“I behave like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when it comes to food!” sighed Elmy. “There are weeks when I can stop eating completely, and then suddenly I eat as if food was going to run out. I binge on sugary stuff”

Elmy had an uncomfortable relationship with food. I could see the battle between her internal Controlling Parent (Don’t eat too much) and Rebellious Child (I will not be controlled), each winning alternately. My task was to make this battle explicit and understand the origins of it.

I enquired into Elmy’s history. She said her father had been a schoolteacher and didn’t earn much. Her mother had been an air hostess who also did some modelling assignments on the side to earn an additional income. “Mum believed Dad was useless, and it was up to her to earn for the family and raise our standard of living. Mum would travel a lot for work. Because she was a model, she really attended to her looks and weight. She planned her meals carefully and carried many small tiffin boxes to work. She never ate sugar. I was brought up by a nanny who was given strict instructions by Mum on what I should be fed. My food was measured. I was never to say no to fruits, vegetables, or nuts. If something was put on my plate, I was to finish it, no questions asked. We never kept sugar at home. In fact, I did not discover the existence of sugar till I was five years old, in a neighbour’s house, where I was offered ice cream,” Elmy said.

“What flavour was it? How was it to taste ice cream for the first time?” I was curious.

“It was vanilla,” she said, smiling wistfully. “I thought I had tasted something from heaven.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“When I told my mum about it, she looked horrified and told me I had had “white poison.” She said “You’ll become fat. You won’t be able to dance or even run fast. Fat people can’t wear shorts or sleeveless tops. People make fun of fat people.” I felt ashamed.”

“And you were only five!” I said in disbelief, unable to hide how appalled I was at the idea of a five-year-old having to hear these messages.

“Yes,” she said, as tears first pooled in her eyes before starting to flow down her cheeks.

“The only way for me to have food that I liked was in secret. I started stealing money from home. I bought ice cream and candy at school. I would eat a lot in other people’s houses. I started begging my friends to smuggle in snacks for me.”

I nodded, listening with rapt attention. “Once when my mum was travelling, my aunt sent a jar of homemade laddoos. I asked Dad if I could have one. He said “Just one, otherwise Mum will find out.” I ate one and it was delicious. I decided one more wouldn’t be missed, and I ate another. What I was doing felt dangerous, but I couldn’t stop. I knew Mum would be furious and I would be punished. She might never give me any more laddoos. So, I ate another in fear. And then another one in anger. Then I ate another to teach her a lesson. Soon, I had eaten over 20 laddoos at a feverish pace, maybe in less than 20 minutes!”

“My father was shocked when he found out and scolded me, saying “Wait till your mum is home!” He reported it to my mom when she returned, and she punished me by saying that I would not be given any dinner and would have to eat boiled vegetables for lunch for a week. It was so harsh! I looked to my father for support. But he just smirked as if to say, “You little glutton, this should teach you a lesson.”’

“You remember the smirk! How did you feel?”

“I hated him for that. I glared at him with rage. He glared right back. They shoved me into my room. I went hungry that night, and I knew they were eating dinner outside. I thought to myself “When I grow up, I won’t let anyone control me. I will eat whatever I want, whenever I want.”’

I repeated, “When I grow up, I won’t let anyone control me. I will eat whatever I want whenever I want.”

We both took in the significance of the statement. We had found the origin of the battle between the Controlling Parent and the Rebellious Child.

“So, you are eating today in protest of what they did to you as a child?” I asked.

“I probably am. I am!” she sighed.

I held the space for her in silence as she continued.

“Mum never loved me for who I was,” she said, tears flowing down her cheeks.

“And Dad?”

“He was around, but I don’t remember him having his own opinion on anything. He would go along with whatever Mum said. She was the smarter one. She was earning more. She had a glamorous job. I think Dad was scared that she would leave him.”

I noted that there was plenty of material there to explore around gender roles, money, and careers. For another time. This session was about exploring her relationship with food.

“How did they show you their love?” I asked.

“I am not sure,” she said despondently. “I don’t think I was ever hugged or treated affectionately. I thought maybe my father too didn’t love me because I was fat. They did all the basic things, but most of the focus was on controlling my diet. That was their way of taking care of me. All conversations were about food, fatness, and money.”

I could see Elmy’s pain. As a child, she had never been hugged or touched enough. Food was often withheld, and she experienced her parents’ love and approval as being conditional.

I knew she had never been allowed to be angry. I invited her to express her anger towards her mother in the therapy room, by imagining her sitting on an empty chair opposite her. As she addressed her mother, her anger escalated, “All you cared about was my weight. You made me feel ugly and unlovable. I hated the remarks you made about my being fat. I hate you. I wish you were dead.” She sobbed bitterly as she said that. I saw the battered child, beneath the anger.

“I never knew I was this angry,” she said to me after she finished the process. “I don’t really want her to die.”

“I know that,” I reassured her, “but I am glad you were able to access and express the anger that you were never allowed to.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “So am I.”