COCKROACH IN SCALES
The other morning
There was a cockroach,
A big black shiny one,
trapped in the face of
As it waved its feelers back
at my looming face
trying to see if I was
(but never just right),
I thought it made a lot
For I’m a lousy housewife:
dusting, sweeping, what a waste of
And I’m a hopeless dieter,
fat and thin by turns.
So the cockroach in my scales
reflected both failures
What a way to start the day!
Over the years my weight has fluctuated wildly from slim to fat, so much so that I’ve felt like a human accordion at times, going in and out at the speed of light. I can’t say I’ve been conscious of whether I’ve been slim or fat because, regardless of my size, I was never aware of gaining or losing weight (apart from buying different dress sizes!).
I know many of my weight issues have been emotional, but also I’ve done a lot of reading about diets, weight, BMI, etc., because when I was young the hysteria around obesity and low-fat diets just didn’t exist. I do know that my weight has exercised the minds of far more people than it has mine. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard people say: “But you don’t eat a lot” and realised they’ve been scrutinising what I eat which gets right up my nose. It’s no-one’s business but mine what I eat, keep your nose out of my plate! As I said in my previous post, I’m also aware that when I walk into a doctor’s surgery their eyes light up as they order tests for diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol and then look somewhat taken aback by results well in the healthy range.
I was also, decades ago, stupid enough to agree to go to a fat farm to lose weight when it was suggested by the organisation I worked for,and I really regret it. I lost 14 lbs in one week, with a mainly fruit juice diet, but of course, when I got back to the real world, the weight boomeranged back and then some. And it started me on a bit of a habit of fasting, then eating, and so on, which really has stuffed my body’s metabolism. I should have had the guts to tell them to poke their fat farm where the sun don’t shine, and that’s precisely what I would do today.
The day after I started working on this post – about weight and my mother’s death – I woke with excruciating sciatic pain in my hip and leg. It took until the next evening to realise that this was my physical response to approaching these subjects – matters of life and death which obviously have a great emotional and physical impact on me.
As soon as I twigged why the pain had exploded in my hip, it abated considerably. But I have been doing all sorts of odd jobs since then to avoid getting on with this post. So I have finally glued myself to my seat and here goes!
I weighed myself the night before I had the cast removed when I broke my leg and ankle in 1996 and then when I got home – 6lbs disappeared overnight, yeay! In the six weeks I’d been immobile, unbelievably I’d lost 14lbs, much to my surprise. It was as if the shock of the fall galvanised my body into detoxing all of its own accord.
From these comments and the intro you’ll probably guess that I have had some challenges with weight. And I’d probably be a weird woman if I hadn’t, given the obsession with thinness and fatness in today’s Western society.
In my childhood I was what you then called “chubby” but no-one banged on about weight and obesity as they do nowadays. In those days it was accepted that kids could be chubby but they’d lose this puppy fat once they hit puberty and started growing into adulthood.
The first time I became aware of perhaps being a bit weighty was when I stayed with my German penfriend in 1965. She was absolutely gorgeous and had a terrific, slim figure. Beside her I felt large and clumsy and I remember we each weighed ourselves but, as it was in kilograms, I had no idea what it meant. I do know that she and her mother exclaimed at my weight. When my cousin and his male friend visited us while they were in holiday in Germany, they only had eyes for my pen-friend and I felt fat, awkward and lonely. For the first time I became self-conscious about my figure.
I do know now that I ate because it was comfort food in a family where I felt on the outer. I closely associated food with being loved by my parents, particularly if my mum and I shared special food which Dad didn’t like, and we’d have this when he was doing overtime – mushrooms on toast (mushrooms were a luxury when I was a kid) and soft cod’s roe on toast (another luxury). I can also look back now and see that carrying extra weight was protective for me. My father was a bully, a control freak and he used to browbeat me if I voiced my own opinions. We’d go at it hammer and tongs until my mother would intervene to try to calm things down as she hated the discord.
At University I guess I remained somewhat podgy in my first year. I was in student accommodation and I used to drink a very hot cup of black coffee prior to meals in the refectory. The idea was to dampen my appetite but it wasn’t particularly successful, particularly if they dished up Queen of Puddings for dessert. It was my favourite and I’d eat my own portion as well as the portions of anyone who didn’t want their serving! I guess I really wasn’t overly bothered about my weight, just felt a sense of dissatisfaction which I never really pinned down.
