The Ripples of My Mother’s Hunger

At the age of 6, I developed a food phobia. My second-grade teacher offering me a banana at snack time could make me weep. I would make a plea to not eat butternut squash soup with the fervor of a Shakespearean monologue. Suddenly, the ideas of eating certain foods sent me into a blind panic. Doctors were confounded, especially when my mom would wax on about how I had had a healthy appetite for years.

“She would eat absolutely anything; she would eat shrimp as a toddler,” my mom recalled nostalgically to pediatricians. The hunger-shaped hole in my family’s history had rotted into a full-blown eating disorder. It was especially confounding to my family because, while it disrupted our lives, it was largely invisible to outsiders, or even to doctors: My weight remained in the normal range.

In fifth grade, I called my mother to ask to be picked up from a sleepover because they were serving lasagna, which made me anxious. My food phobias put stress on my parents. I would hold family dinners hostage by having deep negotiations with the waiter about what I could eat and could not eat. Thanksgivings were a dietary deadlock. When staying at relative’s homes, my mother would send along a detailed plan for what to do when “her eating got bad.”

The louder my mother’s pleas got to eat and assimilate, the deeper my neuroses ran. By high school, I had become a master safeguarder of my eating disorder, refusing food with the stoicism of a Sofia Coppola protagonist.

A few days after passing my driving test, I was thrust into counseling for an eating disorder. I sat cross-legged on the floor of a therapist’s office and wrote lists of foods I thought were innately obscene. I dictated the deep mythologies I had about eating, praised foods I considered to be “safe.”

My therapist bartered with me, asking me to add one new food to the list each week. Some afternoons I would leave her office so shattered that I would bawl in my Mini Cooper and listen to Joni Mitchell on my way home. By a sheer force of will, one day I left and tried an artichoke. The morning of my senior prom, I sampled Greek yogurt. I sighed with relief. In that moment, wearing blue eye shadow, I felt that I achieved an assemblance of normalcy.

As a college student, I continued seeking out intensive therapy and worked to unfetter myself from my eating rituals. As I began to better understand my mother and develop my own identity apart from her, my proclivities and rituals surrounding food melted around me.