the online magazine about life as a creative process

 

Gaining a Foothold on Fulfillment

 

by Cindy Michel

 

 

     
 

The sight of my mother, her hands flying, standing on a plot of land discussing with an architect the design of our new home, was my first realization that we were moving to south Florida. I had just turned seven and was frightened of the changes: new house, new school, new friends. My parents gave me facts; the name of my new school, our new street address, and promoted the fresh squeezed Florida orange juice, believing that would be enough to help me make the transition. I started the second grade as a shy, tall skinny kid and ended it with a pot belly and the face of despair. My mother kept a scrapbook called School Days. That scrapbook held full color class pictures evidence of my consistent weight gain from the second grade through my junior year in high school.

My parents provided me with all the Cabbage Patch dolls, trendsetting clothes, and trips to Disney World a girl could ever want. They believed lavishing on me almost everything I asked for was good parenting. But as I grew up I experienced an emotional and spiritual vacancy that they didn’t understand, so couldn’t acknowledge. In my little girl way I tried to make them understand on many occasions. I felt guilty for not being the happy little girl they expected me to be; I couldn’t win.

Mom cooked all our meals, made sure we ate our vegetables and cleaned the house like she was going for the gold in the “You Could Eat Off My Floor” Olympics. What she didn’t give me was her attention. When I told my mother I was scared, she told me, “Don’t be scared.” When I cried she simply said, “Stop it.” When I expressed joy she said, “Enough.” My mother’s short, unresponsive phrases left me with all those feelings I thought I shouldn’t express, and no one to help me understand why. I hid more and more of myself, trying to be the daughter my mother seemed to want by being more helpful and less in the way.

My extended family got together every Sunday for dinner. I remember a pudgy, age-spotted hand with long red fingernails appearing in front of my face, squeezing a roll or holding out a plate. I’d look up and see a glint in the eye of my grandmother or one of my aunts as a deep throaty, smoker’s voice said, “Have another.” “Another roll,” “another serving,” “another slice of cake:” the amount I ate was a significant conversation topic among the women in my family. I knew when I was full and I stopped eating. “No, thank you,” I said hoping they’d be impressed with my politeness. My brother told me I was rude when I said no. “Make them happy. Take the roll. What’s the big deal?” The big deal was this was the beginning of losing my voice, of losing confidence in my ability to decide what was right for me. My aunts and grandmothers were relentlessly disappointed I didn’t find the same joy in overeating.

Eventually I gave in; when I was full nothing bothered me, the nagging stopped, and being with my family was easier.
Looking back, I understand the push for me to overeat was an initiation of sorts. I learned that a good hunk of bread could push down any fear I had; it could even help me get through fearful experiences like going to school. It got me through uncomfortable family dinners and eventually muted all the feelings I was taught were unacceptable. Fruity Pebbles for breakfast, cafeteria pizza and French fries with a Good Humor chocolate éclair bar for lunch became the highlights of my day. Food became my constant companion; it was a non-critical friend, my total answer.

During adolescence I feared being made fun of at school for being fat. I applied mousse to my Cher If I Could Turn Back Time curls, wore electric blue eyeliner and iridescent pink lip gloss (with reapplications of the gloss at least six times a day). I wore the coolest and most expensive clothes I could persuade my mother to buy for me. I hoped these additions to my physical facade would hide my excessive weight and get me through high school unscathed.

When I was thirteen I began to dream of being an actress; fantasizing that this would be my chance to shine, to get the attention I had been denied. I secretly perfected my autograph in my spiral notebook during American History class. Mrs. Colabella lectured about the civil war; I dreamed of being on the cover of Vogue magazine. I went on my first real diet the summer before my senior year: I joined a diet plan with prepackaged food. In four months I was down to a size eight.
Victory! Sheer will got me through lunchtime drive-throughs at Burger King and Miami Subs with friends as I crunched on my apple while they shoved French fries into their mouths and washed them down with chocolate milkshakes. The vision of my future self accepting the Academy Award, looking drop-dead gorgeous, was my reward. I could finally retire my title of “the girl with the pretty face. If she’d only lose some weight…”
Then the holidays arrived — those days when everyone and every activity are focused on food. My denial talents went into high gear; I’d worked hard and deserved a respite. I went on a holiday binge, eating everything in sight. Not surprisingly, I found it impossible to return to my diet when the holidays were over. Thus began a spiraling of my obsession with dieting and control. I spent the next five years, between the ages of 18 and 23, starving and bingeing. I believed I could beat my food obsession by just being stronger, more consistent with my control. After two years I hit my “wall;” I was emotionally incapable of continuing to starve myself. My feelings and inner turmoil took over. I binged for ten days straight, struggling unsuccessfully to regain control. Finally I opened the yellow pages and called a therapist.

Jane helped me save my life. On my first visit, I told her I had this “food problem.” When she asked me about my family I said they were perfect, my problem had nothing to do with them. It took me several months to come out of denial about how angry and resentful I felt toward my family and toward life. I went from not feeling anything to feeling overwhelming pain and anger. Food was the way I expressed myself in the past. If I was sad, angry, lonely, bored, or happy, I ate. The memories of humiliation and rejection by my family played like endless reels of film through my mind for the next two years of therapy.

My outer life of going to college, working, and auditioning became almost an illusion compared to the reality of the flashes of the past that hit me in the middle of a work shift or upon waking up in the morning. I felt worse, not better, and began to question the value of dredging up these painful memories. But Jane taught me that my feelings were important, that I didn’t have to be miserable for the rest of my life because of what happened when I was growing up. She gave me what I didn’t get from my mother — being seen and understood. Jane helped me to understand that my feelings appeared to have the power to kill me because of the messages I had received as a child.

Eventually, experiencing those messages with Jane, right there in her office, I got to a point where I believed my life, my individual feelings and talents were valuable. I worked with Jane for three years as she helped me accept my past and take the steps I needed to begin adulthood. I also realized I would never know the outcome of my acting dream unless I pursued it. I sold my six-year old car that got me to auditions in Miami: it paid my first and last month’s rent on a 9x13 “closet” in New York City.

New York overwhelmed the shit out of me. There is no preparation for it. I had cleared the slate of my past, but felt like a deer caught in the headlights in this cab-filled city. My initial panic led me to the decision of finding practical survival strategies. I devoured Geneen Roth’s books on healing relationships with food. I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. I went to Overeater’s Anonymous for support. I was determined to put my personal hell behind me and start living a life that didn’t revolve around food. Still, when I felt caught in those headlights, and nothing else worked, food remained my salve. I was angry and felt sorry for myself at the same time. “Hadn’t I done enough work on myself? Wasn’t I finished yet?”

While I struggled with life’s questions, I supported myself financially, made friends, and completed a prestigious acting training program. In the process of learning how to act, I found more of myself. I realized I didn’t care about dialects, script analysis or my character’s motivation. Through acting, I found wholeness in myself that meant more to me than any character or role ever could. My focus shifted from stage life to real life. I decided to star in my own life.

After several years of reading books on self-help/spiritual growth and attending many workshops, it was time to take another leap. I was fascinated with healing and energy work and enrolled at the Barbara Brennan School of Healing. After my first week, I felt like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial when he phoned home. The connection was miraculous, a rare, eerie moment when the world clicks into place and it all made sense.
Students at the Brennan school are required to see a therapist for eighteen sessions per year. Core Energetics therapy, a form of body psychotherapy, was recommended. It had been five years since I was on the couch with Jane. From the first session with my new therapist, Warren, I was sure he could see right through me — my bullshit and my gifts. I wanted to bolt, and never come back to his office again. The wiser part of me knew I had found exactly what I needed and wanted — a person who could truly help me at this stage of claiming myself. I later learned Core Energetics therapists are trained to read the body for blocks, defenses and higher-self qualities. Working with the body in one’s own healing is a tumble down the rabbit hole; if you’re willing to risk that tumble it brings lasting change. My fears were in my gut and solar plexus, not just in my head. Until now, I thought the only thing I was holding in my body were the two slices of German chocolate cake I’d eaten the night before.

Many feelings, beliefs, and patterns that my body held couldn’t be addressed in talk therapy alone. Many old, outdated patterns started to quiver as I “moved my energy.” First I experienced a new awareness; then I moved to the center of the direct pain. Beneath the pain were the best parts of myself. I was literally breathing life into my body and my life began to change.

I never could have done this work alone. Having a therapist who had traveled this path previously created a safe place and guidance for this work, the work of having myself — a priceless gift.

Five years after I walked through the door of Warren’s office I continue the work I began with him of relinquishing my position as a spectator in life and moving into the position of player. I have found the strong, loving, talented woman that I am. I’ve been the same size for ten years and have finally moved beyond my obsession with food and embraced life on life’s terms. Almost four years ago I was introduced to my soul mate to whom I have the privilege of expressing my love every day. I have started a private practice as a Core Energetics therapist. Many years of my own healing have culminated in a desire to assist others in their process. Pushing and pulling the whole way, I finally gained a foothold on fulfillment.

The bonus of knowing and being confident in myself is closer and more pleasurable relationships with family and friends. I don’t need to hide anymore and (most days!) I don’t need people to be different for me. My mom and I are close today. I am grateful for how much she loves me, and what she was able to give me as a child. I have accepted what she couldn’t give — and learned how to give it to myself.

 
     
 

 

     
 

Cindy Michel is a Certified Core Energetics therapist with a private practice in New York City.