In many cultures, food is an expression of love. Sometimes, as was the case for me growing up as a child of immigrants, food might be the only expression of love.
My parents were not very affectionate or communicative about love. My dad gives classic awkward-dad hugs, where he pats your back with self-conscious uncertainty from a good foot and a half away. My mom hit me so frequently and unexpectedly that my body learned to flinch anytime she got too close.
My childhood was punctuated by seasons of my mom’s depression. Ramen and Pizza Hut boxes marked how long a particular bout of depression was. My mom would sometimes go weeks without changing out of her pale pink nightgown or opening her bedroom blinds. During these dark days, if she did get out of bed, she moved zombie-like through the house, no sign of vibrancy in her eyes.
And then something would somehow shift. I would always wait in desperate hope for this shift.
I would know the tide was turning when the kitchen would come back alive. The little tabletop stove would be back on the kitchen table for sizzling jjigaes and kalbi, the familiar smells of doenjang and kimchi filling the house again. The click of the rice cooker would tell us it was almost time for dinner.
We never spoke about what it meant when my mom was cooking and when she wasn’t cooking, but we all understood the significance.
I have a very distinct memory of myself at about ten years old. I can see myself sitting at the table in our kitchen on a summer’s day. A half head of iceberg lettuce sits in front of me.
This was my entire lunch. It would continue to be my entire lunch for many years to come.
My mom tried to entice me to eat more. I didn’t understand this explicitly then, but as a mother now, I completely do—you cannot force your child to eat. Food was something, perhaps the only thing, I could control.
I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, but in being difficult about my food, I was unconsciously demanding that my mom show me that she loved me. I was trying to force her mental illness to stay away. I was sending the threatening message that if she were to disappear into her depression for weeks, I would have to survive on half heads of lettuce, and then what would happen?
But the frightening oppression of my mom’s cycles of depression and suicide attempts continued. When the worst was being thrown at me, I could at least control food.
Many times, I couldn’t eat at all, a common reaction that happens when someone is going through shock or sadness. When I did eat, I had an unmovable need to be very strict and particular.
My controlled eating intensified as I became a yoga teacher. “I can’t have a full stomach when I’m doing my practice,” I would say.
To an extent, this was true. It would be physically uncomfortable to wolf down a bowl of pasta and then hang out inverted in Down Dog. But what I didn’t say was that I was also extremely concerned with how I would look in my yoga clothes.
I equated any perceivable imperfections in my body with failure, shame, and ugliness.
I lost so much weight that on one visit home, my mom forced me to stand on the scale. She was mortified at how little I weighed. I, on the other hand, realized I was secretly ecstatic, even proud.
I was often lightheaded and had low energy. My blood pressure was too low, but I credited it to all the yoga and meditation I was doing.
I went through various phases of food limitations. I returned to vegetarianism, which morphed into veganism, which further morphed into a raw diet based on eating “only what you could catch with your bare hands.”
I read that in eating anything that came from an animal, you were taking in their karma, and if an animal had been brutally slaughtered, you were consuming that energy of pain and suffering. I learned about the blood type diet and eating based on what your ancestors ate. I of course learned about the evils of gluten.
The more I read about food, the more I wanted to read about it. In lieu of consuming food, I consumed information about it.
I didn’t notice when the language of diet culture shifted to “clean eating,” and I blindly jumped on the bandwagon. How could I eat in the cleanest way? How could I avoid all toxins?
I did juice cleanses throughout the year. I lead “Detox Flow Yoga” workshops, teaching sequences that targeted the digestive organs, as if they would not be able to function without our manipulation.
I was a complete mess. I had so much information—much of it false and rooted in diet culture—swirling in my head that I would find myself paralyzed. What was safe to eat?
A steak would be approved by Atkins, but red meat was bad for my heart and karmically cursed. Too much raw food seemed to give me stomachaches. Anything with sugar was out.
I would open the fridge and stand there, staring hopelessly. When you’re trying to follow low or no carb and vegan andraw and gluten-free, there is hardly anything that is safe to eat. I read about great yogis who lived in caves and survived on oxygen and a few twigs and berries.
I stuck to my list of “clean” foods and kept my quantities as small as possible. I was constantly restricting, which is an eating disorder, but I just thought I was “disciplined.”
After having my first child, I turned to severe food restriction to lose weight. I tortured myself with clothes from when I was eighteen years old, trying on old jeans as a barometer of my bigness. When I went back to teaching, I practically hung my head in shame saying, “I just had a baby. I’m still working on losing the last ten pounds.”