The first time I really lost weight and became very slim was when I was working abroad during my third year at University. I was living in Stuttgart and started work at 7.30. We had a break around 8.30 and I’d get a roll with cold meat for breakfast. At lunchtime, we had a subsidised meal in the staff canteen but as very little of the food appealed to me, I had very small lunches. And in the evening, when I cooked for myself, I also didn’t eat much as it’s not much fun eating on your own.
I was, however, very happy at work as I made friends with a lovely Hungarian lady, Frau Kiss, a Hungarian refugee who’d settled in Stuttgart. She helped me in lots of little ways which made life more pleasant. Eventually I also met some really nice girls in the women’s hostel where I was living. When I first arrived in Stuttgart I lived in my own unit on the ground floor and it was quite lonely. Then I was moved to the basement area where I shared a room with a Finnish lass. She was a real raver and was always out in the evenings so I started leaving the light on in the small sink area in our room. She was quite taken aback at this as apparently the previous German girl had left the room pitch black and then complained when Marjia-Liisa made a noise trying to get ready for bed in the dark. But my little act of helpfulness broke the ice between us and from then on we got on like a house on fire.
Then a couple of English girls arrived from universities in the UK, they got stuck in the basement area like me, so we all got together. We were finally joined by Barbara, a German girl, who had a great sense of humour and adventure. And we certainly got up to all sorts of adventures between us, quite innocent now when I look back. But we were always laughing and having a good time together.
We went to the Christkindlmarkt in Stuttgart which was wonderful although bitterly cold. We visited the cinema at the American base nearby where we parked Barbara’s car and found it dwarfed by the huge American yank-tanks lined up in front of the cinema. We drove to Ulm to climb the steeple of the Ulm Minster, the tallest church in the world with 768 steps. It’s often called Ulm Cathedral but is actually a Minster as it has never been the seat of a bishop. We climbed up to the top where we found beautiful views over Ulm and the surrounding countryside, climbed down okay but when we got outside, our legs were like jelly and we ended up flopping on the floor laughing our heads off. I stayed at Barbara’s parent’s house one weekend, her folks were incredibly hospitable, and we also visited Rothenburg-ob-der-Taube which is a wonderful, medieval town.
We girls had boozy sessions in our rooms, confident we’d hidden all signs of the mayhem until we’d get home and realise our rooms smelled like pub bars, an empty wine glass or two stood on the mantelpiece and the sour-faced women running the hostel would greet us with icy faces!
One night Barbara introduced us to Schnapps, I think it might have been Goldwasser, which we English girls imbibed with gusto. She told us to skol it down it which we did and all promptly got drunk as skunks as none of us drank much at all. We were staggering everywhere, and I remember waking up with an appalling hangover. Barbara thought it was hilarious as we British girls sat there, head in hands, moaning, until she frogmarched us one by one to the restroom and stuck us in a cold shower!
I didn’t realise that, in this new lifestyle in Germany, I’d lost so much weight until I returned home for the Christmas holidays. My parents both commented on how much slimmer I was, and so did my boyfriend, but I didn’t see it in myself at all. I do know that when I returned to university in the fourth year, after my third year abroad, many people commented on the remarkable change in my appearance although, once again, I hadn’t realised how much weight I’d lost, it just sort of happened.
Much the same sort of weight loss happened when I worked on a kibbutz in Israel in March 1972, prior to travelling to Australia. I did physical work on my feet all the time, and the weight dropped off. I do know that unless I’m really active, it’s hard for me to lose weight, even more so now I have mobility challenges.
I realised much later down the track that my time overseas in my third year at university was really the first time I was away from anyone’s influence. I was pretty much on my own, and I lost weight because I didn’t need it to protect myself from my father’s bullying ways and the fact that I extended that to being subconsciously fearful of any relationships I had with the opposite sex. I loved being independent both at university and in Germany and France where I also spent six months.
