Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Life

Road to Recovery Requires Time, Patience, Willingness to Share Your Story

Last winter, I heard from a volunteer at Germaine Lawrence, the all-girls residential facility where I was treated for anorexia from September 1999 to January 2000. The volunteer, named Andy, wanted to see if he could interview me for a video project he was putting together for Germaine Lawrence’s 30th anniversary gala. Of course I said yes. I wanted to tell my “success story” in hopes that others could benefit from it and see that it’s possible to heal from the wounds of the past.

I met with Andy for the first time when I went home for Christmas. At first I felt uncomfortable telling my life story to a stranger. But I could sense that he genuinely cared about what I was saying, so I let myself open up to him. About a week later he came to my house to take pictures of me, my dad and my grandma. I later mailed him other photos, as well as journal entries and poems I had written when I was sick. One of the poems was titled “Black Flower” — a metaphor for anorexia. When writing out the poem on a piece of scrap paper years ago, I drew a picture of a black flower on one side of the paper and a colorful flower on the other side to represent what I thought recovery would look like.

Life’s a lot more colorful now.

Andy used the poem in the video, which he recently showed at the Germaine Lawrence gala. The event attracted about 300 people and raised a significant amount of money for the girls undergoing treatment. I owe a lot of where I am today to Germaine Lawrence, where I was afforded the time to work on my issues and connect with staff members and a therapist who cared enough to listen to my story and who helped me work toward a new chapter in my life, namely recovery.

Recovery is a delicate balance between stepping toward the future and back into the past. The trick is making sure you don’t get stuck dwelling on life there. In revisiting my past, I’ve learned a lot about how losing my mom when I was 11 led me to have an eating disorder. Feeling as though I had lost control when Mom died of breast cancer, I sought to find something I could control. It seemed easy enough at the time to try to control what I ate. So I started to restrict my food intake, first depriving myself of meat, then sweets, then carbs. Little did I know, my attempts at finding order in life would lead to total chaos.

Fourteen years later, I still have a love-hate relationship with food. The hard part about being in a relationship with food is that you can’t ever really divorce yourself from it. For as much as you grow to fear and loathe it, you need it to survive. Food is something to be celebrated and enjoyed with friends. A labor of love you prepare and serve to your family. A fixture in your daily life that makes you feel both good and guilty.

When I’m tired or stressed, food becomes my savior and my enemy. It’s something I can indulge in one day and then deprive myself of the next. Others who have struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating know what this is like. When you’re home alone and no one’s looking, you’re free to let your desires take over. So you go in search of the food that you’ve been craving but wouldn’t let yourself eat in front of others. You sink your teeth into the forbidden fruit, (which is usually in the form of apple strudel or blueberry cake), until a bite leads to a binge. When it’s all over, you scold yourself for getting to the point where you feel ashamed and gross, like a gluttonous girl with no self control. Then you restrict the next day to prove to yourself that control isn’t completely out of reach. You forget altogether what it’s like to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.

If only I were 10 pounds lighter, I’d be happier, you tell yourself. But if and when you lose the 10 pounds, you find yourself wanting to lose more. Or you focus so hard on maintaining your new weight that you rebel and sink your teeth into those chocolate chip cookies you’ve been resisting, or that ice cream you stuck in the back corner of the fridge, hoping you could trust yourself not to sneak a spoonful. How easy it is for one spoonful to turn into one serving size, or two or three or four.

The irony of disordered eating is that it’s rarely about food. It’s about the emotions that drive you to turn to food, or rebel against it, when you don’t know what else to do. It’s about the desires you suppress, and the problems you tried burying long ago, hoping they’d never resurface. I’ve learned that when I’m having trouble with eating, I need to try to find my emotions. They’re always there; it’s just a matter of deciding whether I want to acknowledge them or keep burying them. It’s a lot easier to shovel food inside than it is to dig for feelings.

