Thursday, 30 October 2008
I have read a post on a blog called So Much Straw recently, entitled Punching Bag. It's a very thought-provoking piece, describing this woman's desperation and bewilderment at how her daughter is making her feel responsible for her eating disorder.
I get very mixed feelings when I read posts from parents who are caring for their suffering children. It must be hell on earth for them. It must be awful to be blamed for something which they are trying so hard to support and doing their best to facilitate recovery. I have seen families, from first-hand experience, trying to help their children to get better at an in-patient clinic when I admitted myself privately for a mental health problem (not an ED) a number of years ago. Some mothers were in their 60s and still trying to help their adult daughters. Without wanting to garner any sympathy, I was the only patient there who had no visitors or calls from family.
I can't, in all honesty, lay total and complete blame at my parents' or my ex's doors for my succumbing to anorexia and, previously, bulimia. That would be wrong of me. None of them have starved me, forced laxatives down me, stuck fingers down my throat. I did that all by myself. So there are times when I feel somewhat guilty for writing about things I have experienced in my life which have left residual hurt and insecurities as the implication is: look what they did; look what I became.
It's a bit of a can of worms when you start to analyse it.
I have only had one 'significant other' in my life to support me through an ED - and that is Ian. The ex had no time for it at all and if I sloped off to toilets after meals or took laxatives I was berated purely for having 'wasted' the food or the laxative money. His oft-repeated snarl to me was that he might as well get a plate of food and flush it down the toilet, to cut out the middle man.
My parents, when I finally revealed I had bulimia, were somewhat ignorant of its implications. This was a problem which wasn't that well discussed in the UK at the time - we'd all heard of anorexia due to the deaths of Lena Zavaroni and Karen Carpenter - but bulimia was still an unknown quantity. OK, Princess Diana had this 'strange' problem, but the press didn't really go into great detail about its physical manifestations. By this stage, though, I had read some books about its triggers, the side-effects, the long-term damage and was a bit more clued up. My father asked to read the particular book I told him about and upon my next visit to their house, I asked what they had thought about it. A frosty atmosphere already abounded upon my arrival directed at me from my mother, but at this point, she stormed out of their lounge, returned with aforesaid book and with dizzying hubris at what rubbish it was, hurled the book at me, catching me square on the side of the head.
And thus ensued a diatribe of what an ingrate I was; how rude I was to suggest that she or my father were to blame for the ED; and that I was probably doing this to attention-seek anyway.
The ironic thing was, I hadn't pointed out a single chapter to her, yet she had picked up on the one which suggested that critical and conditional parenting could have a profound effect on the self-esteem of a child or young adult and could contribute to the emergence of an eating disorder.
This happened in my early 20s. I had just got married and was hoping to start a family at some point. I had moved quite a way from my home town and was trying to find my feet in a very small Yorkshire village. I made some wonderful friends through the church where the ex and I had wed, some of whom became almost surrogate parents to me. It was also at this time that I bought a book called 'My Mother, My Self' by Nancy Friday and, boy, did it open my eyes! It propounds that 'The greatest gift a good mother can give remains unquestioning love planted deep in the first year of life, so deep and unassailable that the tiny child grown to womanhood is never held back by the fear of losing that love, no matter what her own choice in love, sexuality, or work may be.' I was able to relate to many of the interviews contained within the book; many of the disfunctional relationships which were described and how the women had been affected.
The common thread was that none of these women had been given unconditional love from their mothers. It wasn't a concept I had come across before as, despite having studied Psychology at college, we looked more into the effect of sleep deprivation on monkeys, and other bizarre studies from the 60s! Being able to empathise with the different experiences in the book gave me an inordinate amount of guilt trips. I felt very disloyal to my mother for recognising certain characteristics and suspecting having been subjected to similar withdrawals of affection. It felt very, very wrong to make these associations.
As time went on, with the insight of this book, I started to feel rather bitter towards my mother. I discussed this with a counsellor I was seeing at the time, and she suggested that I asked my mother to attend counselling sessions with me for a short period. This would mean driving over to Cheshire to collect her and take her back the next day, and I was prepared to do this in order to heal the rift I felt could get worse and worse. Well, I approached her and was met with the hysterical rant my ex predicted would come: there was nothing wrong with her; nothing wrong with the way she had raised me; I was the mental case not her...And so, ignorance is bliss.
But there are parents out there who genuinely want to help their children and will work through any amount of baggage to arrive at equanimity. And it is these parents who I feel the inordinate amount of pity for (in an extremely non-patronising way). I am a parent to two daughters. One is almost 14; the other almost 12. Perhaps they will have issues with me as they get older. I know the divorce affected them deeply as have other events in their short lives. I know that Rosemary blames me for a lot of things - even down to her leaving her school shoes at her father's house, one memorable occasion! But I feel that, on the whole, we always talk things through when the dust has settled, and both of us are able to discuss where we went wrong; why an argument has happened; and we can both apologise and make up.
And I know for sure that if she needed me to attend counselling with her, I would. Because I have. And I have heard things which hurt, but which I will also address. And maybe that is the difference between my mother and some other mothers who have children with EDs. The latter mothers, although it is painful, can be willing to listen and help. And this is possibly why they feel like punching bags.
As it stands, my mother is speaking to neither me nor my brother (or to be more specific, my brother refuses to countenance her). My own daughters do not like her for her manipulative tactics and avoid any contact with her if they can. She speaks to only one of her siblings on a regular basis and criticises the others as if they were social pariahs. Yet she is always in the right, and hard done-to.
Any parent who believes they have no part in the negative behaviours of a child should not take any credit for the positive behaviours. As parents, we nurture and encourage (or discourage) our children. They take their cues from us as well as their peers. And we can get it wrong, repeatedly. But, I believe it's when we are so arrogant that we believe our absolute 'rightness' that we are failing our offspring. And arrogance can only breed malcontent and chaos.