Because I have so many air signs, nine in astrology, I have always been in my head and thinking, thinking, thinking. My conversations start: “I think…..” or “I’ve been thinking…..” (and generally my husband looks nervous because he says this usually means hammers and nails somewhere in the house), or I say, if people do rash things: “Why don’t people THINK”. Occasionally I look down and remember I’ve got a body attached to my head and say in surprise: “Oh, hello, body, still hanging around are you, thanks very much, I appreciate it.”
I started getting some idea of why I used food as a substitute for love and weight as protection when I saw a psychologist after Mum died. The thinner my mother got as the cancer spread, the fatter I got as if in some way I could protect myself, I think, on two fronts: from the fear of death myself if I got fat and from the grief I was experiencing as Mum came closer and closer to death. Seeing the psychologist after mum died, to get help from the loneliness and grief I felt, also opened a can of worms – mum no longer stood between me and my father as the peace-maker, we had to face each other, and our relationship got rocky to say the least!
“The child is so much a part of the psychological atmosphere of the parents,” Jung writes, “that secret and unsolved problems between them can influence its health profoundly. The participation mystique … causes the child to feel the conflicts of the parents and to suffer from them as if they were its own. It is hardly ever the open conflict or the manifest difficulty that has such a poisonous effect, but almost always parental problems that have been kept hidden or allowed to become unconscious.”
I came across this quote from Jung as I got to the end of the last post on creativity. For me, family relationships are inextricably intertwined with the feelings of self-doubt, isolation and waverings in how I should express myself that have dogged me all my life, even now.
I know people say “Get over it”, but it’s my view that emotional imprints from childhood entwine themselves in your cellular memories. They are sometimes pushed down so far it’s a hell of a shock when the buggers suddenly jump out into the light of day, like the mad uncle at weddings everyone wishes would stay safely locked in the cellar so people don’t have to face the problem head on.
As I mentioned in the last post, I strove to be excellent academically because it seemed the safest way to receive approval from my parents. My father was a control freak and bully. Through my childhood and in my adult life, he always rode roughshod over my views and battered me with words. One of the most hurtful times was when he told me that, if I hadn’t been born, he could have made something of himself. To which I replied, very logically in my view: “Don’t blame me for being here, Dad, I wasn’t there when you and mum decided to screw and make a baby!”
I always had a sense of being on the outside of the family, with my mother focusing on my dad’s needs to keep him happy and me hanging around on the edges looking for the odd drops of approval. This was a poem I wrote after Mum died when I was working through a whole heap of inner pain and confusion which was bubbling up to the surface:
colours my life and
haunts my days like
a grey shroud hovering
into my body,
creeping into my stomach
tight with tension
bloated with hot angry
seething murmering writhing
caught within me like
rats trapped on a treadmill.
Memories emerge of life
on my own
at home, at school, at work:
a wall of silence surrounding
me as I beat against
its confines like a
seeing the light and warmth
of love and contact but doomed
to prison’s hellish walls.
My breath catches – tortured
lungs striving desperately to breathe
but clutched instead by cold terror
as the past rises before me
clamps to my back
and fiendishly melds with my body
like a deformed
chimpanzee squealing triumphantly
“you’re trapped in a
on the outside
It was actually a conversation with my mother when she was on holiday in Australia in 1975 that opened up vistas on the dynamics of my family life. Mum revealed that as a child she had witnessed domestic violence in her family, with my granddad beating my grandmother, and the kids running away when my granddad was in one of his violent moods.
It was a hell of a shock for me because my granddad was a lovely, kind, gentle soul when I knew him as a young kid. I supposed he’d mellowed over the years, I used to spend heaps of time with him when I was staying at my grandparent’s home as a child, and I absolutely adored him. You can’t know the ins and outs of relationships, only the people within them really know the nitty-gritty. I guess through the years he and my grandmother had reached some kind of peace.
But as I began to explore the dynamics of my own family, I began to realise how much the history of domestic violence had influenced past and present events in my parents’ life and my own life.
My parents had applied to emigrate to Australia after the war, had actually received approval and had started making arrangements for their voyage to the other side of the world. But my mother changed her mind at the last moment and we never made it Downunder.
