When food is your enemy
Story of a hungry soul
Food is a mighty word: it has metaphorical meanings (food for the body, food for the soul), contains several connotations (food is good for your health, food is bad for your health, food is conviviality, food is business, food is show, food is great cooks), is symbolic (you can eat your liver, eat a part of an enemy’s body gives the eater the same characteristics as the thing eaten, I eat you because I love you, I eat you because I want to possess you) Even: I eat you to protect me, as the titan Cronos did with his children.
The myth appears in the ancient Greek poet Esiodo’s Theogony, literally “the genealogy and birth of Gods”. Crono and Rhea gave life to six children, but the father knew that one of them would have deposed him, so he devoured them one after the other. The last, Zeus, however, was saved by Rhea, who gave Cronos a big stone to eat, instead. Grown, Zeus was able to make Cronos disgorge the contents of its stomach: the stone and its children. In a great war, then, the Titanomachy, Zeus overthrew Cronos.
He [Cronos] vomited the stone first, swallowing it last. And it Zeus fixed in the broad-wayed earth, in hallowed Pytho beneath the vales of Parnassos, to be a sign hereafter, a wonder for mortal men. He loosened his father’s brothers from destructive bonds, 13 sons of Ouranos, whom their father bound in his folly. They remembered gratitude for his benefactions and gave him thunder and gleaming lightning and flash. Before, monstrous Gaia hid them. Relying upon these, Zeus lords over mortals and immortals
Food is a pleasure, food is also a torment, not as much as body weight is concerned, whereas existence in itself is the matter at stake.
In a word, food is never simply food, it is always something more and different. A mother gives food to her children as a gesture of affection, food is love, is heat, gives completeness, is creation, creativity, is venom, is colour, smell, shapes.
A very basic and immediate equation is food=body=mother. The newborns suck food from the mother and in this way they perceive their body. Food is also life, materiality, sexuality, both at a primitive stage, as instinct, and even nowadays in that love games imply the use of particularly “sexy” food.
Given this extraordinary semantic richness of the word, it does not seem strange that food can be as well a symptom of dangerous psychological diseases. Unconscious, our unconscious sees more deeply than our conscious part. Where this latter notices an apple, the former perceives sin, transgression, disobedience.
At the very early stages of our life we are not conscious of what happens around us, but the unconscious stores up thousands of gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, is even able to capture what similarities all this material shares and put it away it in a particular zone of the soul (it reads “unconscious”), where it takes roots and generates many branches, which, at a given moment, triggered by a specific event, bloom and produce the disease.
There is not a personal commitment, an individual will that can lead the soul to develop the disease, but the person affected by the disturb is, in a certain way, predestined to it, because of specific environmental, behavioural, psychological, historical, and social elements.
As to these previous points, a great number of books have been written, and important psychologists have treated the issue. We may cite some of them, among the most known:
- Fabiola De Clerq, Donne invisibili (Invisible Women) and Tutto il pane del mondo (All the Bread of the World)
- Renate Göckel, Donne che mangiano troppo (“Ebsucht oder die Scheu vor den Leben”, Women who eat too much)
- Ute Ehrhardt, Le brave ragazze vanno in paradiso, le cattive dappertutto (“Gute Maachen kommen in der Himmel, bose uberall hin”, Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Ones Everywhere)
- S. Forward and D. Frazier, Emotional Blackmail.
I am not a psychologist, I have only read about and studied the topic, so let’s concentrate on an individual story of a hungry soul. It does not need to say that we are dealing with anorexia.
It started in a very unnoticed way: a round, thin, Italian pizza was too much. Maybe she was not full, but the mind imposed to stop eating, the mind wanted to exert its supremacy upon the body.
Other tiny steps she took toward a unique direction: diminishing the quantity of food eaten; so at breakfast six biscuits and a cup of white coffee could make the person fatter — the mind keeps on repeating — , hence the decision was quick: the biscuits little by little became 4, then 2, then zero, and the milk disappeared from coffee.
The parents, at this point, were worried and had the girl visited by various doctors and specialists. Some suggested she should eat bread and jam in the morning, increase the quantity of sugar and fats, eat more often, say 5 times a day. The already anorexic girl was terrified by these pieces of advice, all going to force her to put on kilos. This for her was insane, dirty, provoked only rejection. She never returned to those doctors, worsening her health condition. Now, with different knowledge, we can say that those psychologists did their job very badly and did not respect the basic needs of the girl: being understood and helped to win her fear of food.
One of them mentioned as first the magic word: anorexia, he claimed that the girl could have developed the new malady (it was the ’80s and very little they knew about food diseases) that forced girls (the boys rarely fell ill with anorexia; nowadays the number is although increasing) not to eat at such a degree that some of them reached 35 kilos of weight.
Anorexic people are really competitive with themselves: for them, it is never enough what they do, their goals are always inadequate, and they think they could overcome their limits easily, especially because they either do not know what their limits are or consider their value very high. Thus that precise comment, probably uttered with a bit of negative judgment (at those time psychological diseases were still considered as a tantrum to be treated hard) and a blaming expression, as to insinuate she was a stupid and superficial, spoilt girl, activated a reaction. The girl enraged inside, she was too proud to accept that someone presumed badly about her, she swore to herself she would reach 32 kilos, so he could see what she was made.
