My grandma used to munch on Oreos on her plastic-covered couch at 2 a.m. while everyone was fast asleep, deaf to the sounds of the crinkly wrappers in her lap and the soft hum of the television. I like to think she enjoyed that alone time. There was nobody to ask her for attention or request a plate of spaghetti.
I never witnessed this for myself; I only know about it because my mother passed down the memory. She was usually the one to find my grandma on that sofa, nodding off, in the early morning hours. Being the caring daughter-in-law she always was, my mom would gently nudge her awake to put her to bed.
Apparently, this little routine had been going on for years, and the only changing factor was what my grandma chose to eat. Sometimes it was ice cream. Other times it was chocolate chip cookies. Whatever it was, my mom tucked the remains away in the kitchen cabinets after Grandma went to her room, no questions asked.
There have been moments in my adult years, when I'm home for the holidays, that my dad and I have binged together.
Somewhere in my middle school years my mom decided I was mature enough to talk about these particular eating habits. By "talk," of course, I mean lecture me on why overeating is something that should be avoided at all costs.
"No self-control," she said to me in the car on the way back from my piano lesson one day, shaking her head. "It's because your poor grandma has no self-control."
Even my moody tween brain knew she wasn't trying to put my grandmother down or make me love her any less. There was no malice in her words. She was trying to teach me a life lesson in discipline because, in her mind, a lack of discipline was the only thing that could explain a person overeating so extremely, and so often.
I wanted to respond, but I never did. I wanted to tell her that when Grandma died in 2007 from lung cancer that her blood still ran through my veins, that I too binged when everyone was sleeping — but I never did. How does one even begin to explain their eating disorder to a person who has never felt the weight of such a mental illness? Especially if that person doesn't know what it feels like to lose control around food?
Binge eating disorder (BED) manifested itself in my life in middle school, not long after my mom's very first speech about Grandma, junk food, and self-control. I've been battling the illness ever since. It's reported that 3.5 percent of American women suffer from BED, although many experts believe that number to be an underestimation. Along with frequent bouts of compulsive overeating, people with BED harbor intense feelings of guilt and shame around the amount of food they consume in one sitting.
There is limited research on the genetic components of BED, and whether it is passed down along the bloodline, but there are published studies that speak to the generational transmission of the disease. Brad Lamm, interventionist, author, and creator of Oprah Winfrey Network's documentary series "Addicted to Food," tells Bustle that he expects we will see additional scientific research on the subject in the near future, as there are more BED cases being diagnosed than ever before.
Lamm also says that, for the majority of his clients who struggle with compulsive overeating, it's "not unusual for some food story to be going on in the family as well." It could be genetics, or it could be a set of situational, learned behaviors that gets passed down in families.
It was never a question in my mind that an unhealthy relationship with food was transferred through at least three generations of my family. Even as a kid, I saw the discomfort in my grandma's eyes at the dinner table as she picked at a modest serving of pasta while everyone else laughed loudly and ate merrily. I witnessed that same sense of unease plague my father throughout my childhood too, and I watched him lose the same battle to late-night bingeing many times.
In fact, there have been moments in my adult years, when I'm home for the holidays, that my dad and I have binged together. We've found ourselves in the same position as Grandma once was: on the couch, watching TV, snacking on anything sweet we could get our hands on. We don't make eye contact or even acknowledge what we're doing, but we silently egg each other on all the same.
This is a common occurrence among two people who suffer from compulsive overeating, Lamm says. He has seen many relatives or even couples who are "yoked together" because of their similar struggles. They either spiral each other into destruction, or they find a way to heal together.
But the older I got, the more I realized that neither of my parents were going to be the ones to hold my hand through the recovery process. Not because they didn't care about me (on the contrary, they care a little too much), but because they're just from the demographic that has a hard time seeing eating disorders as mental illnesses. "Self-control and discipline," I pictured my mom repeating to me, as if those two traits could fix any issue with food.
As soon as I used the word "illness," I saw something shift in her. "Nobody's sick," she said. The words came out of her mouth so quickly.
In 2014, I built up the courage to talk to my mom about BED, and how it's been passed down on Dad's side of the family. I wasn't sure why I didn't want to go to my father first. I guess I didn't want to bring up an image of his mother that would make him believe I wasn't honoring her memory.
It was shortly after Thanksgiving, and my father was on the back deck, smoking a cigar with my boyfriend. My mom and I were still at the dining room table, empty plates and stained placemats sitting between us, and we were chatting about the health of various family members. Over the last several years, we had lost three beloved relatives to cancer. The grief still lingered.
All the talk of health and wellbeing made me brave enough to bring up my recent work in therapy. I told her that I had come face-to-face with BED, and, more importantly, that I'd been sifting through how much binge eating had affected Grandma and Dad as well. As soon as I used the word "illness," I saw something shift in her.
"Nobody's sick," she said. The words came out of her mouth so quickly.
Her response wasn't so much dismissive as it was an attempt to convince herself that there was nothing wrong, that we had experienced enough cancer and death in our family without choosing to invite anymore illness into our lives.
Something internally instructed me to table the topic once again, so I fell silent. We transitioned into clearing off the table. Within a few minutes, we were onto the next topic of conversation.
I didn't get exactly what I was looking for in that brief conversation. I did realize something important, though: that I had been chasing my mother's acknowledgment, maybe even her approval, of my eating disorder for years. I wanted her to understand that none of us — not my grandma, not my dad, not me — were these out-of-control people who simply didn't know when enough is enough.
But, looking back on it now, I see that my mother never looked at us like that. A person who sees us as broken wouldn't have cared for my grandmother the way that she did. I think my mom is still in the denial stage about my eating disorder. She's not quite ready to admit that I'm wired a bit differently than her, that I've lost the battle to bingeing at times, just like my grandma did.
I've spent the last year-and-a-half learning to be at peace with this fact. I no longer have an obsessive need to persuade my mom that I live with BED, or that there are scientific components to why my dad and I are scarily similar around food. Because my mom really, truly cares about me, no matter what she's willing or not willing to admit, and nothing else matters as long as I'm taking care of myself. At least, that's what I've learned from my several years of much-needed therapy, and I'm sticking to it.
Images: Gina Florio