Thoughts About Food Trauma and Intuitive Eating

Let me tell you a story about a cheese sandwich.

When I was ten, my family took a long summer trip in a big orange van first to Texas to visit my dad's mom and then through Mexico and back to California.

In Texas, we (at that time there were seven kids in our family) ate cheese sandwiches at our grandma's house. These were just hard cheese slices on white bread with mustard. I was so excited about the mustard, because my step-mother had a penchant for making these grilled cheese sandwiches for us that had mayonnaise in them. Hot mayonnaise on a grilled cheese sandwich. And I wasn't allowed to make a mayo-free sandwich at home. I had to eat what was put in front of me, or be hungry.

After my sister finished her sandwich she asked for and got a second. After I finished mine, I asked for a second and my dad told me that I didn't need it.

You might be asking yourself what the big deal is. It was a sandwich. I was ten. That was nearly 30 years ago. Also, if you buy into the whole war on childhood obesity, my dad was just doing his duty as a parent to help me avoid becoming obese some day.

But it was a big deal. I was already sensitive about my weight and I was also desperate for my father's approval. He'd left my mother (who was an in-betweenie) for a very slender woman three years earlier. He had new kids. His marriage to my step-mother added a second petite sister. And by this time I'd been getting regular "you aren't fat yet, but you don't want to end up like your mother" talks for about a year.

We traveled on through Mexico, where I got really sick. A Mexican doctor diagnosed me with an ulcer, which my American doctor later confirmed. I spent what felt like forever eating pureed foods with no seasoning while my belly healed. The first real meal I had after that was cream of mushroom soup over toast (is that a real meal?) and I can still remember how delicious it was.

In retrospect, I'm positive that the cheese sandwich didn't make me sick. I never even consciously thought that it did. But I still can't eat a cheese sandwich without guilt and a memory of being so sick that I couldn't eat anything but baby food.

A few years later, when I was 15, I'd been living with my dad and step-mother for two years. How that came about is probably another story for another day, but I will say that it boiled down to my need to be accepted and loved by them. When I was 15, we moved to Las Vegas and my father went to prison where he stayed until I was 19.

My step-mother didn't handle being a single mother very well. She started drinking heavily. She'd go to work (she was a teacher) on Friday morning and come home to get showered and dressed on Monday morning. Week after week.

For a long time I accepted that her behavior was a reasonable response to your husband going to prison. But then I became a single mother myself, unexpectedly and very painfully, when Adrienne and Nick were 3 and 4 years old, and I realized that losing yourself in booze isn't really an okay reaction to becoming a single mother.

There were seven of us at home (one sister and brother lived with my mom) and almost never enough food. To this day, I can't eat frozen burritos or those cheap little frozen pizzas. I can't eat boxed macaroni and cheese or canned vegetables. I have a strong, physical reaction to mayonnaise still. I don't even like to look at it.  But, I have lots of macaroni and cheese and canned veggies in my house. Also powdered soup and dried beans. I laugh and call it my zombie apocalypse stash, but in reality I have a fairly disordered need to have a certain amount of food in my house at any given time. And it doesn't matter that I won't eat it or serve it, and usually give it to a food bank at some point before being replacing it.

Party at my house, should the zombies ever make an appearance.

So, I have to have my zombie stash. And I also have to have a certain amount of real food in my house. I can't put a quantifier on how much food that is, but I can tell you that my brain knows when my fridge and pantry have dipped below acceptable levels. And it responds by insisting that I am hungry all the time. Hungry right after I eat. Hungry even when my stomach is full. Hungry for food that I don't normally eat. Especially hungry for any kind of forbidden food, like sugar or gluten.

Then I shop, and everything is okay again.

I have problems with trust and food. This was something that has taken me a really long time to understand. On some deep level, I don't trust that food will be available when I need it for myself and my kids. I don't trust that eating is just eating.

I'm always on guard when my kids are around my family, to make sure that the cheese sandwich story doesn't repeat itself in some way. I've worked really hard to protect them from the kind of food/eating trauma that I have. And I think I've been successful. But I haven't managed to get passed it myself.

This became really clear recently when my sister and I talked about that time, when Nick was an infant and not gaining weight due to a food intolerance, when my entire family accused me of starving my baby. No, really. They did. Loudly, publicly. Often and intervention style. And, judging by the strong reaction I had to talking about it again, I'm not over that even 17 years later. I might not ever be.

So, with all of the issues I have surrounding food and eating, I've wondered sometimes if I'm really meant to be fat.

I don't come from a fat family. My mother was constantly maligned for being fat, but in reality even at her fattest she was 5'8" and 220 pounds--an in-betweenie or small fat in a size 18. And more than 100 pounds smaller than I am now. My family is big in size, mostly very tall and also mostly male, but I am the only real fat person amongst us all. My children aren't fat, despite no effort to try to control their body size. I find it interesting that Adrienne, who looks so much like me but has a really healthy relationship with food and her body, is just about exactly the size I was a couple of years after I stopped swimming.

Is my fat some kind of security blanket? Is it a manifestation of the food traumas that still linger? I don't know.

I do know that I'm finding intuitive eating hard, because I don't trust my intuition when it comes to food. And because when it comes down to it, there are certain foods that I have a really hard time eating and there are foods that I have a really hard time not eating, even if I know they will make me sick.

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Shaunta Grimes blogs about body acceptance and athleticism at every size at Live Once, Juicy. She can also be found on Twitter.

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