It seems to be a unique peculiarity of psychological ailments but the fullness of an event only reveals itself once it is no longer a major issue, once it has used off the excess neurotic fuel supply so that it burns smoothly and with purpose, becoming finally an efficient fire, a steady source of libido and self-knowledge. I’m speaking here of my lifelong dis-ease around food—a perpetual fountainhead for neurotic and harmful behavior whose recollection makes me cringe with fear and alarm. This kind of ailment is usually referred to as an eating dis-order, something that should be normal, should be ordered (like food at a restaurant) but is not. Since eating food and surviving as a living organism go hand in hand, it is not surprising, perhaps, that the word “dis” is another name for the Greek god of the underworld, Hades, the Roman Pluto. To have an eating dis-order is thus to be psychologically involved with Death, just as having a dis-ease is to be circling around the idea or possibility of death. Dis-cord, dis-harmony, dis-jointed—all these words beginning with the prefix point to the presence of the underworld and its terrific gravity which pulls downward, demanding to be heard, felt, sensed—respected.
For me, eating was always an ordeal that featured various extremes in action. During the early half of my life, I was a connoisseur of overeating, a small and skinny thing with a voracious appetite. I would eat and eat until I was seriously sick with a stomach ache. I once ate five large bowls of my grandmother’s borscht and was obliged to lie down on the living room couch for several hours without being able to move a muscle due to the excruciating pain in my gut. Overeating in Tehran where I lived in the early part of my life was not such a problem since the food there was actually nutritious and free from preservatives, processed ingredients, sugar, and sodium. But once I moved to the United States things changed very quickly.
First of all, I went from living with my mother to living with my father (something that happened many times in my childhood) and it quickly became apparent to me that my father and Pluto shared many qualities of which being totalitarian and domineering, and blanketing a young teenage girl’s psyche with the pervasive gravitational gloom of the underworld were front and center. Indeed, for many of us folk living with the ill effects of eating dis-orders, a domineering parent is almost always nearby somewhere, lurking, making secret unconscious deals with the Lord of Death on behalf of their progeny. My father and I lived in a very nice house in Newport Beach, California and I started attending the nearby high school but my father was absent from early morning to very late at night so I had to feed myself most of the time. My fiendish eating habits had not abated and they gored in riotous fashion upon the many fast foods available so that within a two-month span of time I went from being a skinny 95-pound girl to a robust 140-pound one. I ate constantly, I ate half a chocolate cake each day since there were these microwave cakes that anyone could make (I had never seen a microwave before) and I would make a new one every third day so I could eat half of one each day with a large glass of milk. I ate several bowls of Lucky Charms cereal on Saturday mornings while watching cartoons, I ate chocolate chip and Oreo cookies nonstop. For food, I ate mostly McDonald’s or this heavily preserved brand of chunky soup that is still being sold on supermarket shelves today. My favorite was Clam Chowder. My mother came to visit me four months after I first came to America and when she saw me she jumped several feet into the air and gasped loudly, that’s how much weight I had gained.
Estranged once again from my father, I continued to live a life that was dis-eased around food and eating. My weight stayed steady at 143 pounds all through high school and beyond and was a constant source of fear and shame. In my second year of college, my father invited me to stay with him and his second wife in Singapore for a time. Despite all my efforts to wear clothes that pleased him (I was an artist by this time and wearing clothes that pleased my father went against my inherent sense of self), he remained dis-pleased. Unvarnished possessive rage is one of the qualities associated with the archetypal pattern of Pluto and my father gave rise to his rage as often as people take breaths throughout a day. It was not long before I did or said something contrary to his wishes and his rage broke forth. He told me that he was ashamed to introduce me to his friends because I was so fat and ugly. Then he went on a business trip and left me there with his wife. I waited until evening, called a cab and escaped to the airport where I made up a story about a death in the family (not completely untrue since a part of me had died) and managed to return to America where I promptly started smoking cigarettes (something I had absolutely hated most of my life) and lost 30 pounds. I was around twenty years old then and I basically stopped eating for the next twenty-three years, binging instead on alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine.
