Processing Trauma of Childhood Hunger

Last week, my therapist and I picked up with EMDR to process more trauma. We intentionally defined a period of my childhood that was brutal, 1979-1983, or the years of 4th to 8th grade.

Historically, EMDR has been quite helpful with my lesser traumas and anxiety. The hard stuff hasn’t cooperated and we’ve respected that. But it’s time.

These are brutal years for a lot of kids. Bullying, academic rigor, physical changes, etc. Check, check, check.

It was in the midst of the collapse of Big Steel here in Pittsburgh so systemic issues, poverty, and fear are layered in as well.

We were a poor family. My Dad did work hard, but that wasn’t enough. What it took me a bit to realize was how his addictions to gambling and alcohol were fed by the paycheck, a paycheck that should have been sufficient. I had no idea about the gambling, but I grasped the drinking.

My parents didn’t deliberately spend all of their money on themselves. They rarely had new clothes or shoes either. They were suffering, too.

In my childhood, hunger began the years my Mum stopped getting up to make us breakfast before school. I was 7 or 8. I could make cereal. I couldn’t buy the cereal or milk. I tried to make cereal for my 5 or 6 year old brother and myself. But I didn’t know what I was doing.

I didn’t know how to get us bathed, dressed in clean clothes, or otherwise tidied. Somehow we got a lunch in elementary school, I suspect a kindness our teachers worked out for the group of poor kids. That didn’t extend to brushing our hair or asking questions about things going south at home.

I learned some skills as time went on. We got a microwave so we could often eat at least something warm.

Hunger wasn’t only about unreliable food security. It was about power. My mother only had access to the funds that got past the bar and the slot machines. Even at her best, she didn’t ever have enough. My father suffered the same fate – addiction is a cruel beast.

When I figured out the ‘free lunch program’ at age 11 and got us signed up, I learned more about hunger and dignity. Sigh. Lesson lesrned: there is no dignity.

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I was hungry so when I visited friends, I stole food. I was hungry, but terrified of the bullies in the lunchroom so I’d pretend to have a bag lunch to be allowed to sit with kids who weren’t vicious.

My relationship to food was decimated. We always had popcorn around so I ate a lot of it to just quell the pangs. I tend to avoid it now unless someone else makes it. I like it, but …

There would not be food around that I could prepare, so I would ask someone to go shopping. I was 8 or 9 or 10. I was often told to go myself. So I’d walk to the closest option and buy anything to fill us. I used my pitiful allowance, change from the sofa and my mother’s purse, I rolled pennies.

I realized quickly that being in a position of subservience to the money holder was perilous. The dynamic I knew was always men – my Dad, my uncles, my grandfather, other Dads – controlling the money, but not managing it. The women paid the bills, figured out the shopping, and endured the fallout when trying to do more with less. Or God forbid, laid claim to the actual income versus the leftovers.

So it’s never been about my relationship to food as my relationship to hunger. It’s about power and control, not calories. When I needed the people with power and control to provide the calories, they didn’t. And I’ve never recovered from either betrayal.

When we began the EMDR session last werk, it seemed okay. We relied on the trope of ‘resiliency’ as a sort of safety line – I kept finding resources even at 8-years-old, I’m okay – to repel into the memories. It seemed okay.

Except I completely erased it from my memory. I knew intellectually we had used EMDR, but I blanked on any of the details. That’s very odd.

My body and mind were saying “Don’t do this ” – I even stopped eating. I could feel hunger, I understood I needed some food, but I could not make myself prepare anything. Not even cereal.

I also struggle to ask for help with food because it feels weak (it is weak!) And because I feel shame. I should be able to do this.

I know the forgetting of the session is not good. And that hurts. It feels like I’ll always be stuck and dependent. And that’s not even factoring my actual autoimmune GI stuff.

So we stop the EMDR and use other processing tools. When I experience dissociation, I don’t eat. I need to eat. It’s now 11:54 AM and I have not eaten. I am terrified of not having money for the holidays so I’m not buying lunch. I’ll just wait it out.

All to say, I’m onto something. If I persist, I might figure it out. If not eating triggers my GI stuff, I know I’ll live. What I don’t know is how much damage these sad little memories will do especially as I am now an adult on a fixed income.

I doubt I’ll ever feel food secure. But maybe I can figure out some new workarounds.


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