My mother, my sister, and I have been trading emails over the past couple of weeks planning our family’s Christmas Day meal. For me this experience has been frustrating, provoking in me feelings of anger, exasperation, resentment, confusion, abandonment, and hopelessness.

In the end I had a real epiphany: I still take full responsibility for my eating disorder and the behaviors I’ve engaged in as an adult that have fed that disorder. But it was absolutely inevitable, that coming from my family, I would have an eating disorder. I’ve nurtured it, but they made it.

In the clarity that this food plan has given me I can see that there is utter chaos around food with my family. More importantly, no one seems to care what anyone else’s needs are when it comes to food and despite the loudly vocal claims of support people are actually actively attempting sabotage.

As a mental health professional I understand all too well the group dynamics here. I was assigned the role of the one with “problems with food” when I was about 8 years old. That has remained my role throughout the subsequent 30 years. My sister also has a disordered relationship with food, but her’s keeps her thin so  no one notices or acknowledges that her behavior is disordered. My brother (with whom none of us have any contact, at his doing) has the same issues with food that I do (I am certain of this, I have seen enough of myself in him to recognize the behaviors) but he’s male and no one in my traditional conservative family would ever think that a male could have an eating disorder.

In my very un-boundaried family of origin everyone has always made it their business to know what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, when I’m eating, why I’m eating, and they feel free to make comments on my food choices to me. They criticize, support, judge, sabotage and advocate for me on the ever changing tides of their own moods. Here are some typical examples:

From age 8 on my mother would move serving dishes of food away from my reach when she thought I had had enough. That right there: judgement.

The day my parents left me at college I weighed the least I had in three years after a summer of hard dieting and exercise. As I walked away from them back to my dorm that day my father turned to my mother and said, “Take a good look at her. We won’t see her this thin again.” How do I know this? Because my mother chose to tell me about it afterwards. That right there: sabotage.

When I was a junior in college and trying to lose weight, after my mother had suggested Atkins to me (she was always buying me diet books and making “suggestions” about what I should do to “slim down”) I came home to dinner one night to them serving me a meal that consisted entirely of pasta. That right there: sabotage.

This past summer, after seeing that I’d lost a fair amount of weight and knowing that I wasn’t eating refined carbs, my dad asked to go to a restaurant where he could get “a good plate of pasta”. That right there: sabotage.

My mother, of course, freaked out and yelled at him telling him that he didn’t need to have pasta. That right there: support (only it was undermined by the level of panic in her voice).

I believe without my weight as a topic of discussion and a “problem” that the family must deal with they don’t know how to fit me into the family dynamic and that scares them. It scares them because on some level it identifies me as “other” in a way that they don’t like. I know it also scares them because it will force them to have to turn their attention elsewhere to problems they don’t want to have to face.

I don’t really blame them for any of this. I recognize that all of this comes from their own limitations and as an adult I’ve tried to learn to accept them as the imperfect human beings that they are. But it still drives me crazy a lot of the time.

Back to Christmas dinner…

My mother (who knows I haven’t been eating any refined carbs) and sister were together over Thanksgiving and my sister sent me this email:

> Mom has asked that we celebrate at our house this Christmas Day. We discussed the menu and began to assign dishes…
> Me- lasagna, sausage, meatballs
> Mom- salad, wine, apple pie
> You- hors d’oeuvres, desert for kids.
> If this doesn’t sound agreeable please let me know.

I wrote back and was very upbeat, I chatted about ideas for the kid dessert and what time we’d like to start. I mentioned that I’d bring food for my son who has food allergies. Then I wrote this:

“[Husband] and I are not actually eating any pasta or bread products right now so we’ll pass on the lasagna and meatballs. Instead I’ll bring something for the two of us to eat as well.”

Do I need to tell you that chaos ensued? My sister’s reply was: “we should rethink the food…I really don’t want 5 meals going on”.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took 15 emails and 2 phone calls to finalize the meal. My sister is now a vegetarian who eats only vegetables and bready carbs. My father wants pasta (as always!). I’m not eating refined carbs.

What pissed me off initially is that my mother knows about the food plan I’m on. I’ve never named it specifically but I’ve told her a half-dozen times that I’m not eating bread, pasta, or refined carbs. So why she thought this meal would be ok is beyond me. Also, I haven’t eaten white sugar in 14 years so why did my mother keep asking me if apple pie would be ok for dessert?!

Not only was their plan totally unsupportive, but the ensuing drama demonstrated to me the extent to which everyone was worried only about herself and that they wanted the drama. I was willing to have them make whatever they wanted and I’d just bring something for myself. But that wasn’t going to be allowed.

Then, after the 15 emails and 2 phone calls, a couple of days went by and my mother sent out a “confirmation” email going over what we were all bringing. Of course, she got some of the assignments wrong and added in that my sister is making bread and a fruit compote. I wrote back that I hadn’t heard about that before and my sister chimed in that she and my mother had had a private conversation about it and decided that she would make that. So, no simple fruit salad that I could eat, now some cooked fruit with sugar in it.

AGHHHHHH!!!! I’m getting angry again just writing about it!

I am sure I am guilty of only thinking about myself, but it’s hard not to think through the lens of trying to get my needs met when I’m not allowed to just show up with my own food and not partake in what they’ve made. If I confronted them on any of this, or even just gently pointed out the dynamic, it would be met with defensive horror and me being painted as a drama queen who is overly sensitive and that I’m attacking them when they are just trying to have a nice family dinner. I’m not exaggerating.

It is just no wonder to me that I developed the way I did when this is the typical drama that surrounds family meals.

I needed to get this out of my head so that I could move on and make the foods being requested of me, show up, and not only act happy but be happy.

I try to remember that these people are flawed, very flawed, but they love me just the same.

Their love for me does not excuse their flaws but it reminds me that despite my love for them I too am flawed and I, no doubt, drive them nuts as well. We each strive to find forgiveness for these transgressions that are really just about our own demons.

It is in this dance of forgiveness that I find familial love.

Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas.