The Princess and the Pea

There were deep secrets, hidden in my heart, never said for fear others would scoff or sneer.  At last I can reveal my sufferings, for the strength I once felt in silence has lost all its power.

–Deidra Sarault

My early childhood drifted gently by like a bird migrating south before the approach of a long, bleak winter.   I was  an active child who had many interests that kept me at a distance from my mom as much as possible.  This worked well for both of us, since our interactions were usually a great source of stress. I spent many summer days outside, unsupervised, swimming, playing round-up, rubber ball, and football, climbing trees and roaming through the woods, creeks, and underground sewers with the neighborhood kids.  Often I didn’t come home until long after the street lights were flickering on.    Once autumn settled in, I spent a lot of time in my room reading books, writing, drawing, and making up dance routines to my Diana Ross & the Supremes albums.   I loved playing my trumpet and didn’t mind practicing as I aspired to be as good as my brother.     

My imagination has been a blessing and a curse, but in those days it was mainly a blessing.  Whenever things got really tough with my mom’s illness, I was able to form a barrier between myself and the chaos around me through extensive daydreaming.  This was supported by my love for drawing and writing, which provided me with a way to escape into someone else’s life.  I would draw and write stories about who I wanted to be, places I wanted to go, and famous people I wanted to meet.  There were times when I wasn’t allowed to leave my room for whole weeks, but I was able to occupy myself with these activities and avoid boredom by reading encyclopedias and books.  My favorite stories were Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and The Princess and the Pea which all seemed to be good representations of my life at that time.   

Despite my resilience and ability to adapt to this environment, there were other aspects of my temperament that proved to be more challenging as I entered into my early teens.   I could relate to the Princess who was able to feel that pea through 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds, but unlike her, there was no reward for my increasing sensitivity.   As much as I wanted to continue tuning out and remain cocooned in my dream world, all of my insecurities bubbled to the surface.  I had always been sensitive and shy, and as I grew older I became even more self-conscious and pre-occupied with worry about what others thought about me.  

By 7th grade I was beginning to fill out and compare my body to the other girls my age.  I started my first diet based on a few comments from my mom and a teacher, but this was short-lived as I became accustomed to my developing body.  It took me awhile to notice a large lump that was developing in my chest and realize that it was not part of my breast.  It took me even longer to get the courage to tell my mom, for fear of her reaction.   I confided in a friend, and it was her mom who finally called my mother to let her know.   As soon as she found out, she panicked and called my dad into the room to check it out, adding to my embarrassment and shame.  Doctor visits and examinations followed, and soon I was scheduled for surgery to have it removed.  

The surgery was set for the week after I returned from church camp, and I was completely mortified when the minister announced this in front of the whole congregation on that Sunday.  I was sure all of my guy friends knew and were laughing, and I couldn’t look at anyone.  Fortunately the lump was benign, but the large scar that remained marked the beginning of my dissatisfaction with my body.   

After my mom was hospitalized the first time at the beginning of my freshman year, I was often home alone and felt a new sense of relief and freedom mixed with fear.   I didn’t know what to do with myself and during the hours of aimlessly watching television, I discovered a new “friend”. One that was always there for me, comforted me, and relieved the empty feeling that was in my stomach. I still remember eating that first plateful of spaghetti in front of the t.v., all by myself, and it tasted better than any I’d ever had.  It was followed by another helping and then some cookies and other snacks throughout the evening.  It was such a relief to eat without the usual mealtime tension, and  it was in that moment that I discovered the power of food to lift my spirits.

When my mom returned home from the hospital she was highly sedated and would sit in a chair in the living room and rock for hours at a time, unaware of what was going on around her.  This made it easy for me to continue with my new eating habits, and by the beginning of my sophomore year I had gained over 25 pounds and was feeling so bad I was convinced there was something physically wrong with me.  I insisted my father take me to the doctor.  I was told there was nothing wrong, that I just needed to lose some weight.  Now in high school, I felt like an outsider, comparing myself to all of the thin, popular girls, and feeling increasingly isolated.

The culmination of the long-standing stresses at home along with my extremely sensitive temperament set me up for the classic start of a full-blown eating disorder which lasted for the next 10 years.  This is where I will begin to share about my own experiences with the insecurity and anxiety that led to this struggle for control.

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