From Raped Child to Recovering Food Addict
After I was raped at the age of 11, food became my enemy and my master. Part of my recovery has been to engage with food in a sober way.
When I was 11, my father won a trip for three to Mexico City. Maybe because my sister was the youngest, or maybe because my brother and I were going to be traveling to Germany to visit my grandparents later that summer, she went with my parents, while my brother and I stayed behind. Two men, friends of the family, stayed with us.
My recollection of those two weeks is hazy. The mind won’t open doors to memories that the psyche cannot take in. It isn’t that I don’t remember, it’s that I remember only a few scenes.
What I remember is the white light of my bedroom, the screened windows with daylight pouring in, and one of the men, Duke, a chubby man in his 30s, with pink skin and curly blond hair, naked and forcing himself onto me, over and over again.
I remember he told me he liked me because I reminded him of his daughter who was also 11. He said he liked me because I was chubby.
Whereas before food was something I ate for sustenance, something I never thought of, now food became the enemy.
He also told me he loved me and that he owned a gun and that if I told anyone what he’d done, he would find me and kill me. Of course I believed him. I didn’t tell anyone what happened until more than a decade later.
Before this happened, I was a tomboy. I spent my days outside, chasing animals, riding go-carts with my older brother, climbing trees. I never thought of my body, about food. I hadn’t yet experienced The Fall: I had not yet become self-conscious.
Soon after my parents returned, my brother and I traveled to Germany to stay with my grandparents for the summer. I don’t remember much from that period, though I do remember feeling like a caged animal, having the distinct feeling of being trapped inside myself. I withdrew. I became a ghost.
By the fall, when school began, I had decided to lose weight. What the man had told me became a chorus repeating in my head: I am fat. If I weren’t fat, he wouldn’t have done what he did to me. It is at this point that my relationship with food and with my body changed. Whereas before food was something I ate for sustenance, something I never thought of, now food became the enemy.
After that summer, I would never again have the luxury of seeing food as simply something to nourish me or something I might actually enjoy. After that summer, food became something to avoid at all costs. When confronted with cookies and cakes, cheese and crackers, I felt as though I could eat everything, all of it, and more. The more I restricted, the larger my appetite grew. After a period of controlling my eating, I always succumbed. And once I took the first bite, I could not stop.
The summer I was raped was the end of my childhood and the beginning of my war with food and my body. Like my experience with alcoholism and drinking, there is a very clear delineation where my relationship with food became warped. There was never any turning back. In AA, they say, “Once a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again.” And so it is with pickles, cucumbers and every other kind of food.
In my attempts to tame my appetite and control my weight, I’ve been vegan, macrobiotic, raw, vegetarian, organic. I’ve tried Atkins, Dukan, Pritkins, South Beach, the Rice Diet, the Karl Lagerfeld Diet, you name it. This all reminds me of the part in the AA Big Book where it talks about the many ways we try to control our drinking. In the end, the one piece missing was my acceptance of the fact that my relationship with food was warped, that it would never be returned to “normal.”
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that I have the tools necessary to deal with this problem. When I did my Fifth Step in AA I learned that I had warped all my relationships; that instead of seeing each person in my life as a separate and beautiful person, as someone I might be able to share myself with, someone I might get to know, I twisted each relationship so that, in the end, I used each person to fill my needs. In the end, each person became a kind of drug that existed merely for my using. I’ve done the same exact thing with food.
Now, the solution in this situation is not to make amends and then never speak with the people I’ve hurt for fear I’ll do the same thing again. Instead, I made amends and now I ask God to help me and, by working a 10th Step every day, I can see when I am veering back to my old ways. With the help of a sponsor, I can then take a look at my behavior, make amends if I need to, ask for the defect to be removed and then go and help someone.
This same process can be used with regard to food. This morning I got up and, after prayer and meditation, I ate breakfast while reading the news. Food was in its right place. I’ll have lunch around noon when I’m done with my morning writing and that will probably be that. For the most part, yes, I do avoid foods that, when I look at them, my entire body has a reaction, the kind of reaction a child might have when she sees a Christmas tree with wrapped gifts beneath it.
This doesn’t mean I don’t eat cake or cookies, for example. But when I do, I try to check my motives first. Am I eating the sweet because I’m hungry or to fill a void, a void that in the end, only God can fill? This process is no different from the process I use when I check my motives for work, friendship, exercise, or almost any other thing I encounter in my life today. Like sex, eating is a God-given instinct. My instincts have gone awry. Now I can use this spot-check process to help.
I will never be the child I was before the summer I was raped. I'll never be the child I was before my relationship with food was warped. But with the help of the 12 Steps and, in particular, the 10th, my behavior can be returned to the moment before The Fall. I can be restored to sanity about food. Just as it is with alcohol and my alcoholism, I will never be cured. But one day at a time, I can have a daily reprieve.
Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a poet in New York. A regular contributor to The Fix, she last wrote about the problem with hugging in recovery.