“Gabby, what are you doing? Listen to me, we need to get you help because this is going to kill you…”
“Mama, leave me alone. You don’t understand, no one does!”
I wish I had the courage to tell her that I did understand, that I was living through the very same nightmare. Not only did I fail to break the cycle, I had also passed on my worst defect to my precious daughter, either genetically or based on my own behaviour. As an individual, I honestly thought I was handling everything well, I mean, no one could even tell what’s going on with me. To the outside world I was just a fitness junkie who ate well and advocated for good health, but to myself and the sad reflection in the mirror, I was a failure. I knew my mom had my problem too – or at least I suspect that she did because a lot of the things I did to cover up my act were inspired by certain nuances she had. I know that doesn’t justify anything, especially since we had just passed it on to yet another generation. If my mother were still alive, I was almost certain that she would not be ok with her granddaughter’s body image issues, and I can say that with certainty because that is not how she raised me. Not a day went by that she didn’t tell me I was beautiful, special or a princess in disguise. Thinking back, I wondered if everything she said was true because she clearly didn’t feel that way about herself and yet I was a spitting image of her! Now, looking at Gabby, I wondered if she would one day think back to these times and discredit all the words of affirmation I proclaimed to her because of the skeletons in my own closet. It saddened me to think that I had enabled her problem by failing to address mine in the very same way that my mother failed to overcome hers. To put it bluntly, we were three generations of bulimics.
I rushed to my her side and handed her a towel feeling confused, worried and angry all at the same time. It didn’t make sense… what went wrong? I took one look at my beautiful daughter and she hid her face in shame. I got it – no one would want to be found by their mother throwing up all of their dinner. No, that was wasteful. Did she think I would lecture her about all the people in the world who didn’t have food? Or how hard her father and I worked to make sure she would not go hungry? Would she not understand that I was concerned? I could not understand why she saw herself as ugly or fat because to me she was the most beautiful human alive! More than her physical appearance, she was a very intelligent girl.
“Gabby, talk to me please, I want to understand.”
“Leave me alone, mama. You’re just going to keep reading my diary anyway so why bother asking!”
She was right; even after this conversation I would most likely continue to check up on her because I loved her and needed to make sure that she was not a danger to herself. Any mother in their right mind would. Had I not invaded her privacy and read her diary, I wouldn’t have known that she’d been struggling with body image issues for nearly three years now. Yes, it had been that long and yet neither her father nor I had even suspected that our baby was in trouble. Since it had been going on for so long, I knew we needed to act fast but knowing how stubborn my daughter was, there was no way she would open up to a stranger. At fifteen, she was just one year older than I was when it started and I can tell you now that no therapist would have gotten me to open up. Why would I expect anything different from someone who had inherited my DNA?. In that moment I knew that the only solution was for me to open up to her and be completely honest, after all, Nuno and I promoted total honesty within our family… wait, how would I justify not telling Nuno about my problem after sixteen years of marriage? Should I risk potentially destroying the trust in our relationship for an attempt to save our daughter?
“Gabby, I do understand. I…” the words just wouldn’t come out.
As a mom this was yet another failure on my part, but it was called a struggle for a reason. Besides, she wasn’t underweight yet, in fact, to the naked eye she seemed completely normal. Yes, I would hold onto that – I still had more time. For now would just hold my baby and let her cry, then maybe sometime in the future we could touch on this again. After all, people in our bloodline did not speak of such things. We were raised to believe that such problems were for the ‘western’ folk. Baby steps right?
I sat up quickly, short of breath and sweating profusely. Why was the room so dark? Where did Gabby go? As my eyes adjusted and breathing slowed down I heard Nuno stirring.
“Did you have a bad dream?” He asked, though I couldn’t tell if he was fully awake.
It took a moment to gather my thoughts, to break out of the trance and next thing I knew my body melted into my husband’s loving embrace. At that very same moment I felt butterflies in my tummy… wait, not butterflies, it was Gabby! I let out a sigh of relief as I realised it was all a dream, I could still change the narrative. My daughter would not go through what her mother or grandmother did. We would break the cycle.
