my own flesh and blood.
The emptiness of that apartment speaks for itself. I could have had furniture. I could have had pictures in frames and shampoo in the shower. But I was busy bingeing. And that was progress.
One of the most salient themes in my recovery has been the process of separating from my family. Nothing fancy, just natural growing up. But during those years when I ‘should’ have been experimenting with life on my own, a confluence of stressors had led me instead into disorder and stalled out the whole independence-building thing. I was back in my family home in the sphere of my parents’ relationship and all the values, routines, and norms that go with it. Or ‘went’ with it, because since that time my family has changed.
We all have a good dose of therapy to thank for that, therapy that wouldn’t have happened without the crisis that my eating disorder created. When I am well and have hope and am connected to recovery, I am thankful for it. I am willing to absorb the trouble from my mother’s childhood so that she can now learn a new way living and loving and seeing herself as special and valuable, as visible. I am willing to transfer the weight of my father’s chaotic and painful youth so that he can grow up himself and let go of the nostalgic attachment he has for those places and people in his life that offered him peace as a kid. Places like my childhood home.
When my father’s grandmother passed away in 1980 her will stipulated a few things and one of them involved her house. My father and his sister were to sell it a split the profit. But father simply couldn’t do it. As a kid, this home had become a haven. His actually home was peopled by a step-family who’d moved in soon after his own father had passed away. My father was 5 years old. His mother was an alcoholic. Grandma’s was paradise.
And he still lives there today, an attic filled with antiques rusting and fading away. So many times my mom and sister and I gently take these items down, shine them up, and get them appraised. My father doesn’t like it and only a few times have we actually left the items to sell at auction. “You have the house,” we tell him, “you don’t need the stuff too!”
What’s incredible to me is the transformation in his face. He is a 5 yr-old kid, standing in the front hall with eyes turned down and face pushed back as if rejecting reality in depressed surprise.
Because I am healthy, because I know things about human nature and attachment and regret and nostalgia, because of Trusty Therapist Judy, I have been able to reach into the heart of that 5 yr-old dad and bring him back to us as his true, strong, workaholic, duty-bound, sixty year old self. I tell him we are not taking his memories away. I tell him that Helen, his grandmother, doesn’t live in her stuff. She didn’t even want him to have it. All the foreign guest who have spent summers at our house, all the parties and barbeques, all the people of this house is what makes it important. Helen would be proud of how he has raised a family, created his own form of magic here with his wife. This is what I tell my father and I see tears in his eyes, tears I never ever see.
Now I know my father feels deeply, like me. Now I know that he clings and is scared and ‘just doesn’t wanna!’ Like for me, growing up just plain sucked.
I sometimes get angry. If my parents went through all this stuff in their childhoods, why did they just about repeat it in mine? Why were my emotions and sensitivities not validated? Why did I turn out so f^%$ed up!?
Well. I suppose I didn’t pop out with an instruction book along with me. And besides, it doesn’t matter now. It has helped to look back at my childhood and see how my mother’s detached anxiety grew from the fear she had of repeating the past. My father’s cool distance was a deeply ingrained consequence of the very same invalidation he received from his family. “Be the man,” they all told him at his father’s wake. “Don’t cry,” they told me. “You don’t need to be sad.”
But I was sad. And my dad was a boy. What was, was.
Today we see it. We know how and why things got crosswired. And each of us is doing things about it. My mother is learning to be more confident with friends. My father is selling some antiques. But most importantly, when I am struggling and not well, and not saving my father from his childhood self, my parents save me. Mom tells me I’m a warrior – she’s almost a Buddhist now. Dad tells me he loves me, that I am the strongest person he knows. The next day he’ll send me a picture of the sky and pull me back up to reality.