My mother would be the first to point out that you could eat off my floors. But the way she would tell you was as if to mock me, as if to let you know of the drastic and rigid handicap I’m cursed with; some death-grip, psycho inability to let go. She’d monitor me at parties, but especially take notice if visiting me in my own home. I was once with all my siblings in a thunder storm in metal kayaks in the middle of a river. My baby sister stood in the river, popping her hip, holding a lightening rod, aka paddle and advised, “duuuuuude, just relax”. A familiar theme throughout my life had been feeling like I’m the only one who can see impending doom on the horizon and therefore must take full responsibility for it.
I started worrying at a very small age, for all good reasons. My first memory is a nightmare of my mother turning into a giant and cutting my body in half while I sat in a yellow booster seat. My second memory is of my uncle’s face over mine. My mom never actually divided my body with a sword, but she has always had the capacity to cut. When I saved her the trouble and started doing it myself, she actually got quiet. In a small way my gouges worked. By dying I had found a temporary way of making the responsibility stop. I was too sick and fragile to help, fix or do and the consumption of my illness shifted my presence of mind to the obsessive tasks of anorexia. There was still a 24/7 requirement from me to give everything I had and more, but my energies weren’t going to saving my family, solving a problem, fixing, worrying, smiling or being used up. When you haven’t learned the real skills, like boundaries, and you can’t actually get away from your present or your past to yet live in your own future, you craft an eating disorder that trumps every one and everything.
Where does it come from? people ask. It comes from the same place all addiction and dis-ease comes from; pain, dysfunction, nameless hurts and generally everything most people don’t talk about. Our apartments were too small and cluttered to contain everyone and everything inside them. It would give me this feeling like drowning and being several steps under all the other people, requirements and expectations that were coming on us whether we were ready or not. Our houses weren’t dirty, they were just mismatched hodgepodges of that’ll do; one crooked towel away from looking like a crime scene. Random buckets and bowls of collected crap on top of the fridge, the corner of a counter or stuffed under a table. There was mostly no real furniture, or if it was a time when we had a couch or mattresses, it was someone’s old things that didn’t go together and looked forgotten, outdated and sad. The smell of pot, stale alcohol, dead animals, fish and cigarettes are many notes away from the inviting and reassuring fragrance of say, a Pottery Barn or a forest. Add this to ill-fitting, donated clothes, inconsistent food and being carted off to alternating relatives houses every weekend, where you’re always the gracious guest and never truly ‘home’ and you begin to see where the need for control gets born. I couldn’t pick my father’s next mood, the things my mother said or ignored, the next ugly apartment we were moving to, if we’d have hot water, if he’d be occupying himself with my body again, what we were eating tomorrow, or if Tina Cottin was going to rip another mailbox off a unit and take out someone else’s eye. Eventually I’d discover cleaning and controlling my weight somehow eradicated all of it. Being on hyper-alert helped me save us. Hiding my brother and sister in the closet and using all my emotional energy to worry, care and notice how they felt, how my parents felt and what everyone else needed to feel better and protect them, clean up the mess, solve the issue, reassure and continue to pretend that I never felt anything but fine, evaporated in the empty and satisfying perfection of eventually, shrinking into nothing. A sense of calm would wash over me when I organized things, even things that weren’t mine. I could stifle anxious feelings by vacuuming long hallways in places I worked, knowing in every unit carpets were brushed the exact same way, pens were precisely parallel to comment cards and every blind was level. I also discovered the right responses occasionally shielded me from flying fists. Compliance and submission were useful in speeding up other kinds of requests I wouldn’t have fulfilled if I thought I had a choice. Soothing egos and needs by absorbing another’s bitterness into my sponge-being and regurgitating something sweet; codependence as human lemonade dispenser. These were the things I invented to hold myself up and keep myself steady. They made me feel good but came with labels that don’t: Control Freak. Stick. Moody. Obsessive. Goody Two Shoes. Rigid. Masculine. Crazy. Perfectionist. Princess. Poverty-Mentality. Snob. Stuck-up. Slut. Faithless, know-it-all, analytical, skinny bitch.
The disorder of chaos and chronic, too soon, heavy responsibility gives you two choices: join the mess or attempt to supersede the terrifying disarray with paramount and sometimes merciless order. Step One was admitting my life had become unmanageable. My previous aversion to the 12 Steps was in the illusion that I wasn’t the one with problem; clearly one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever told myself. The first person to invite me to a meeting was my father’s social worker. He wanted our family to go. I dug my heels in believing it was his job to get well. It wasn’t until I found myself divorcing an alcoholic and addict that I decided to claim responsibility for my life and the choices I’d made. Together with my sponsor, nutritionist and pastor I arrived inside the eye of the storm. Remains of a former life were slowly tossed into a red dumpster which faced the balcony of my studio apartment. Three suit cases, a beige shag rug, sink, toilet, closet, one blue wall and two books with all the skills I’d ever need; the extent of my possessions. I wanted to keep as much of this new order as I could, but feelings and people got in the way, along with my own messy needs which I opted to finally address. In the moment of breakdown we’re given this opportunity. I recognized and embraced it with the same squished up face I make when a slobbery dog is hell bent on kissing me. OKay. OKay. I’ll hug you. I’ll pay attention to you. I see you. I get it! Recovery work was brutal but still easier than breathing each breathe for another human being who could’ve, but kept refusing because I’d gotten so good at doing for them. Why had I waited so long? Fears of repercussions, conversations I didn’t know how to have, being ostracized, believing I was powerless, fears of hurting a thousand family members, getting screamed and yelled at, being shamed and finding it impossible to imagine my life could be anything other than what had been. I am only these sad stories. I’m only crap. I’m only smart. I’m only stupid. I am only this. Across three years of learning to inhale, exhale, and speak life I began finding my voice. The pivotal emerging difference was letting go of control fueled by fear and replacing it with control fueled by faith and love.