Not eating affected my milk production, which I somehow did not understand would of course happen with low caloric intake. Not eating, also, was a major trigger to my anxiety and panic attacks.
I was diagnosed with eating disorders.
When I was pregnant with my second, during the pandemic, I was determined to be healthy. Pregnancy already makes most women feel like we can actually eat. Being in lockdown, not seeing anyone I knew, and changing from sleep sweats to daytime sweats gave me an even more expansive license to eat and to actually eat what I enjoyed.
It felt like everyone was embracing a more liberated lifestyle. We all started making bread from scratch.
I made a conscious choice to carry this food freedom forward. I knew it meant I would be carrying the baby weight with me for a while. I willed myself not to get caught up in this.
I wanted to retrain my brain from thinking that being as skinny as possible equaled being good, lovable, and worthy.
I’ve learned that for me, there is a connection between my disordered eating and my anxiety. That feeling I would get at 4 p.m. that seemed to just be low blood sugar was also the initial niggling of anxiety—anxiety that would cause symptoms and that could trigger panic attacks.
I started paying closer attention to my eating habits. One of the most surprising things I noticed was that when I hadn’t eaten for too many hours and I would finally take a bite of something, I would often burst into tears, as if my body was crying in relief.
I decided to let go of rules and rigidity around eating. I stopped waiting as long as possible to not eat. I asked friends how frequently and how much they ate and learned that one boiled egg does not count as a full meal.
I recognized my disordered habits, such as spitting out food and simply forgetting to eat. I set myself the goal of eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, something that sounds so simple but has been shockingly difficult for me to adhere to consistently.
I’ve realized that continuing to restrict food is only going to worsen both my physical health and mental well-being. I’ve accepted that I am battling a deeply embedded disorder that is wrapped up in my childhood, in being my mentally ill mother’s daughter.
Food was not simply sustenance. Food also indicated the state of mom’s mind, of whether things were safe or scary. Food was how I tried to control the uncontrollable.
As with any healing journey, my path is not direct or linear. For every step forward there are at least an equal number of steps back. I think what matters is that I pay attention to the steps that I take and that I continue to refine my goals and priorities.
I want to be mentally and physically well so that I can be there for my family and so that I can enjoy this precious, ever-fleeting experience of being human. I want to be a healthy example to my children so that they inherently absorb as truth the importance of loving, accepting, and taking care of yourself. I want us all to be able to eat for nutrition and sustenance and also in joy.
I wish I could go back and sit with the little me eating the half head of lettuce and give her a big hug. I would ask her if she was okay. I would tell her that I was there if she wanted to talk about anything, that life could feel quite scary sometimes, that I loved her, and that I would help her.
This is how we break harmful cycles: Face what has been done to us and consciously choose what we will not carry forward. Remember how it felt to be a child, think about what we needed but were not given, and do our best to be that for others as well as for ourselves.
My therapist explained to me that the part of the brain that holds deep emotional imprints doesn’t know the calendar. It doesn’t discern that the thing has already happened at a different time, in a different place. So when you remember something painful, the emotional self feels it as if it is happening right now.
We think thoughts such as: “The emotions came flooding back” and “It was like I was right back in that moment.”
I think this is why the instinct is to repress, to deny, to pretend. Who wants to go back to times when they felt terrified, helpless, and hopeless? It is no wonder people turn to all forms of distraction and busyness or become addicted to various coping mechanisms.
And sometimes we just need to do what we need to do to survive. I don’t believe there’s anything to be ashamed about in that. Because it means we wanted to survive, to live.
It’s just that we—our bodies, our minds, our hearts—can only take so much. You cannot infinitely escape facing your terrors and your trauma. When the time comes, they will insist on being seen, heard, felt, and with determination and work, eventually processed and healed.
Hopefully when we hit our breaking point, we have access to support. A professional, partner, family member, or friend… sometimes support shows up in the most unexpected of places. It is necessary to reach out to others and to allow yourself to be heard, helped, and held.
It can feel like there is nobody out there who will catch you, but I’m willing to bet that that is simply not true. There is always someone. At the very least, there is me.
About Leah Kim
Leah Kim taught yoga for fifteen years after studying english and economics at UCLA. As Nike’s Global Yoga Ambassador for a decade, she taught classes and led events all over the world. After becoming a mother, Leah was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders. Through therapy, she confronted deeply buried pain and recovered from acute symptoms. She now writes about mental health, motherhood, and racial justice on her blog, www.on-motherhood.com. IG: @leahsoojinkim