Monday, September 26, 2022

Unlike Jennette McCurdy, I’m glad my mom isn’t dead. But the damage she did is lasting.

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Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” held on to the top spot of the New York Times bestseller nonfiction list for the second week in a row. No doubt McCurdy’s “iCarly” fame combined with the shocking things her mother did (she showered her until she was 16!) has helped her book storm the charts. But I think her success is also helped by the fact that the heart of this raw, honest story is a highly relatable, often unspoken experience, that of a daughter looking for her mother to love her best and realizing that she hurts her most. 

I’m glad my own mom hasn’t died, but I see glimpses of her in McCurdy’s mother. It makes me wonder whether I need to wait until my mom dies before I’m able to heal the deep wounds she inflicted years ago. If I’m anything like McCurdy, it will take years after my mother’s death to reclaim what’s been taken from me. 

The actor’s mother, who died of cancer in 2013, insisted on calorie restrictions and weekly weigh-ins to keep her daughter thin. The regimen led McCurdy to develop eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. McCurdy’s shame and anxiety also led her to make poor decisions about relationships and her well-being. 

I stopped going out altogether and ruined friendships, unable to explain that I was afraid that if I ate nachos I’d gain weight. I didn’t want to drink empty calories of alcohol or get late-night munchies.

My mother, though not as overbearing as McCurdy’s, was similarly obsessed with my weight. She wasn’t desperate for me to be a Hollywood star, but she was consumed by other people’s perceptions of me. It undermined our relationship for years. 

My mom was certain that people would like me more if I were thin. It made sense. My friends were thin, and boys liked them. She praised my friends’ skinny legs, cute outfits and self-control at eating only one slice of pizza — not three. 

By the time I was in eighth grade, I’d begun leaning on food to comfort me; any time friends left me out, I ate. I hadn’t gained much, maybe 5 or 10 pounds, but suddenly my mom was on high alert. She signed me up for Weight Watchers.

Every week, a woman with a clipboard recorded the weight that determined my worth. My mother was convinced that thin people were “better” and wanted me to be one of them. I sat among a sea of women at least a decade older than I to learn how to shed pounds. 

But my mother’s plan backfired. I purposely woke up at 6 o’clock, an hour before she did, and stood on the cold kitchen floor shoveling ice cream and frosting into my mouth. It was the only time of the day that she wasn’t watching me, measuring my food and reminding me that something like a piece of American cheese was 100 calories. 

I wanted to please my mother, but food made me happy. A bowl of chocolate pudding or a handful (or two) of Oreos was the only thing I looked forward to all day. 

My mother, a baby boomer, had spent most of her adult life overweight. Conditioned by her own mother, who was on a diet every day, my mother cringed in the dressing room while I tried on prom dresses that squeezed the flab on my upper arms. I believe she was looking for a new version of herself — one she wanted to control. McCurdy details the same: a mother with eating disorders who passed that along to her daughter without apology. And we both accepted it.

Like McCurdy, I didn’t want to let my mother down. Her message affected me most when I went to college. It was as if I had a piece of her with me — depriving me of the things I enjoyed the most. I started deeming all foods either good or bad. I ate about 10 things on repeat, mainly saltines with fat-free raspberry jam on top, dry cereal, Cool Whip, tomatoes, tapioca, rice with soy sauce and boiled potatoes with salt. 

I stopped going to the dining hall with my friends, because I felt foolish when they asked me questions about my food. I didn’t go out to eat, because restaurants didn’t serve baked sweet potatoes. I ate alone and never thought “this is delicious” about anything. While I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic, I was the poster child for someone with disordered eating. 

I lost weight. People noticed. Boys noticed. And most of all, my mom noticed. 

When I went home for college break, my uncle commented, “Amy’s lost weight.” My mother perked up with pride, as if it were a compliment directed at her. “Doesn’t she look great?” 

But I felt awful. I lived with headaches, an upset stomach and depression. I stopped going out altogether and ruined friendships, unable to explain that I was afraid that if I ate nachos I’d gain weight. I didn’t want to drink empty calories of alcohol or get late-night munchies. A sweet boyfriend made me homemade pizza with no cheese and extra veggies. He lasted a year, but eventually even he got tired of the weird, unexplainable eating habits that I grasped on to for dear life.   

Over time, my mother started to question why I panicked if there were no mini-marshmallows in the house (fat-free anything was safe in my mind, even if it was garbage). One summer night on vacation, the two of us went from restaurant to restaurant looking at menus trying to find one that served something I’d eat. After reviewing more than a dozen, I cried, and we went to the grocery store to buy food for dinner, instead. 

My mother didn’t get it. In fact, she was annoyed. Why was I acting that way? But I couldn’t articulate it. Maybe I was just afraid to tell her: If I’m fat, you won’t love me. Even in my head it sounded crazy. But nothing felt more true. 

McCurdy didn’t speak up to her mother, and neither did I. Whether it seemed futile or represented a need to please, taking a stand was daunting. It wasn’t until recently that I mustered the courage to ask the question I’ve wanted to for years: “Why did you bring me to Weight Watchers, mom? It kind of ruined my life.”     

“Oh, Amy,” she scoffed. “Don’t be silly. I didn’t want you to struggle for a lifetime with weight and food issues like I did.” The irony was almost completely lost on her.

Almost. While my mother refused to accept responsibility for creating a lifetime of struggle for me, her actions toward my sister, who’s 13 years younger than I am, suggested otherwise. She took a hands-off approach to food and weight with her, and she never had the eating problems I did. 

The fear that I’ll gain weight and be unlovable or unworthy is so real, yet so irrational. I’m 46. When does it end?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t resent my mother for being capable of change for my sister but not for me. I should be proud of my mother for adjusting the narrative. But I’m angry. After all, she might have been able to change, but I haven’t been.

As an adult, I’ve tried talk therapy to resolve an issue that, no matter how hard I try, just won’t go away. It follows me out to dinner with my husband, whom I married in part because I knew he would love me at any size, and to family parties where I glance at a table of gooey, yummy food and think I “can’t” eat any of it. The fear that I’ll gain weight and be unlovable or unworthy is so real, yet so irrational. I’m 46. When does it end?    

After her mother’s death, it took McCurdy almost a decade of deep inquiry and therapy for her to accept that her mother’s behavior wasn’t in her best interest — it was easier for her to hold on to the notion that her mother knew what was best for her and acted on love.  

I also believe that my mother’s intentions were good. She wanted me to have things she hadn’t had at my age: a boyfriend, confidence, the good feeling that comes from walking the beach in a bathing suit as if it’s a runway. 

But I wanted something else then — and now. I want an apology from my mother before she dies, an acknowledgment that it was she, not I, who needed to change. It won’t fix the past, but it has the power to heal my wounds and improve my future. I want to celebrate that day with her with a decadent cake and some ice cream — the 13-year-old girl in me unafraid to eat it in her company. 

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