It's no wonder my younger daughter's a bit bonkers, when you consider her maternal linage. On the Iowa farm where I grew up, we never used the term 'mental health issues'. But we had plenty. My own neurosis of choice was conceived the day I got my first period and my mother totally lost it.
I can't remember how I felt when I spotted that smear of rusty red in my underpants. What my mother felt, however, is branded on my brain. 'I didn't think this would happen to you!' Disappointment dripped from every bitter word. 'I don't have anything ready! I guess I could cut up an old sheet and and make some rags ...’ She was sobbing now. ‘After Mama died I had such good luck. Now Dad's influence is showing up again ... wait here. And just ... don't tell anybody!'
WTF?! Looking back at that bloody bathroom scene, I wish my 13-year-old self could shout that question at my mother. But I never talked back to her. I was her cherished little girl, and I loved her. Since before I could remember I'd been trying to soothe the wild grief and anger that screamed inside her. The last thing she needed was another big, mouthy teenager.
I’d had years of practice monitoring every word I said to her, but how could I keep my body from betraying her? Ah, I knew a way! I'd go on a diet, put a stop to those disgusting budding boobs.
I wasn't fat. In photos I can see evidence of hearty peasant stock, but I hardly even qualified as plump. Nevertheless, both of my parents approved mightily of my weight loss, which I achieved by eschewing the foods I loved best: scrumptious goodies my mother made, often using fruits or vegetables she had grown and preserved herself. It was like a small death, saying no to her warm apple crisp topped with whipped cream. I felt like kicking one of my precious cats with extreme violence when I had to smell and yet forgo my very favourite, little round pumpkins cut in half and baked with butter and brown sugar.
But I did it. I resisted. Also I decided I should exercise more. One particular day in late summer, I was hanging out at my cousin Rhita's farm, a mile up the road from ours. Rhita was my age, and that summer she was still my soulmate and my best friend. I suggested we walk the mile and a half to our aunt Jean’s, who lived over on the highway. Rhita pointed out that this would be a long, hot and sticky walk. She thought we should sneak off to some shady place with a couple of her mother's special magazines. Rhita had recently discovered the stash under her mom's bed, volumes of luridly illustrated short stories, the likes of which we’d never guessed existed. Men in these stories fell hopelessly in love with women. The women dreamed of these same men and eventually they got together in a passionate kiss. Sometimes they even put their hands inside each other's clothes.
I really liked those magazines. I was also afraid that reading them would make me go to hell. Jesus monitored my every thought as well as action, that's what I'd been taught. Heaven knows what He would make of the feelings generated by tales with titles like 'Afternoons of Secret Passion'! Most of all, I wanted to burn calories. 'Come on,' I prodded Rhita, 'don't be lazy.'
At that stage I still had influence over Rhita, so off we went. Sounds easy? It wasn't. We trudged down the gravel road through 37 degree heat, the air soaked with so much humidity it felt like we were enveloped in a hot, damp, very heavy blanket. Singapore’s got nothing on Iowa in August.
Jean was the skinniest of my dad’s seven sisters. When she was young she suffered from ‘nerves’. That’s what they called anxiety in those days. Her doctor had suggested she take up smoking. Jean hadn’t seen me since I started dieting, and when she clapped eyes on me she was thrilled. ‘Mary Kay! Look at you!’ she marvelled, running her hand admiringly along the side of my shorts. ‘I can feel your hip bone.’
Before then I hadn’t actually been conscious that I possessed a hip bone. For years afterwards, the first thing I did when I got in bed at night was to search for it, despising myself if my fingers found a covering of soft flesh where only a hard edge should be.
It was on that day, when I discovered my hip bone, that I received the single worst piece of advice I ever got. Of course Jean didn't mean to condemn me to decades of self-loathing. She was trying to be helpful as she confided to me, ‘I’ve been dieting all my life. And I can tell you one thing, Mary Kay. You're gonna get cravings. When that happens you gotta figure out exactly what it is you want and then eat it till you can’t hold no more. That way the craving won't come back for a long time.’
I tried out Jean’s method that very night. Mother had made sour-cream chocolate cake with fudge frosting and as usual, I refused it as dessert. But later, when we were watching television together, I decided the cake was exactly what I craved. So I went into the kitchen, cut a chunk from the pan and shoved it into my mouth. After depriving them of sweetness for so long, my taste buds sang with joy. More, they cried. More! More! So I cut chunk after chunk from the pan and ate till I could hold no more, or at least as much as I thought I could by with without Mother having a fit when she saw how much of the cake was gone.
The funny thing was, when I woke up the next morning, my craving had not disappeared. In years past I would have happily munched through a bowl of cornflakes and then got on with things, because I adored the school-free days of summer on the farm. Now all I could think of was cake.
So that’s how I developed, long before I every heard the term, an eating disorder.