Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Looking For Protection

There was an article recently in psychology today which said that children who are abused are far more likely to grow up obese than children who are not. The article addressed physical and sexual abuse, neither of which I suffered as a child. I did suffer emotional abuse on an almost daily basis from my mother who may have had a bipolar disorder, and at the very least, suffered from depression.

It's always been my feeling that gaining a lot of weight has been like putting on an exterior "armor" against emotional pain for me. When you're a small child and bigger people are attacking you, you take comfort in food and use it to make yourself feel more protected. It wasn't until I was in my junior year of college and I was given the support of one of my professors (who I worked for as part of a work-study program) that I started to lose weight. In many ways, she was like the mother/emotionally healthy older sister that I never had.

After college, I became very emotionally detached from my parents. Though I lived in the same house as them, I rarely communicated with them and hid a substantial portion of my life from them. When I got a boyfriend, I only shared what was going on with my sister. My parents were kept in the dark until the moment I "ran away" with him to live in another state across the U.S. from them. I think the main reason that I could maintain my weight loss after leaving the supportive environment at college was that I'd built a wall of secrecy between them and myself, and become so emotionally detached.

Fast forward to how I found myself regaining the weight. Picking up and moving to another state doesn't sound like that big of a deal, especially when you're with someone you love. And one thing I can say is that my future husband loved me and I loved him with a passion. In some ways, this directly led to the problems to come as our insistence on being together as quickly as possible led to some problems.

Moving to another place is immensely stressful when you have no support network to speak of in that place. My soon-to-be husband had worked abroad for a year and just gotten home and his family didn't want him to live with them, let alone both him and a complete stranger (to them) who he was in love with. They disapproved of our haste in getting together and wanted him to first get a job and his own place to live before I came to be with him. We had to live with his best friend's family. What was worse was that I had no friends in the area and the job I took was less than satisfying. In my home state, I had a hard, low-paying job, but it was interesting and pushed me to learn new things in my field.

My soon-to-be in-laws rejected me on many levels and I subsequently developed a difficult relationship with them. I never talked to them about it, but I think they didn't believe my husband and I would work out. What is more, they were very self-involved people who never made me feel welcome and had expectations of me that I was unaware of (in particular, I was supposed to show a certain deference to them out of respect rather than treat them as equals). When I visited, they talked amongst themselves and never asked me any questions. They'd answer me if I talked to them, but I often felt the sense that I was invading a private party when we visited them. At one point, I was left in their house with my husband's brother and sister and her husband while my husband went off to a store with his father and when I went to the bathroom, everyone else just left the house and went off without me without saying a word. It was incredibly rude and an indication of how little regard they had for me.

What was worse was the fact that my husband was too immature to realize that I needed support and that forcing me to interact with his family several times a week was emotionally destructive to me. He continually pushed us to be around them by going over on weekends so he could watch football with his father, eating dinner with them at least once a week, and dropping by to pick up our mail which he insisted be delivered to them rather than to the address we were living at. If I had had friends or even family in the area that I could have gone to while he was with his parents, it would have been different, but there was nowhere to go.

What was more, my husband was pushing me to go with him and get along with them. When I tried to have a conversation about all of the forced contact with them being a problem for me because they clearly did not like me, he said that he would resent me if I didn't allow him to have the relationship he needed and wanted with his family. To be fair to him, he had lived with his family up until his early 20's and was away from them during a year abroad. He probably needed to reestablish his bond with them, but it was killing me and I started to eat and gain weight. I was not only seeking comfort, but protection. I'm sure I gained at least 70 pounds in the year we lived in his home state. Fortunately, my husband learned from that experience and no longer puts me in this position.

This time around, I'm trying to keep what happened in mind. When you're emotionally sensitive and predisposed to eat for comfort, any situation where you have no control and a lot of negative stimuli can easily set off your impulse to protect and comfort yourself with food. I've mentioned before that I have a deadline and a big change ahead in my life and I'm braced for the psychological impact this might have on me this time. Having suffered the consequences once, I know what may come.

I've spent about twenty years in a destructive cycle of overeating since my problems were re-initiated by the issues with my in-laws. I've come a long way in terms of maturity and my husband has as well. He very much regrets what he did before and I can say with certainty that it is one of the very few times that he has put his needs in front of mine in a way that was destructive to me. He lacked the insight to know the effect of what he was doing and I lacked the self-esteem to assert my needs. It's also possible that something else would have triggered my overeating again at some point if that had not. It's not as if that inclination didn't exist before for many years.

To this day, I still feel a lot of anger and resentment toward how I was treated by my in-laws. Despite being overweight, I had a good network of friends back in my home area and people liked me. I never failed at anything I tried to do and I was never roundly rejected by anyone who got to know me after high school (as opposed to strangers on the street who mocked me and called out to me). The way in which I was dismissed and rejected out of hand still fills me with hostility even now, and I wish I could simply forgive and forget. It's like a wound that just won't heal. The truth is that my husband's parents reactivated (and continue to activate) all of my fat girl "call to arms" responses that I have developed because strangers abuse me openly. I can feel the desire to put up a barrier to protect myself when I remember what happened, and I think that's something that needs to be dealt with if I want to increase the chances of not regaining weight once I manage to lose it again.

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