Quietly Passing Down an Eating Disorder
In my family, silence was the rule.
Posted April 13, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I don’t know why this question never occurred to me before. It’s a legitimate question, one that might occur to anyone in my situation.
I was thinking about my 25-year history of anorexia, as well as my mother and the fact that she has been gone for 19 years. My mom was bulimic at age 15 because she was molested by her older brother. My mom had two older brothers; then there was a 10-year gap, and my mom and her younger sister.
I didn’t find out my mom was bulimic until after she died. When I was ready, I called my aunt with questions about my mom and discovered some tough truths, all adding up to the fact that she was a lovable, imperfect person with very real flaws.
I wondered why, when I started to suffer from anorexia, my mother didn’t tell me about her bulimia. Back then (I was first diagnosed in 1986), the eating disorder community wasn’t aware there was a genetic component to eating disorders. More relevant, I believe she was ashamed. When I was diagnosed, she was 51 years old and had been bulimic for 36 years. She had been keeping her secret for over three decades; I can’t imagine the fear that must have coursed through her body at the idea of telling me.
I wonder if she questioned if I would have judged her or thought less of her.
I don’t think I would have. I believe I would have appreciated her telling me. I don’t know that I was in a place, being so ill, that I could have appreciated the courage and strength it would have taken her to disclose her eating disorder to me.
I have to question whether my father knew. He was drunk for the 4 years they dated before they got married in 1957 and for 18 years into their 25-year marriage. I do recall the only time I saw my father comfort my mother. I was about 10 years old, so that would have made my mother 35. My mother and father were sitting on the edge of their bed and my mother was sobbing. Her head was resting on my father’s shoulder and his arm was around her shoulder.
That image stands out because I never saw any other displays of affection between them, not even a casual kiss. I realized our family was different when a friend invited me to spend Christmas Day with them and her parents were affectionate with each other throughout the day. Nothing dramatic; a squeeze on the arm, a peck on the cheek, just something to say I love you, I appreciate you. I left feeling bewildered, but this was not something I could ask about at home.
When I asked my mother what she was crying about, she said that our family dentist told her all her teeth had to be pulled and she would need to wear dentures for the rest of her life. She must have been devastated. I know I was when I got this news in my fifties — and my mother was 35. She most likely never received any education on how bulimia damages teeth. There was no internet and she never went to therapy.
I’m not angry at my mom for not disclosing her eating disorder to me. I’m sure she had her reasons, both for her and for me. Therapy helped me take my mom off the pedestal I’d placed her upon all my life and see her as human, rather than a cross between an angel and a fairy goddess.
She loved my brother and me very much and saddled with an alcoholic husband, she did an awesome job raising us. Nineteen years later, I miss her every day.
Thanks for reading.