The summer before I started eighth grade, my dad came to visit. He and my mom had a long, serious talk. After what seemed like forever, they emerged to tell me that they were sending me to my grandparents' house for the summer because I had gotten really overweight. Hopefully, they said, a summer of yard work would help with that. My dad said that he'd lost weight and become strong after his dad made him dig a huge ditch one summer.
I was flabbergasted. They were sending me away because I was fat? In an abstract way, I knew I was overweight, but I didn't think of myself as fat. I was still a kid, so I didn't really have much of a self-concept; I was just me. Plus, I had plans for that summer. I was moving from elementary school to junior high, and I had a lot of things I wanted to explore and do with my friends so I could get ready for a whole new world of (what I thought was) grown-up-ness!
I said I wouldn't go. Again, I was flabbergasted when they said I had no choice. My mom had always been more of a negotiator than a dictator, and I was used to being able to convince her of things. Having my dad involved in parenting decisions was an unfamiliar experience. He wasn't around much, and he was mostly too self-involved to see past his own belly-button. But here he was, laying down the law, telling me I had to do something I really, really didn't want to do.
I got progressively angrier. I had a screaming fit. Nothing worked. They'd made up their minds.
That was how I learned I was fat. That was what the people who loved me thought should be done to fat people: send them away until they're fixed.
What neither of my parents realized was that my grandmother's anxiety and depression had spiralled out of control. "Isn't it great that you get to go on your first airplane?" they said, as they sent me off to stay with some of the most toxic and dysfunctional people I've ever met. My uncle was in his early twenties and still living at home. He and my grandfather seemed to feed on my grandmother's despair. She was so messed up that she kept screaming "HELP!" at the top of her lungs, randomly but frequently. She couldn't help herself, and she couldn't stop. Now I wonder if perhaps she had Tourette syndrome.
They all tried to be kind, but none of them had a clue how to deal with a pre-teen girl; there were only boys in that family, and frankly, they'd botched that parenting pretty badly. The house was full of cigarette smoke and misery. I mowed a few lawns and got progressively sadder. I didn't know what to do. They were family, but I didn't know them, and they scared me. They were so MESSED UP, and I was too young to know how to cope with their craziness.
Finally, I timidly asked if I could call my mom. They hadn't thought to offer that, and they didn't realize how frightened and isolated I was feeling. When I heard my mom's voice, I couldn't stop sobbing. To everyone's credit, they arranged for me to fly home right away.
I was fat, and they sent me away. It happened almost 30 years ago, yet I'm crying as I write this.
For some reason, this event came up today in a phone call with my mom. We have talked about it over the years, and both my parents have apologized for what was clearly a misguided idea.
This morning, I expressed to my mom that I felt that they'd rejected me because I was fat. She said "Well, you should have said that at the time."
Excuse me? I had just turned 13. You seriously think a child who's just been blindsided with two terrifying ideas (1. you're fat 2. you're being sent away because of it) should be able to muster a rational argument and cogently elucidate her emotional state?
What she really meant, though, was: "We didn't know that you were feeling that." Again, I wonder how they could have not known that I might have been shocked and felt rejected. But people miss the obvious all the time. I know I do!
Later in our conversation, my mom said: "You do know that I always, ALWAYS loved you, don't you?" Yes, I do. I really, REALLY do.
She was trying to do what she thought would help. My dad convinced her that sending me away was a good idea. My dad hates fat people. He can't help it. He blames all his childhood misery on his weight, and he still lacks the insight to see that perhaps there were other factors that made him unhappy, or that perhaps his misery was one of the causes of his weight.
My dad and mom made a mistake. They didn't know how the extent of the dysfunction at my grandparents' house. Maybe the grandparents did a better job of hiding it from adults. For certain, adults would be better at coping with that kind of crazy. I was young and I didn't have many filters, and I learned a terrible lesson: even the people who love you don't want you around when you are fat.
I wish I hadn't learned that lesson, and I'd really like to unlearn it. But it feels like it got so far under my skin that it's in my bones now.
I'd like to change the filter through which I see that experience. I boiled the whole thing down to one idea: I am fat, and they are sending me away. But nothing is that simple. I was a stubborn child who only wanted to read books. I was entering adolescence, and becoming difficult to deal with. My mom was a single parent at her wit's end. She's a strong person, but at that age, I was a handful.
My parents thought they had a good idea. They didn't realize that I would be shocked by being told I was fat. They didn't know that I would feel rejected, dejected, panicked, offended, hurt, frightened and overwhelmed. Neither of them, to this day, has that kind of emotional vocabulary. They were just trying to be good parents, trying to help me. And it backfired. Majorly.
Does that mean I still have to carry this pain around? I worked through most of it years ago, but when it comes up (which it rarely does) I still feel this sense of rejection and despair.
I don't know if that will ever change, but I really, REALLY want to change what I focus on when I think of it. I want to focus on compassion for them, for my grandparents, for my tender young self. I'm about the same age now as they were when it happened, so I know firsthand that being 40 doesn't make you wise! I forgive them for making a mistake. I forgive myself for holding on to it for so long. I release the pain. Poof. It's gone.