By that time she was already a mom of a wonderful boy of 3, had never had weight problems, was considered a beautiful girl. Yet, she started looking at food differently: food was to make her fat, very fat, her mantra was the less she swallowed, the better it was for her. Every day it became a kind of fight, silent fight, between her and food: every day she diminished the quantity of it, chose mainly low calories food, left in the plate quite a half of what there was.
The husband was a kind of fatalist: “she would soon be hungry again” he said, in good faith, he was not made for psychological explanations. Later on, the parents became angry, they made believe they did not care what and how much she ate, but actually, they hated her because she was so thin, because she disobeyed, because she, through her body, screamed there was something wrong with her and her family.
Step by step she won the bet: she was exactly 32 kilos, for 168 cm height.
In the photos of that period, she appears as a skeleton dressed up. two big sad eyes and a dull, wary expression of fear and pride.
This poor soul did this all for food.
Then, fortunately, there was a recovery.
When she started being well again, she read lots of books about anorexia, food, weight and discovered a big part of herself that had been buried for a long time. It happened that while she was reading a paragraph, she already knew what the next paragraph would have been about. Or she foresaw what the writer was speaking about, or a sentence remained in her mind for days, until she saw the hidden meaning of her obsession with it. In one word, she became aware of the anorexic part of her, a part that had been lingering a long time before taking control of her.
Finally, she acquired awareness, started a journey of mindfulness, and could understand that she was not a superficial, spoilt girl, but an ill person, and as such, she was looking for a cure. She might have believed it was she who controlled the anorexic behaviour, who decided how much of an apple she could eat at each meal, projecting on her ego an enormous power; but it was not, it was the illness, the anorexia, which controlled her, it needed to break that tie, to believe anew that she too had a mind, could formulate thoughts, had ideas.
It was a long journey, the recovery. And it had little to do with material food and kilos gained. Surely, there was an initial period in which eating was a priority, there was a risk of life, of losing cognitive capacities, but the dangerous period lasted shortly, she recovered, ironically, thanks to packets of biscuits. And psychological help.
The recovery was a kind of apprenticeship of life. There was a lot to learn, mainly to feel the body not as an enemy, but as the most cherished friend. The girl comprehended that she was not to become an aerostat, as she had always believed during the anorexic years, instead she had to become first a person, then a woman, then a mother, then a wife, then an independent woman, in addition, she conceived she had to have a job, to do what she liked most, to recognize she had dreams to follow for realizing them.
In those dark years, food was never neutral, a pizza was not only a pizza but a means of rebellion, a gesture of rejection, an incredible amount of calories, something that would make her grow bigger like Alice in the famous novel by Lewis Carrol.
Food was an enemy. She was able to do without it, was stronger than the other people who ate, they were weak, dirty, contaminated, sexed. Every time she had an exam at University, for example, she had to fast so that she could remain intact and make her brain emerge in all its splendour. The most beautiful and important thing was her brain, her intelligence, her knowledge. Feelings? She could not feel sentiments, like the food they would have destroyed her, she felt unable to deal with them both.
Another aspect was the unbelievable quantity of time she could study or work, the absurd quantity of books she could read in a very short time, the multitude of notes she was able to take down, or of research she could do. Even to 15 hours a day.
She also had a very active behaviour: only stairs, never lift, walking instead of taking the bus, had an entire series of little precise gestures to accomplish a task that would have worn out everybody else.
Rejecting food was as a rejection of the “heavy” part of life, the responsibility. She remained “light” so that she did not have to dirty her hands with the mud of material life. She was superior to instincts so low such as hunger.
And thanks to the little supply of food, she did not feel tiredness and could be “perfect”, at least so she believed.
Not eating was also a way to exorcise death. Food is corruptible, and our body corrupts because it is made of the same substance as food. Corruptibility is the characteristic of death, she secretly believed to be immortal, that is why she also never realized that she was playing with her life.
She read about eremites, who could fast for 40 days, and in this way, they succeeded in seeing God; scientific studies had proved that their physical age was inferior to their chronological age because the body had corrupted less in comparison to normal people that ate. Anorexic people feel they are very near those spiritual men or women, they have a special spiritual identity that only the absence of food could realize.
In certain periods, the anorexic who is healing feels proud to have been anorexic, they consider this status as a privileged condition, accorded only to superior beings. They venerate thinness as proof of intelligence, smartness, beauty. Feelings for them are always a bit too invasive and disturbing.
Life is not so schematic, humans do not have control of the vital strength that keeps alive a person of 32 kilos. When anorexic people learn this simple lesson, they have recovered.
Anna Ferrari is a teacher and writer. Her last novel Unfathomable Destiny was released in 2018 and speaks about two courageous women, Gwyny, of Celtic origins, and Beatrice, a modern girl, who fight to live their lives as they want, without impositions. Nice, isn’t it?
Here you can find her other stories on Medium. Be sure to clap if you liked “When food is your enemy” and have a Medium account.