Saturday afternoons were a purposeful affair in our house when I was a girl. We had two activities that sent us to heaven and, on sunny days in Africa, when we should have been playing outside, we did them both at the same time – eating and reading.
We three little girls and our mother would tumble into her ugly beige Austin with the cranky sunroof and the rusted hole in the floor, and chug along to the book exchange, which would have been a short enough walk. There, a hawkish aunty with a stick-on bun swapped our weekly reads for a new haul of dog-eared treasures.
It was a library of the pulpiest fiction – but with sweets: shelves of gummy, melting, chocolatey candies. Oh, what would we choose this week to fill our brown paper bags? On the book front, Mills & Boon were my favourite – improbable tales of first love in which the protagonist was a 19-year-old virgin with a menial job and the chap a high-earning professional in his early 40s. It was time to escape and gorge on far-from-aspirant dreams and unhealthy food that made my heart and belly ache.
Life revolved around food for my mother, and her mother before her, enough was never enough and I followed their example. In her learned behaviour and the need to forget the reality of a bad marriage that she could not leave, she taught me her coping method: lie on your bed and binge-eat rubbish.
It was an affordable and accessible way out for the unhappy woman. The physical damage was plain to see but the psychological damage burgeoned also. Before I could make my own decisions about what I should consume for good health, a pattern of self-harming though food – confused by the contentment I thought it gave me – was set.
Feelings of guilt about my mother’s challenging life were interwoven, along with powerlessness as a child who could not rescue her. Overeating together was solidarity. My mother was a gifted cook, but she hated to do it and, boy, did she let us know, so you can add feeling like a burden to the mix. And so, a complex relationship with food was born. We call them treats, but are they really, when you feel like choking on your twentieth toffee, and detest your lack of control?
I have found more balance, although I still struggle. I have learned that food, while certainly one of life’s pleasures in all its vitality-giving forms, is only fuel. You need it, but you do not always need it when you feel awful. When you are at a loss, the answer is not between the layers of a Victoria sponge, when your heart is ripped apart, macaroni cheese won’t seal the tear. Junk food will not fill a void and sugar does not anaesthetise pain or grief. There is no comfort in comfort eating. There is comfort, however, in optimum health and trying your hardest to improve your life. I am not saying it’s easy, and many of us will need support, but I no longer wake up in bed with a biscuit tin that doesn’t love me. These are the things about binge-eating that my mother did not tell me – because she did not know them herself. But she was right about the books.
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