Hello, my name is Heidi and one thing I know from my own experience is that family can be a messy business. I’m sharing this part of my story as a way of providing some hindsight context to how I found myself adopting certain behaviours with food, emotional soothing and creating connections.
Family, in whatever form it takes, is the foundation upon which we all as children build our sense of self, our attachments/connections, our sense of what is and isn’t safe within the world, our brain development and our self regulation patterns.
When I started a journey of weight loss from a ‘what to do about it’ perspective (eat less, exercise more – which I had done so many times) I was diving right into attempting to fix my behaviours instead of asking myself ‘what happened to bring about the behaviour in the first place?’ Underneath every visible behaviour there is always an invisible need. An invisible need often passed down through the generations about safety and connection. An invisible need when it is not met or given its own voice to speak will often kick and scream very loudly to make its self heard through behaviour.
One of my earliest childhood memories is being in the back of my father’s Landrover scared absolutely witless and silent as he sped head on towards a car coming in the opposite direction on the metal road that we lived down, only braking and swerving at the very last minute. The man behind the wheel of the other car was a neighbour – my father’s latest adversary. One sight or mention of this man would send him off on a verbal rampage, ranting on about how he had been wronged by him. There was absolutely no way he was backing down from his views and therefore on this day there was no way he was going to pull over to the side of what was a single lane road to let him past. When he was forced to stop to avoid a head on collusion, down went the window and the torrent of verbal abuse would start flying between them.
I learned very early on to stay quiet during this scene and the many more that would follow – there would be a different adversary, a different scenario but always the same behaviour. To stay safe I learned not to scream, cry or try to intervene. To just stay quiet, don’t speak about it or ask questions – silence is the safest option. To just carry on afterwards like nothing has occurred. It was safest to be invisible.
But there was always comfort and connection to be found around the breakfast/lunch/dinner table, because by the next mealtime everything has been swept under the rug, hidden away like a shameful secret, never to be discussed within the family and most definitely, never to be discussed with outsiders. Eating food brought the family together. It was our family’s way of connecting – no emotional discussions, just delicious food.
It seems so obvious now with hindsight how I was learning to calm myself by seeking comfort in the safety of both silence and food, as deafening and as uncomfortable as both these would ultimately leave me feeling. I was learning protection behaviours by stuffing down these uncomfortable unsafe emotions into my stomach through silence and food, keeping the pain invisible.
As I grew older I often found myself sitting in the hot seat as my father’s adversary. If you’ve ever had the experience of being raged at as a child or as an adult, you’ll know how horrific and frightening this is. The rages would seemingly come out of nowhere and the reasons being spewed forth towards me were for things I had supposedly done (very few of which I ever actually had) or how I looked. I had become the verbal punching bag for my father’s stress and unmet needs, when his protection mode of fight was activated for whatever reason – look out! He was often strategic about his approach, waiting until I was on my own, starting with a pleasant conversation topic maybe a bit of a joke and then BOOM there it was – the next attack about how I had wronged him would begin.
You cannot reason with someone in rage mode. There is nothing you can do to stop them and there is nothing your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) will let you do other than flick on Sympathetic mode – which enables the body to fight, flee or freeze to protect itself from danger. Your Sympathetic mode has one job and that’s to keep you alive. So I would activate my protection mode of being silent and let the raging rage. Don’t cry, don’t argue, when its safe get as far away as you can and don’t tell anyone because that will just result in another attack.
I’d be physically and emotionally terrified whilst being ragingly accused of doing or being something – lazy, ugly, just like my mother, ungrateful, an f*** b***h or c**t, responsible for destroying my parent’s marriage, having a fat stomach or not speaking to him when he spoke to me (I mean really are you surprised!), the list goes on.
There would be no apology or discussion following the event. Whilst I could logically and rationally see that I wasn’t actually responsible for these rages, from very early on there was definitely a seed of shame planted. I mean, what does it mean about you as a child/person if someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally for life, appears to hates you so much that they want to inflict this sort of pain upon you again and again? So my internal voice that said “you are a fat ugly b***h, who would ever love you, you are so horrible even your parents hate you” started from somewhere. As all children do, I had to give a meaning for why this was happening.
Until I was in my late 30’s I couldn’t talk about my father without the tears flowing. The whole ‘sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you’ thing is an absolute load of bull! Words hurt, they inflict very deep wounds which become embedded within you and it takes a lot of compassion and time to heal. If you’ve been on the receiving end of any type of abuse you know that these experiences don’t just go away because someone tells you to ‘get over it, it was a long time ago’.
During my childhood food had become something other than fuel. It had become a soothing mechanism which was always on hand (cheap and legal), a way of inducing a sense of safety, a way of protecting me by calming the thoughts in my head and the uncomfortable feelings of terror that remained embedded in my stomach long after I had physically distanced myself.
With food I’d found a way to soothe my pain or so I thought. What I had actually done was internalised someone else’s unmet needs and protection mechanisms and made it about me. I’d picked up kilo after kilo of someone else’s pain being vented at me, vacuumed it into my own nervous system and walked off with it into my life journey…I had created a ghost within my machine.
Not only did I have a food challenge ahead of me as I walked off into my adult life, I had a silence coping mechanism too. I’d learned there was little to nothing to be gained from speaking up about events or saying how I felt, because I quickly learned that these can make other people feel uncomfortable. My voice always seemed to be either shouted down, talked over, minimised or negated to stop me from expressing my emotions and needs.
Most importantly though, I walked off into my adult life with a gift from my father, which is my incessant curiosity that leads me to always ask the question of why do people (myself included) behave the way that they do? What invisible story, needs and experiences lies underneath the visible behaviour? Without these early experiences I’d be sitting here writing a different story and my life would have taken a very different path.
The Law of Cause (why) and Effect (what) always applies. You cannot sustainably change a behaviour without acknowledging what lies beneath it. If you have a ghost in your machine like I had which had hooked food, safety and connection together, this doesn’t get unhooked by struggling harder and applying more restrictions. I tried. It just left me fat, sick and exhausted. But there is an easier way that removes the struggle and that’s to let the ghost out of the machine instead.