I’ve done a lot of digging throughout the years. When I start to forget how far I’ve come, I think back to the days I would spend calculating how many calories I consumed and how many I needed to burn. Those were the days when I would lie in bed and exercise when I should have been sleeping. They were the days when I stopped hanging out with friends because I was afraid they’d make fun of me for being “overweight” — at 66 pounds.

I talk about these low points and others in the video that Andy put together. For months I’ve wondered whether I should post the video on my blog, and whether I should be so open about my ongoing steps toward recovery. My ambivalence stems from my fear of vulnerability and the uncertainty of knowing how others will react. I’ve found, though, that people tend to respond positively to stories about overcoming difficulties in life. At their core, these are stories about survival. We all need to tell our stories — not necessarily publicly, but at least to someone who will listen and let us know we’re not alone. I’ve decided that if my story can help even one person feel less alone, then it’s worth telling. Here’s to hoping my story helps you. …

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How Losing My Mom Led Me to Neglect a Hungry Heart

Last month, I mentioned that I had begun a Poynter course on personal essay writing. My goal in the course was to write an essay about how the death of my mother has affected my relationship with food — today and in the immediate aftermath of her death.

This isn’t an easy subject for me to write about. For years I’ve struggled with figuring out how much of my past I should share with others. I’ve shared part of it through the essays I’ve written about my mom, who died of breast cancer when I was 11. In recent years it’s gotten easier for me to write about her death and to not put her on a pedestal, as people often do when writing about loved ones who have died.

But writing more specifically about how my mom’s death affected me emotionally and physically is harder, in large part because it makes me feel vulnerable. I ask myself: When you write about difficult experiences you’ve faced, how much should you share? How do you express yourself in a way that others who haven’t had the same experiences can relate to? How brave should you be?

Mom and me in front of our house in Massachusetts after a snowstorm. Brrr.

I’ve decided to be brave. For the first time, I’m publishing an essay about my struggles with eating. I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should share something so personal, but I’ve realized that I don’t want to keep hiding this part of my life. Eating disorders are so often about hiding feelings, food and the desire to eat. Part of recovery is admitting that you are struggling and, in doing so, acknowledging that for as much as you try to be perfect, you can’t be.

There are ways to write about these kinds of struggles without making it seem as though you’re begging for sympathy. And I think the way you do that is to let recovery be the engine of your story — the narrative device that drives your piece forward and motivates you to want to continue moving forward, too. Healing, after all, involves movement — and a good pair of walking shoes. It’s about taking a few steps forward, a couple steps back, one step forward, and so on and so forth.

One of my favorite writers, Geneen Roth, has a hopeful take on healing, which she explains in “When Food Is Love“: “Life is what happens as you live with the wounds. Life is not a matter of getting the wounds out of the way so that you can finally live. Wounds are never permanently erased. We are fragile beings, and some days we break all over again.”

I’m still learning to be gentle with myself and to see the beauty in baby steps.

So, here’s my baby step toward writing about food and my mom. I plan to continue writing about this topic, so I’d really value your feedback on this post. I’m curious to find out what parts of the essay resonate with you, what you want to learn more about and what you think works or doesn’t work. More importantly, though, I hope you can connect to the essay and gain something from reading it.

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Mom always used to surprise me with a snack when I came home from school. I remember looking forward to the treats, which were different every day. For whatever reason, though, I can’t remember the majority of them anymore.

All I remember are the cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. Butterscotch cookies. Girl Scout cookies. My favorite were the gingerbread men that Mom would buy from Market Basket. They were the sinfully soft kind, loaded with unhealthy frosting and a head made of solid sugar; the kind of snack that lures adults into indulging in calories and fat they don’t need but secretly want. To me, they tasted like home.

I’d savor the sugar, then jump on the couch and give Mom a hug. I’d rest my head on her shoulder and she’d ask me to tell her all about my day.

“What’d you learn today?” she’d ask.

Even when I was really little, I always loved to eat (and play with) the meals and snacks Mom gave me. Cheerios were clearly my favorite breakfast food.

