You will always collect mothers, she told me today; comparing maternity to a collection of rocks, intangible objects differing only in the chemical compounds which they comprise, and me to a hobbyist in constant search for a new, gratifying piece to add to the shelf where it will sit, pristinely, beside other artifacts of similar make and disposition.
Some people collect physical objects, tangible memorabilia meant to jog their memories of the remnants of experiences and lives. Superstitious people collect stories, proverbs, perhaps mythological fables which ascribe meaning to those moments which cannot be explained.
I collect mothers.
I have done this for years. Journal entries from my childhood, the brink of my adolescence through the end of my teenage years - repetitive beyond the limits of redundancy - bear witness to the aches of my deprivation.
As an eight year old, I would often wake up in the middle of the night to a gnawing in the middle of my stomach. I recall telling a doctor that I felt like someone was inside of me with a fork, twisting and twirling my intestines around as if they were angel hair pasta in a fresh tomato sauce. I pictured the contents of my stomach exposed, laid bare on a platter for mass consumption, resting beneath a mountain of meatballs.
This feeling was always accompanied by an intense adrenaline rush and a sensation of being, quite literally, punched squarely in the stomach.
I remember thinking: this is what it feels like to be alone.
This emptiness accompanied me everywhere I went, trailing me silently as I sat in class, ate lunch with my friends, went to piano lessons, basketball games, soccer games, and tennis practice. It sat patiently on the stool next to me in art class, mocking my pitiful attempts at molding clay into a masked face, laughing when the dry, hardened nose fell off in my hand as I removed it from the kiln.
My invisible torturer grew larger in tandem with my own development, fueled by my body's defiance of its physical presence. At night I wrote in my journal, I am so jealous of Ali's relationship with her mom. It's not fair. They can talk about everything. I bet Ali doesn't even need to ask her mom about stuff, She probably just tells her. Plus she's so tall and skinny, she probably won't get boobs until she's like, 15.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it started. At what moment I realized that I was not going to get what I needed from my own mother. That I would have to seek this connection elsewhere.
The list is long and complicated; an overlapping series of women from whom I sought nurturance. As I grew up and into my life, some of these women became my friends and mentors. Others faded into the blurriness of my childhood, left behind in my physical and emotional sprint away from myself.
In the presence of these women, I was, at last, able to fully inhabit my body. I was loud, easily excited, hyper-emotional, over-expressive. I talked freely about all of the topics my other self deemed taboo: boys, bodies, fears, desires. Eventually sex and love. I wore short skirts, flirted with boys, and slow danced at parties. I snuck out and made out beneath the covers, fumbling my way through my teenage years.
Around my own mother, I was silent. Together, we entered into an unspoken routine of feigned ignorance. She didn't ask. I didn't tell. To this day, I have never discussed, in explicit terms, any of my physical relationships - romantic or otherwise - with her. My body, with its confluence of needs and desires and sex and emotion, is collectively nonexistent.
The lines are much blurrier when it comes to my own acknowledgement of my body and my understanding of her needs. I waver between denial and overindulgence. Between punishment and self-love.
I suppose acknowledgement must come first.
I have a body. She has olive skin, brown hair, breasts, and hips. She has a brain and a heart and a libido and a stomach and a soul.
She's actually fairly normal.
I have always been intensely afraid of other peoples' perceptions of me. Terrified that someone would uncover my secrets and share them with the world. There's something wrong with her, I imagine them whispering. Her boobs are too big and she's secretly stupid, and seriously she's insane. And, ohmygod, she's, like, soooo sensitive.
The irony of the whole thing is, of course, that sharing my fears - in journals, in therapy, in conversations that have grown louder and more intimate with time - has diminished them. Confronting all of those things I was so ashamed of has not, as I suspected, amplified their reality.
Sitting in an eating disorder support group in a windowless room in New York, surrounded by women with anorexia and bulimia and in varying stages of recovery, I watch as heads nod collectively as people share their innermost fears. I probably sound crazy, one girl will start. I feel like I'm probably nuts, and this doesn't make any sense, and I'm not sure if anyone else feels this way, but I am, I guess, I'm afraid that I don't really know myself without my eating disorder. That if I am recovered, I won't even be myself. I'll be boring. I won't be special.
Another girl will blurt out, Jesus, I feel like you're inside my head. Like I have literally felt the exact same thing.
I realize, perhaps, that I am not alone.
I don't know where to go from here. How to harness this acknowledgement and use it to my advantage. Sometimes I want to sit around and talk about it, marinate my thoughts and experiences among friends and glasses of wine. Other times I prefer to silence it through distraction, to immerse myself in work beneath the demands of a project. Reading helps. Years of therapy have been transformative. And yet, still, I find myself writing, unsure of what to make of it at all.