My relationship with food has historically been a difficult one.
As a teenager I went on a strict diet – mostly made up of cottage cheese, crispbread, lean meat and fruit – to keep me at 7/71/2 stone. That was the only way I could feel reasonably good about myself and my body.
Even so, I didn’t think anybody could possibly find me attractive, and I struggled with a very limited life.
If I ever did ‘let go’ and start to eat anything even remotely fattening, my mood plummeted as my weight gained. The only way I could cope was to start restricting my eating again. I had no concept that help or support of any kind might be available; it was a very private and lonely struggle that went on until my mid-40s. After an almost catastrophic catalogue of failed relationships and career stalemate I realised that I had to push through the internal barriers, and keep going until I came out the other side.
20 years on, at 66, I believe I have finally arrived at that point.
I weigh five stone more than I did in my teens, and though I am aiming to steadily lose some weight this won’t be my starving myself – not just of food, but of life.
There are many factors and influences that have helped me to get through, not least in recent years that of my partner, Trev, who makes me feel beautiful just as I am, inside and out. That’s a great gift to get at any age!
I’ve taken on board Buddhist teachings of all kinds, with one fundamental phrase being an enduring fallback: “The mind is a muscle and it can be changed.”
I’ve had to fight and work hard to train and change my brain and was fortunate to find the fight associated with a strong survival instinct when I needed it.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t had moments of self-loathing that threatened to be overwhelming. But I kept looking for and finding ways to be positive, including reaching out to others who were also struggling in the extreme.
I still won’t try clothes on in a shop changing room, and feel no need to put myself through that ordeal. So while this may be evidence of ‘avoidance’ lingering in my psyche, it’s a minor issue as far as I’m concerned, and doesn’t get in the way of me living my life in a full way, including enjoying delicious food.
That does by no means mean that I now consider myself to be an ‘expert’ (whatever that means). However, for a long time I struggled to even form them, at any meaningful level, never mind knew what to do once I finally decided to jump in at the deep end, at the age of 24.
Up till then my life had been a relationship desert. Unlike my peers – who all seemed naturals to me – I just didn’t seem to have what it took. I had extreme social anxiety and – though I didn’t know then – depression, associated with an eating disorder and a fear of being laughed at, humiliated, rejected. So I put up walls to protect myself from what I, essentially, most wanted and needed.
Apart from an occasional snog and a few dates that did nothing to stir my emotions or hormones I thought I would never meet the man of my dreams, fall in love, be happy…
Of course, the idea of meeting someone took itself into the realms of romantic fantasy, giving me no experience of managing the reality. When I did ‘meet’ someone who I had a strong connection with, it was from a distance as he was with someone else. The distance got even greater when he went off to the other side of the world to be with her, and I lost my sense of hope.
I ended up marrying someone I hardly knew because he asked me! I’d just lost my job and I had been floundering without any sense of direction since leaving college two years previously – the eating disorder made it hard to concentrate on anything other than finding ways to take my mind off food – so it seemed as if fate had finally decided to go my way. Foolish, I know now. Or was it? Maybe it was, essentially, the only way I was going to learn to swim, by jumping in at the deep end. We lasted three and a half years before he said he wanted us to separate as I was ‘holding him back’.
It would have been good if we could each have gone our separate ways and found happiness with someone else. I did (after I had learnt many more hard lessons in life over many subsequent years). Sadly, he passed away while still a young man, although he had lived life in his own ebullient gregarious way up to then.
At the time when we split up I could have done with some counselling, to help me explore and start to work through all the issues that were suddenly thrown up in my head and in my heart. It was the 1980s then, though, and I hadn’t even heard of counselling.
Instead, I stumbled, crumbled, and fell into another relationship with a lifetime of unresolved ‘stuff’ still bubbling away. It can’t have been a good experience for my partner, I realise that now, although we both tried to make it work, and support each other in our different ways.
My internal volcano finally exploded when, after a joint business venture collapsed, my partner went off with someone else. The extremes of my emotions and state of mind from there went off the Richter scale and I had a breakdown (to put it mildly). I’d wanted eventually to start a family but, in my late thirties by then, I entered a period of significant instability on all levels.
I had to pull out all the stops to pull myself back from the brink and into functionality over a prolonged period and have only just completed a cycle of recovery that I started over 25 years ago.
During that time, I’ve reached out to and found many different ways of learning to live and love.
At one point I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor. The main model that the training was based on was the principle that, with support and time and commitment, the sense of loss doesn’t go away or get smaller, but your life can grow bigger around it. This resonated with me, and I’ve found that it has helped me to reach out and grow into an awareness of life that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t had to learn how to find a way through.
For over five years I’ve been in a relationship with a lovely, loving, funny, kind, clever man who also struggled with relationships when he was younger. (I think there must be a lot of us around.)
Even so, the final stages of my recovery cycle have not been easy; I have had to do more than tie up a few loose ends and threads. ‘Out of the blue’ my brain took me to places where it had stored memories from 40 years ago, locked away because they were too painful for me to bear before.
I’m well on the way to having worked through them now, thanks to having the loving arms and heart of my partner to help me feel the sadness that I needed to feel; that I wished I could have felt at the time, for myself and those I was involved with.
The sadness was worse, for having stayed so buried for so long as extreme trauma that hit me during my breakdown period: trauma associated with decisions I’d made; paths I’d taken. Edvard Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’, just about sums up how I felt inside at that time; and then some; and then some more. The collage I made in 2001 presents my own version of that scream; the scream of the agonised soul.
Recently, I’ve come across The Hawaiian Healing Art of Ho’oponopono – Forever Conscious. It’s said that things come to us in our lives when we most need them and/or are receptive to them. I most certainly needed this and it was an utter revelation to me. It has helped me to heal from feelings of guilt that have haunted me for decades, all rooted in the difficulties I had in forming, managing and ending relationships in the past.
People had tried to reach me, and I had tried to reach out to them. Ultimately, though, I needed to reach within myself – however long it took – and find what I needed to find. I’ve been fortunate to be able to finally reach that goal from within the protective space of a loving relationship.
I think I’ve learnt a lot about relationships, including knowing how important it is to keep working at them, and know that there is always more to learn. Most of all though, I’m loving now being able to love and be loved. It is worth working for, however long it takes.
Red was the colour of your jacket on the chair – with slender, tender fingers curled around a tumbler – as you waited for me there on our first date
Red was the colour of my jacket too there was something about you – the mark on your cheek the way you held your head – it wasn’t love at first sight but I was happy for it to be something else instead
Since then our jackets have become a pair – your slender, tender fingers hold me now in bed – but I’ll always remember our first date when you and I both wore red