“Weeelllllll ….”

I would go on and on, letting her know about the journal entries I wrote, the jump roping contest I competed in at recess, the A+ I’d gotten on my reading quiz. I’d always “forget” to tell her about the big word I stumbled over when reading out loud, or the math problem I pretended to know how to solve but got wrong.

Mom never went to college and wasn’t that well-read, but she wanted her only child to be. Actually, she wanted me to be the best at everything, so I tried as hard as I could to be the A+ student, the prized daughter, the perfect little girl.

Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I tried to avoid anything that would reveal the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

When you are 8 and your mom’s diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s easy to play pretend. You try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

Mom lost a lot when she was sick, but she never lost the desire to want to nourish me with food and love. The days when I came home from school, I always knew she’d be there to feed my hungry heart with hugs and kisses and fill my empty tummy with after-school snacks.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Well, she was, but in a frightening kind of way. I could tell that something was wrong when I came home from school and saw Mom on the couch. Her face was painted with pain, her forehead a road map of wrinkles, her eyes a wishing well of tears.

Seeing Mom so weak made me long for some sense of normalcy and nourishment — a hug, a kiss, a cookie. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked when I came in the door after getting off the bus.

“Maaaaaal,” she softly screamed. “Call your father. I can’t get up.” It was like those “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials that Mom and I always used to make fun of. They seemed so fake, so laughable. This couldn’t have been more real.

Me and mom in Disney World, 1988.

I tried to lift her.

“C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move!”

I called Dad because he always knew how to fix stuff. He rushed home from work, but he was too afraid to pick her up for fear that he’d hurt her even more. It was the first time I remember thinking of my dad as being helpless.

Knowing she needed medical help, he called 911 and we soon heard the sound of sirens. The EMTs couldn’t lift her either. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket she was resting on and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away.

It was late, and I hadn’t eaten dinner, let alone my afternoon snack. That night, dad made “the usual” — the ever-so-simple spaghetti and peas. I liked the meal the first five times we ate it, but after a while the spaghetti seemed to get harder, the peas mushier.

“Daaaaad. Again? Why can’t we have Mom’s pasta primavera? Or her macaroni and cheese?”

The grainy grossness was a rude reminder that Mom was too sick to cook and that hard as he tried, Dad just didn’t know how to nourish me in quite the same way.

“Maybe tomorrow, Mal,” Dad would say. “C’mon, you love spaghetti.” He worked full-time and was trying to take care of an ailing wife and a young daughter who craved the kind of care that only moms can give.

“I used to like spaghetti,” I said. “But it doesn’t taste good anymore.”

Dinnertime felt so lonely without Mom. Something was missing, and food wasn’t filling the void. It never really does. I missed Mom’s meals and my after-school cookies. I was tired of coming home to an empty house. I was tired of the hideous hats Mom wore to hide her baldness or to “make a fashion statement,” as she preferred to say. I was tired of seeing Mom confined to a bed when everyone else’s mom seemed healthy enough to attend school functions and cheer for their sons and daughters at soccer games.

Mom was just busy, I told myself. She was fighting in a battle and hiking up a hill. She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

When Mom died, I felt empty and defeated. The “let’s play pretend” game was up and I’d lost. But I started it up again soon after Mom’s death, this time on my own. Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be ok, so I tried to be ok for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. I wanted to be strong.

Me and Mom on Christmas morning. Taken about a year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Dad,” I said the day after she died. “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, at age 11, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

 

“Everything happens for a reason, although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we readily admit that something as devastating as losing a mom just plain sucks, we’re being true to ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

Looking for something to control, I started to control what I ate. Nothing tasted good anymore, and it didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s food did. Since Mom wasn’t there to make me meals or leave me snacks anymore, why even bother eating? After all, those super skinny girls in the “Seventeen” magazines that I peeked at in the library probably didn’t eat. How else would they have such perfect bodies?

It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

Me and dad have gone through a lot together. When I was sick, he was one of the few people who believed I’d get better. He was right.

