Did My Mom Cause My Eating Disorder? Faith, Powerlessness, and Recovery

I haven’t spoken to my mother in over two decades, but every once in a while, when I’m walking through a rainy parking lot in a pair of jeans, I’ll still hear her voice speak from my memory. I hear her tell me that my legs look like stuffed sausages, just like she did that one rainy day when I was ten or eleven when I was wearing a pair of too-small jeans, not because there was anything wrong with me, but because I was a growing child who was powerless to buy her own new, properly-fitted clothes.

I still hear her contemptuous laughter whenever I look in the mirror. Even after recovery got me out of plus sizes into “straight sizes,” I can’t look at myself without first hearing her laugh at something about my body shape in just the same way she would laugh at people on TV, people at the mall, my friends, or me—anyone who didn’t meet her idea of “thin.” I still automatically see the shape of my body through her eyes, and I judge it as being just as mockably grotesque as she did.

I hear her voice in my head, one minute berating me for not eating what was on my plate and the next minute shaming me for eating too much of the “wrong” things. I hear her extolling the delights of all the “junk food” we ate the day before and then in the next breath telling me that we were so bad yesterday that we’ll only be eating rice cakes today.

These memories fill me with pain and confusion—feelings I strove to numb through the rebellion of binge eating. Or was my eating disorder my way of cooperating with a parent’s confusing guidance: binge one day, restrict the next? Were my self-destructive eating patterns just my inner child’s way of getting some attention—of making myself big enough to be seen—even if only in a negative light? 

It makes sense that I would have turned to food in order to soothe the pain of such a damaging upbringing. Food was as available to me in my childhood home as cruelty was. 

In my food addiction recovery fellowship and at Catholic in Recovery (CIR) meetings, I hear that I am not alone in these layers of affliction. In my recovery literature and in a special way at CIR meetings, I have been introduced to the love of the God who made me to be as I am, who never laughs at me, no matter what shape my body may take. I hear that He is my loving parent and that loving parent would never leave me without a mother. He gives me His own Blessed Mother to cradle my broken body and heart and to shower love upon those wounds that still throb. 

Still, the question remains: Did my mom cause my eating disorder? Recovery, however, asks me a more important question: Does it matter? I am powerless today over how I was raised and what harmful coping mechanisms I adopted in response. What use is it to blame anyone for a problem that only God and I have the power to change? 

Now that I am an adult—the adult in my life—I am free to make different choices and listen to a different voice. I walk away from the binges, the restriction, and the cruel, useless criticism. I walk towards unconditional love and compassion from God and Mary. I let go of the blame, the shame, and the food I don’t need. I pick up a new life in recovery, and I hold on.

Are you experiencing the overlap between your food addiction and your experience in an abusive or dysfunctional childhood home? To help us prepare for the upcoming Mother’s Day and Father’s Day holidays, Erin is offering a webinar exclusive to CIR+ members, “Family Table: Making Peace with Intergenerational Disordered Eating.” Join CIR+ today to sign up! The event is open to CIR+ Premium and CIR+ Free members. CIR+ Free members are encouraged to support Catholic in Recovery with a $5 donation.

Erin McCole Cupp is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. She writes and speaks about mental health and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Check out her course “Filled with Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at erinmccolecupp.podia.com.