This is one of the most difficult things I could ever write about, especially since only my husband and therapists know about my struggle with an eating disorder. Though the above story is fictional, some facts remain true. We’ve all heard people speaking about their turning point and for me that was falling pregnant with Gabby because having a growing fetes inside me meant that my body was no longer my own. As a mother whose mother may have suffered from this same problem, I knew I needed to do something differently that would last even after I gave birth. Another fact is that the second time I had opened up to someone about this (first was to my husband), I was sitting on a couch, in a small room with a stranger across from me. That moment was difficult to say the least. It also didn’t help that I left with puffy eyes and a prescription for antidepressants and what my husband likes to call “horse tranquilisers”. I did continue to ‘unpack the emotions’ further with a psychologist, in an attempt to identify what it was within me that was triggering such destructive behaviour. It’s liberating to know that I have taken back the power of something that would have been regarded as taboo in my family and will make sure that my ‘spawn’ have a safe environment to discuss their feelings.
It’s a strange thing really when I try to pinpoint exactly when my problems started… I remember watching a movie in my early teens about some volleyball players who were trying to win some competition. In the movie, one of the girls had been taking pills and purging to stay under a certain weight and somehow convinced her friend to join the bandwagon – only, she ended up hospitalised. Long story short, it was a movie to bring awareness to the eating disorders most teenagers face, but being the strange person that I am, I found it to be an amusing alternative to society’s norm. A few months later, I was back from an eight week vacation in Mozambique (well let’s call it a vacation for now because mama had spent most of it in hospital) during I managed to gain quite a significant amount of weight. To be honest it didn’t really bother me much until I went back to school because all of my friends noticed pointed out that I brought some extra weight as a souvernir, leading to feelings of guilt. Coincidentally, the movie came to mind and I decided to try the newly discovered weight loss trick… and it worked. Fourteen years, two life-rattling deaths, several heartbreaks, emotional abuse, three erased years, self destructive behaviour and a happy ending later, I can proudly say that I am going on three years clean and ready to change the narrative.
Be sure to check out the other posts from the ‘Accepting Grief’ series:
This was such a brave and beautifully written post. I am so glad that you broke this and it didn’t break you. Your honesty will help others, of that I am sure
Shelly DS says
Thanks Beth, I really do hope it does help someone.
Shelly DS says
Thanks Beth, I really do hope that it helps someone. Mental health is really important and yet we don’t speak about it enough <3
Markus + Micah says
Thank you for sharing such a personal post. It is not easy and I admire you for being strong through all this.
I really admire how beautifully you wrote about such a sensitive and personal issue. I just couldn’t stop reading! You are such a brave woman and I’m sure this is what will inflict your daughter- i.e. your bravery and positivity, not your genetic bulimic.
Shelly DS says
Wow Polomi thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read my post <3 It's so strange that I could never do it for myself, but for her I'd jump in front of a train…
Wow. This is so powerful! I’m so sorry for all that you went through. I admit that I had a mini battle with this in high school and college, but not to your extreme. It was awful though, so I feel for you greatly. I’m so glad you’re okay now!
Your post is very emotional. Sad, but very brave. I will pray for you. You’re really brave to have posted it. It will help many who suffer
Shelly DS says
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and give such positive feedback. I do hope that it will help many, but If at least one person’s life changes because of it, then it is more than I could ever ask for 🙂
Many will be touched.
This was such a touching story. I suffer from anxiety and depression and I cannot even imagine what I would feel like if my kids go through something similar. It’s great that you were able to open up to your husband and talking about it makes a huge difference.
Shelly DS says
Thanks Pooja, it really is something we need to be aware of and treat if we don’t want to pass it on. How do you cope with the anxiety?
I did some regular therapy a few years back which was helpful and some hypnotherapy later on which I found super helpful. I also took medication for about a month but it did not work well with me so now I use CBD oil and lots of yoga/meditation.
You are a great writer! Thanks for sharing your story and your difficult journey.
Shelly DS says
Kate thanks so much for reading <3 It really means a lot to me 🙂