I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, then I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention.

My battle with food led to four hospitalizations, two month-long stays in a psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Arlington. I’m better — so much better than I ever thought I could be, thanks in large part to the choices I’ve made and to my supportive dad. But still, I struggle.

When I was home for Christmas this past December, I told Dad I was craving one of the gingerbread men that Mom always used to buy. I didn’t buy one, though, because I figured I didn’t really need it. Too unhealthy.

Two days later, my dad handed me a bag from Panera Bread.

“Here, Mal, this is for you.”

He had a big smile on his face. I peered inside and saw a gingerbread man.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, pretending not to want the treat. “I’m not hungry now, though. I’ll have a piece later.”

But then I changed my mind. It hurt me too much to say no. I wanted my dad to know how much his gesture meant to me, so I broke off a piece of the smiling gingerbread’s head. It was harder than I remembered, the taste of ginger wasn’t quite the same, and there wasn’t nearly as much frosting as there should have been. Not like the kind Mom used to buy. The spaghetti and peas equivalent of Mom’s pasta primavera.

You wouldn’t think eating a gingerbread man’s head would be that difficult. But when you’re used to a routine, deviations make way for chaos and temptation. I often eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner because it helps me feel in control. When I’m feeling lonely — because my friends are out at dinner and I’m being a workaholic, because it’s late and the guy I like hasn’t called yet, because I miss my mom — my first instinct is to sneak something from the nearest candy jar, raid the vending machine or open the refrigerator door in search of nourishment.

Dad and I live 1,500 miles away from each other. I always look forward to the late summer, when he usually visits. Here we are on my front porch last year.

I’m trying to find healthier ways to feel full, and to let go.

I’ve found that when we experience loss, we have a tendency to hold on to what we’re afraid will be taken from us. It’s understandable, but in doing so we can miss the point: everything that is good is a gift, freely given. When I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to the people in my life, I’ve missed the experience of the gift of their friendship, love and nourishment. To fill this void, I too often turn to food.

I know, though, that all the cookies and gingerbread men in the world can’t satisfy me. So I’m learning to fill the emptiness with something other than food, and to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Mom would want me to. Sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I slip up. And that’s ok. I don’t want to keep playing pretend.

Finding a Place to Call Home

It took a while for my family to get used to the idea of me calling Florida “home.”

“But this is your home,” my dad would say, referring to the house in my tiny hometown of Holliston, Mass.

“Well, that’ll always be home,” I’d say. “It’s just not home right now.”

Home. Is it the place where you live now, the place where you grew up, or the place where you want to be but can’t ever seem to find?

I grew up in a small, one-floor house that’s flooded with childhood memories. The maple tree in the front yard where I used to “spy” on my neighbors and read daily. The walkway that was more often than not covered in colored chalk creations. The wooden panel in my bedroom where my mom marked my height from age 3 to age 11.

Those are all memories that I still think about when I drive by that old house, which is about two miles away from the house where we moved when I was 13.

The two houses I grew up in were far different from the place I moved to in Clearwater, Fla., after graduating from college. In Clearwater, I lived in a condominium at the intersection of two major roadways. The people living there kept to themselves for the most part, and some would even put their heads down when they came in contact with passerby. I would go “home” after work, close the door, then enter into my own little world.

I was part of a community but not connected to it. Though I lived in Clearwater, I didn’t work or play there. Work was a half hour away in St. Petersburg, as were friends there and in Tampa. Since I lived off Highway 19, I couldn’t easily go for a walk or a run as I could in college and in Massachusetts.

Now I can, though. After returning from Dallas, where I interned at The Dallas Morning News for three months, I moved to a garage apartment in St. Petersburg last November. I now live a mere three miles from downtown and only about 10 minutes away from my good friends in the area.

A sweet older couple owns the house that’s connected to my garage apartment, and I’m in a neighborhood where I can walk around and meet other people. I recently met a girl down the street who I run with, and I met a mother and daughter who live next door after stopping at their yard sale and buying a little wooden desk.

