I didn’t know that, with the joy of my much longed-for pregnancy, the horror of my bulimia and anorexia could come back so violently after three years of healing: with a vengeance, actually, despite intense and life-changing therapy sessions, sobriety, a happy marriage, and especially despite my newly found love for food and cooking.
But it did happen. And my first trimester has been, almost secretly, one of the most difficult times I have ever been through in my life.
I am 21 weeks pregnant today, and I am writing this from the living room of my home in Tarzana, California. The sun is setting, and the beautiful view from the garden over the San Fernando Valley keeps me company while Ben, my husband, is on tour with the band. After being on the road with him for weeks, I had to take a break, and take care of myself, and the baby, at home.
I knew that the first trimester could be rough, with all-day morning sickness that doesn’t magically disappear when the clock strikes twelve noon, fatigue, and discomfort. And yet I didn’t know the extent to which my inability to accept the changes that my body was quickly going through, as well as the difficulty in finding healthy food that I could eat, would turn my experience of the tour into a struggling tour de force. I was six-and-a-half weeks pregnant when we landed in Dallas; then we flew to New Orleans (city of magic and mystery, not so easy to enjoy when newly pregnant and sensitive to every smell), Orlando, and ultimately to Chicago, where the idea for this essay came about, and where I hit my bottom.
I was nine weeks pregnant when we arrived in Chicago, and perhaps because of the hormones that I had been taking for months before our several fertility treatments, perhaps because of the progesterone supplement that I had been prescribed after the last procedure, or perhaps because of how my body genetically reacted to pregnancy, I was gaining a lot of weight. I was gaining weight so fast that – even though rationally I had been ready for pregnancy for quite a while – my eyes, my brain, my heart, and my soul were not.
So instead of seeing a pregnant woman reflected in the mirror of Suite 1334, I saw the seventeen-year-old me: an overweight young girl with long chestnut air, full of crazy dreams and creative ideas, and yet a young girl who had just begun the devastating practice of starving, binging, and throwing up.
“What kind of mother will I be? I shouldn’t have a child,” I cried myself to sleep one night. Ben was performing in Memphis, Tennessee, and I had stayed behind; I couldn’t deal with more hit-or-miss backstage food, I was tired, and most of all, I felt ashamed. I felt as if I couldn’t share my pain because ‘that’s not what a mother would do,’ especially when friends and family knew how much I wanted to be pregnant, and how hard we had tried in the past year and a half. I was lost.
Moreover, I missed cooking my own food and sharing it with our friends; I longed for the comfort I had grown accustomed to in my kitchen. I missed home and the healthy life I had in California; I missed the old me, the Alice of nine weeks before.
In fact, from one day to another, I as I knew myself had vanished – my body had been taken over by the future baby, and the teenage Alice had replaced the adult one.
“I can’t even look at myself in the mirror,” I told my therapists, in tears, during a Skype session from Chicago. “I can’t touch my skin, I don’t recognize myself.” I cried the entire hour, and for the first time I had the courage to tell them: “I gained 15 pounds in nine weeks, do you understand?” Just the sound of that number made me cringe. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. I was creating life in my uterus, but, surrounded by the luxury of one of the most elegant hotels in the city, I longed for death.
“I wish there was something I could do, my love,” Ben said to me one evening, with beautiful peach-colored roses in his hands. “I hate seeing you like this.” Every day he’d talk to baby through the blue cotton of my pajamas, thoughtfully not touching nor uncovering my bloated belly. Not one day went by without him saying: “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” I, protected by the blue cotton of my pajamas, hated my bloated belly, my disappearing waist, and my chubby arms, once slender and toned. Even my face looked different.
The weather was quite cold in Chicago in those days. My old clothes started to feel uncomfortable, so I folded away my skinny jeans. I didn’t go out, but spent five days watching the windy city moving fast and feeling the renewal of spring, while there, on the 13th floor where I was, autumn was giving way to winter.
When we returned to Los Angeles, after three weeks on the road, I refused to go out for days, save for quick runs to the local Whole Foods, and to the gym. I wanted to lose some of the weight before being seen out and about. I was in denial of my pregnancy; to my eyes, I was fat. I never even wanted to see my friends because I was afraid of their shocked reaction: “Oh my God, she is huge. What happened to her? I bet now she’ll stop making all that pasta!” I pictured them saying behind my back.
“I always admired your pregnancy,” I told my dear friend Molly, one afternoon over the phone.
Molly is the mom of a beautiful 10-month old, and when she was pregnant, Ben and I were undergoing fertility treatment. It was a challenging time for us as a couple, and for me as a woman; Molly was an inspiration to me, a source of hope. I always thought she was beautiful, and that she had gained the perfect amount of weight. “How did you do it? I mean, you gained what…20?” I had promised myself I would be just like her, were I to be blessed with a child.
“Are you kidding?” she said. I could perceive her gentle and genuine smile as she said: “I gained 50 pounds! But I was okay with it, and my doctor wasn’t worried at all.”
I remained silent.
After I hung up the phone, I went out and sat for a while in the garden, near the rosemary and the aromatic herbs; I was very confused. It was a beautiful summer late afternoon in Tarzana; the sun was shining and a pleasant breeze was blowing. I closed my eyes, and for the first time I clearly saw what I had not been able to even notice until that moment.
My eating disorder had made me so blind that 50 pounds on another woman looked to me like 20. So after learning about Molly’s pregnancy weight, I began to search Google for images of pregnant actresses.
“What do you see when you look at Rachel Bilson,” my therapist asked. She looked at me with love and compassion; I didn’t feel judged by her. This time, the session took place in her studio, in Beverly Hills. I wore black maternity leggings and a black blouse – a big scarf covered me as if it were a blanket as I sat on the couch in front of her.
“A beautiful pregnant woman,” I said. “But I’m starting to think I will never see myself that way.” I re-experienced the humiliation of the 17-year-old me after being bullied in school, and the shame she felt after looking at a photo of her and seeing someone she didn’t recognize. “That can’t be me,” I recalled the voice of young Alice saying.
I felt her sorrow. I felt her unhappiness and her discomfort, and I felt her anger. But I also felt compassion for her.
In these past three years of healing, I have made progress with my eating disorder. And thanks to two fantastic doctors who truly care, I have also begun to cook; I have discovered happiness in the kitchen by embracing my being Italian to the fullest, and by bringing back to life memories of my grandmother, of my childhood, of my roots, in the form of delicious recipes. In these past three years, I haven’t thrown up or starved myself, and yet I have not made peace with that teenage girl who hated herself so much that she hurt and tried to destroy her body for years.
I am still pregnant, so my body keeps changing daily. I stopped the progesterone, but I am in my second trimester now, and I will gain weight.
“You are pregnant, Alice. You are going to be a mother.” I say to myself every day when I get dressed, and face my naked body in the mirror. And that is not 17-year-old Alice speaking, it’s myself today. It means I must have found the first little piece of my lost self.
I shared this story because I don’t want women to suffer in silence while admiring fragments of life on social media, where everything looks perfect, beautiful, a movie. There is no shame in living real life as real women, with all that being a real woman entails. Please, share this blog and pass it along. I only wish this testimony to be out there, and available to as many people as possible.