I had often wondered why my mother changed her mind but, as often happens in families, no-one really went into details of why. After Mum had told me about her violent childhood, she said that as a young girl she remembered her mother talking of leaving the children and my granddad and returning to her parent’s home in West Hartlepool. Mum said something to her (I can’t remember what it was), but those words caused my grandmother to change her mind and stay. And so I wondered whether, when it came to crunch time after my parents’ application to emigrate to Australia, my mother stayed in England because she felt guilty about leaving her own mother who had stayed in a difficult marriage for the kids.
This is, of course, speculation. On the other hand, the ghost of domestic violence began to open doorways for me to understand the way in which my family unit operated emotionally. My father was very emotionally withdrawn. He never, ever, in my whole life, gave me a hug or touched me in a loving, caring way. The most I got from him was a peck on the cheek, except for the moment at my mother’s funeral – when my father and I were arm in arm for the first time – and he squeezed me arm as mum’s coffin began to roll away from sight on the way to her cremation after she died of lung cancer.
For the first time in 1975 Mum also referred to my father’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. For some reason my paternal grandfather decided to disown my father, we never understood why. But at his funeral, the whole family ignored my father including his mother, and when he came home he demolished a bottle of Scotch in one evening. Later on, when Dad had been stabbed in the back in regard to his business by so-called friends, he started drinking heavily, so much so that my mother had considered leaving him.
As well as this piece of gobsmacking news, on that holiday in 1975 my mother told me my dad would often not talk to her for days or weeks on end to punish her for something which had upset or annoyed him. It was an eye-opener for me as they’d managed to hide it from me. But I began to realise that marrying an emotionally distant man was the safe option for my mother who had seen physical violence as a child.
My aunt, my mother’s younger sister, married a physically abuse and mentally unstable man. I knew when I got older that my aunt’s husband had been jailed for selling contraband meat, but he wasn’t jailed for the selling part of it, he was jailed for attacking the arresting police officer with a rather large meat cleaver. I can remember as a young child that my aunt’s husband became violent when they were staying with us in Ramsgate, where my mother ran a guest house, my father had to intervene and they left early the next day. And as happened in those days, no mention was made again of the outbreak of domestic violence, there was silence as it was buried down in the cellar with all the other murky bits in my family’s dysfunctional relationships.
And my uncle himself, my mother’s brother, was moody and quite violent. He once started beating his eldest son, my cousin, until my father pulled him off fearing he’d kill his son. Again, while on holiday in Australia and staying with my parents in Busselton, down the coast from Perth in Western Australia, my aunt revealed that my uncle, my mother’s brother, had physically abused her in their marriage to the extent that she had also considered quitting the marriage but had decided to stay.
As for me, I hated displays of anger. I was never allowed to be angry as a young kid, there was a kind of taboo even though, because I was so sensitive, I could feel an undercurrent of anger and hidden aggression. But anger scared me which is why I couldn’t handle displays of anger, even though I had anger raging in me.
If I was upset I would withdraw emotionally, distance myself from the world, and brood over whatever had upset me. What drew me out of this, or rather hurtled me out of this, was my husband. In astrological terms, he has an overload of fire signs which means he can shout, stomp around and get any pissed-offness out of his system immediately and then it’s all over. It used to throw me for a loop when he first behaved like this because in our family we did not fire up and show emotion. And it used to get up Bryan’s nose no end that, instead of yelling back, I’d withdraw and, very much in the tradition of my father’s treatment of my mother, I’d stop talking to him. I’d emit silence from every pore of my being!
How have I overcome this? Well, over the years I’ve begun to understand this family pattern and work on releasing it. As I’ve studied astrology, I’ve also begun to understand that when my husband fires up and fires off, it’s his way of dealing with stress and tension. It’s also a far healthier way of dealing with life by getting lousy feelings out of his system than my way of bottling it all up inside of me.
The first time I yelled back at my husband was brilliant. I felt powerful, energised and – best of all – once I’d done my lolly, I felt I’d got my frustrations out of my system. I grinned at Bryan and then, when he said: “Well, how does that feel? Told you you’d feel a lot better!”, started laughing my head off. I’m quite sure that if people could peer in the windows of our apartment and see some of the times when we now go head-to-head, they’d be quite taken aback. Because when we’ve got crap out of our system, we both start laughing at each other and feeling pretty damned good about how we get along. And I guess after thirty-six years of staggering through life together, something must be working okay.