Of course, living in a neighborhood isn’t always glamorous. We all have them — those neighbors who start mowing their lawn at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, who leave the dog outside for far too long until it barks itself to sleep, or who insist on talking to you for 20 minutes every time you get out of your car.

I’ve had my share of annoying neighbors, but the neighbors who live behind me are perhaps the rowdiest group of guys I’ve ever heard. On weekends, there are often five or more cars parked outside their tiny house, which has a backyard that’s filled with trash, boats, a hot tub … and a limo. The limo just sits there, though the guys did use it on Super Bowl Sunday.

There is a slab of wood propped up on a tire, which they light on fire before jumping over it on a moped. During parties, people lean against the limo and make out, not knowing that I’m peeking through my blinds to get a look at the chaos. You can’t help but want to look at what the commotion is all about when you hear trucks laying rubber or continuous bangs outside your apartment.

The bangs, I’ve learned, come from the guys ramming their golf cart into the boats in their backyard. The noise is occasionally accompanied by vibrations, which shake the apartment to the beat of whatever music they’re blaring in their cars. These neighbors sound disruptive, but they’re more entertaining than anything else.

Now that I feel situated in my new apartment and have gotten used to the “entertainment,” I’ve made a conscious effort to feel more connected to St. Petersburg. I have doctors here, a bank, a yoga studio, a hairdresser, a veteranarian, a laundromat. And I have a great group of friends who I regularly spend time with and who help me strike a better balance between work and play.

We all need to have this sense of belongingness, a feeling that we have a place we can call home, even if it’s not the home we’ve known or the one we see ourselves inhabiting 10 years from now. A desire to feel more connected to the community we work and live in is no doubt easier when it’s attached to a feeling of permanency. Now that I have a full-time job in St. Petersburg as opposed to a fellowship, I know that I am going to live in St. Pete for at least another year or two and therefore have invested the time to establish myself here.

When I read the newspaper now, the names of stores and people mean more to me. I am more concerned when I hear about shootings or break-ins and more interested in write-ups of local restaurants or coffee shops. Hey, that’s only 10 blocks down the street, I think. I’ll have to check it out. Having a sense of where things are located is a good indicator that you’ve developed a sense of place. I no longer get lost in St. Pete and don’t need my handy GPS, which has saved me more times than I’d like to admit.

What’s missing, really, from my new home is family. I’m lucky enough to have a set of surrogate parents and supportive colleagues here, but living alone is nevertheless an adjustment. In college, I had roommates for support, and my dad was a mere hour away. I didn’t have to think about rent payments, 401 (k) plans, insurance or many of those other  scary “adult things.”  So many times, I’ve thought, wow, my dad would have just done this for me in the past. Now I have to do it myself.

Not relying on dad, though, has made me more confident in my own abilities. I’ll admit, I’ve become quite skilled at putting together furniture and of somehow making sense of those crappy directions that come with TV stands, bookcases, tables, etc. I’ve become good at taking care of my car rather than just assuming that pops will take it to the mechanic when it needs an oil change or a headlight replacement. And I’ve become good at learning that it’s OK to admit you can’t do it all on your own. Living alone, I’m learning, doesn’t mean you have to be alone; part of feeling “at home” is feeling comfortable enough to call on friends, neighbors and surrogate parents for help.

I was talking with my dad on the phone today about all of this and started feeling nostalgic for Massachusetts, where he, my grandmother and my best friends all live. Save for a few extra dust balls, my room in Holliston is just as it was when I left it — a sign of my dad’s desire to keep a piece of me there, to let me know that I can always call that house home.

“I’m glad you feel so comfortable there in Florida,” my dad told me during our phone conversation. “That’s not a bad place to call home.”

“No, you know, it’s really not …”

I’m sure I’ll move a few more times before I really “settle down.” For right now, though, I’m content here in St. Pete. I don’t know if home is where the heart is, but I know that for right now, home is here.