After I finished art school, I moved to Honolulu and very shortly after that I began surfing, paddling canoes, and working at a local coffee shop. I rode a pink bicycle around since I didn’t have a car so I was basically working out for about ten hours a day but I would eat only one boiled egg and half of a Snicker’s chocolate bar. Being “hot” was all I cared about consciously but, of course, as the fullness of the dis-ease reveals itself to me now in my more mature years, I can see that being skinny and young and beautiful meant that no one would reject me. It gave me power and I wielded that power to my own psychological advantage in many situations, confident in the knowledge that no man would ever again treat me the way my father had. My old high school friends were astonished at how different I looked. But it took many years for my friends, family, and finally myself, to notice the psychological toll this quest for perfection was taking on me. Because I continued not eating until my eating habits took another strange turn: I could not eat food unless I was completely alone. So I would drink and smoke and watch others eat until the dinner party was over and then I would sneak away into my room and eat dinner, my only meal of the day, alone, like a weird antisocial animal. At these times, I would often over-eat but I never plunged into full-blown bulimia (I hate vomiting too much). Instead, I would heartily punish myself the next day with a slew of self-destructive behaviors and a savage internal dialogue inherited from all the archetypal voices from the Land of the Dead who called to me like sirens, beckoning me to dash my ship on the rocks once and for all. Because isn’t that what an eating dis-order is, after all? A form of slow-moving suicide? A secret tryst with the God of the underworld? A love affair with death which is felt by the subject as the only way to escape the tyranny of a controlling, domineering parent and the larger society (with all its soul-crushing rules) which he or she represents?
Food is supposed to be nourishing and pleasant, the common act of breaking bread with friends and family can be numinous and sacred. Here we are together, we sense, alive and capable of generating beauty, love, and harmony. But in the psychological underworld, food is problematic. In Greek mythology, there are few who can enter the underworld and live to tell the tale. Two women and one masculine God are the only ones who ever accomplish the feat. Hermes, as messenger of the Gods, has access to all realms and can therefore visit Hades any time he chooses. Of the two women, Persephone becomes permanently connected to the underworld because Hades (Pluto) tricks her into eating some pomegranate seeds, while Psyche is warned not to eat or drink anything, not even water, or she will be stuck down there forever. Here, eating food is portrayed as a way of entering into pathology, a sort of communion that leads to hellish territories of consciousness from whose clutches only the magic of willing sacrifice can save us. An eating dis-order is largely this kind of unconscious communion with the underworld so the magic that can alter its regressive gravity is consciousness. The sacrifice is to suffer the wound consciously, to know its parameters deeply, to feel its reality and the inherent imperfection it implies. I believe that eating dis-orders are an attempt either to flee the wounds inflicted on us by unskillful parents or else an attempt to kill the wound by killing the carrier. But as we know, this way is circular and what tends to die are the body and the soul, not the wound, which carries on and on in victorious glory. Accepting the reality of a bad parent, the reality of an imperfect and unjust world, and the veracity of our own wounded yet still living and worthwhile presence, this kind acceptance can function like the magical talisman from the deep psyche, the saving grace that finally cuts the cord connecting us to Pluto and his dark schemes.
After grappling with these issues for many years, I have discovered that a failure to nourish oneself is ultimately rooted in profound self-rejection, a psychological propensity no doubt inherited from the bad parent(s) who not only failed to supply the requisite amount of sustained affirmation but replaced it instead with nonstop criticism and too much pressure to be successful, beautiful, smart—whatever issue best exemplifies the parents’ own complex-driven unconscious behavior. For me, the answer is not to seek healing by changing our parents or our relationship with them. The answer is to change our relationship to our own selves and this can take many years of excavating inherited ideas from the depth of the psyche and effectively throwing them out. The first step is to accept a wounded state, and the second step is to have faith in the truth that wounds can be healed. At the end of the day, our wounds teach us valuable lessons about life. The question is, can we cultivate deep faith in the inherent value of our own being as unique separate entities? Whether we are dealing with an eating dis-order, or an abusive marriage, or a dysfunctional work situation, in all instances we need courage to seek out what is better for us, more healing and more nourishing not just to the body but also to the soul. I generally find that the only things we can control and change are our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Moving inward toward the center of our being takes us to the source of all wonders and we can surprise ourselves when we find there, deep in the dark, not just our sacred wounds but also our inviolable courage.
Born in Iran, Gelareh Khoie is an artist, writer, scholar, and DJ. Her artwork has been widely exhibited in group and solo exhibitions and has received numerous awards. She has curated multi-media art exhibitions, conceived and implemented creative arts and live music events, and she operated an art and music venue called thirtyninehotel in Honolulu, Hawaii. She holds a BFA in painting and art history from the San Francisco Art Institute and two MAs in depth psychology from Pacifica. Her websites are: http://www.gelarehkhoie.com; www.discoliberationmovement.org. Her artwork featured in this article is all from “The Big Book of Rain,” an old book of morality tales that she filled with collages paintings, drawings, and writing.