Someone on OkCupid messaged me and asked me out to lunch. We have a high match percentage, which rarely translates to anything meaningful in real life, but her profile is also charming and clever, so I want to respond. I don’t, however, want to go out to lunch. Dating and eating are stressful enough concepts on their own, and mixing the two right away makes me anxious. I don’t like to eat on first dates. I am too squirrely when I eat, too ravenous, too quick. When I am eating I try to forget I am eating. It can’t be anything but mechanical—an act of survival. I rarely enjoy food unless I am alone.
My father spent much of his childhood starving. He does not talk about this often, but I know from conversations I have overheard, from the few stories my mother has told me, and from the way he relishes in paying for five course meals at overpriced restaurants that, more often than not, the grocery money went toward his father’s gambling, and a couple of hot dogs or a can of vegetables were split between himself and his many siblings.
Like my father, I spent much of my childhood starving, but for different reasons. Unlike him, I never wanted for anything. Or I wanted for everything. I’m still not sure which it was, but in diary entries from the period when my eating disorder was transitioning rapidly from binging and purging to (in my mind at the time, a much simpler) starvation, I wrote the angst-filled and profoundly stupid statement, “I want to stop wanting,” with such regularity it became a kind of mantra.
The things I wanted at that time were unattainable, so I turned to the more achievable goal of emaciation. This goal proved difficult when the easier comfort of food, and plenty of it, was ever present. I never made a very “good” anorexic, but I was an excellent bulimic. Bulimia allowed me to want everything—the whole contents of the kitchen cabinet, an entire bag of Halloween candy, three Big Macs and three large orders of fries—and have it. But it also allowed me to literally purge myself of my sins, to atone for wanting. I also would have made an excellent Catholic, but as someone reared outside the church I had to find a different way.
Recently, researchers at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich found, in the microRNA of mice, that trauma is passed down through the DNA of at least three generations. The offspring of the traumatized mice were not only biologically weaker, but exhibited behavioral symptoms associated with surviving trauma. Besides wondering how sitting around traumatizing mice all day is a real job, I wonder about what I’ve inherited. I wonder which tiny molecules of my father were irreparably damaged, and how that changed him and shaped me. But I know that’s oversimplifying everything.
I know it is too simple to say it was all because I wanted too much, or just that my DNA held some ticking eating disorder time bomb. I know that my fear of wanting and my trauma responses are not isolated to my behaviors surrounding food. I also know that I never responded to that woman on OkCupid who suggested we go out to lunch.
When I was in eighth grade, my family sent me to a therapist. I’d been spending way too much time lying in bed crying, screaming at them to go away through a closed door, and hanging out at Hot Topic, and I now understand that they were reasonably exhausted. At the time, I hated them for making me go, and I projected that resentment onto my therapist—a sweet, if clueless, woman with early thousands chunky highlights and a rotating collection of clogs. Because I rarely gave her any information of value, she managed to pin all of my problems on one tiny fact I’d divulged early in our sessions: my father forced me to clean my plate at dinner when I was young.
She called my parents in for a special session—an intervention to correct my father’s misguided plate cleaning ways. “My husband ate nothing but bacon rolls for an entire year,” she told him. “He’s just fine.” The intervention did little but give my father ammo for bacon roll jokes for years to come, and put me off bacon rolls forever.
A couple of years later, during one of my several month long starvation periods, my father stared at me over a wooden picnic table and demanded I finish a small cup of vanilla frozen yogurt. We were on vacation—a beach somewhere, I think—but I can’t remember anything about the trip except that frozen yogurt. “You’re not leaving this table until you finish that yogurt,” he said.
I was sobbing. “I don’t want it, I don’t want it, I don’t want it,” I chanted. Several families waiting at the stand to order ice cream turned away; some walked back to their cars. I thought about that therapist, and the bacon rolls, and about how long it would take before I could find a bathroom to throw up the frozen yogurt, and ate one small spoonful at a time until it was gone.
During a recent visit, I tried to bring up the frozen yogurt incident with my father. I asked him if he remembered how upset I was. He said he remembered that he paid some ridiculous price for a cup of frozen yogurt, and it would’ve been wasteful to throw it away.
Sometimes it is hard to measure my progress. When I feel guilt for things I shouldn’t, or when I turn down something I might have liked, it can feel like nothing has changed. But it’s there, and I measure it like this: I cannot imagine ever again crying over a cup of frozen yogurt, and because I now know about my father’s trauma, I can understand why he made me finish eating, and forgive him for not understanding why I didn’t want.
ETH Zurich. “Hereditary trauma: Inheritance of traumas and how they may be mediated.” ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140413135953.htm (accessed November 9, 2014).