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I’m working a lot of days this week. 6 out of 7 days. Which when you work 12-13 hour days, is a lot. For me and for my kids and husband. #UrgentCareLife.

I needed to prepare for this by making freezer meals for both this hellish week and then the week after since I’d have no time to make *those* meals as I normally would the week before. Because I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week. Did I mention I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week? It’s kind of awful.

I was making a new recipe for the freezer. One I had never attempted before: chicken cacciatore. As it was simmering, I thought of my childhood, of my grandmother’s house. She used to make chicken cacciatore. She wasn’t Italian; she was a farm wife whose people had come from Scotland and England like the people of Appalachia tended to have done. She always cooked from scratch. Three meals a day. No sandwiches for lunch. It was boiled potatoes and pork chops and sliced tomatoes and fruit and… Something was always cooking, the scents hanging in the house when you walked in the door. She wasn’t much into baking so when we would walk the mile down the road to her house on hot summer days to go swimming in her pool, she would bring us Keebler Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies as a snack. Something we did not get at home. Something we absolutely loved.

I thought back on the chicken cacciatore she made as I watched mine coming along. I felt my heart warming to think mine was turning out as well as hers. And then I thought, my Grandma never seemed to love me. I mean, I’m just being brutally honest here. It sounds awful, but I come from a dysfunctional family where I just had no emotionally intimate connection with anyone. It astounded me when I grew up and found out how other people felt about their grandparents, the close bond they shared. Not so with me and mine. I had just assumed that’s what a grandchild-grandparent relationship was *supposed* to be like. Turns out I was wrong.

So, why was the chicken and peppers boiling away in our cast iron skillet making me feel all soft and gooey?

I thought back on my grandmother’s chicken cacciatore and my mother’s snickerdoodle cookies. The peanut butter bread my mother made for us with raisins that made a smiley mouth and two mini marshmallows for eyes. The trips to McDonalds with my mom when my sisters were at school, just me and her. I told myself that food was her way of showing love. But it wasn’t. It was the desperate attempt of a little girl to believe her mother loved her in a way she definitely did not. Children are completely dependent on their parents for their very lives. They have to believe in them, in their love. And so I found a way.

What I didn’t realize until that moment in the kitchen next to the hot stove with the chicken cacciatore wafting into my pores, is that it wasn’t love at all. It was just food. And for all these 37 years I’ve been alive, I have comforted myself with food because, to me, it is love. Not a symbol of love, not a sign. It is literally love. When you’re upset, you should be able to go to your mother to be comforted. I never could. But I could eat chocolate. I could pour my sadness out to Little Debbie cakes and my anger into Doritos.

If your parents don’t comfort you when you’re young, you never learn to comfort yourself. Not in a healthy way, anyway.

For me, food has been my answer to sadness, worry, uncertainty, joy, anger, boredom, frustration. It’s been my self care and entertainment. It has been my secret, my rebellion, my hiding place, my distraction.

I remember being 10 years old in 4th grade and we had to all cross the road to the YMCA and take swimming lessons. I felt horrible about my body. I thought my thighs were just massive. I couldn’t stand the thought of being seen in a bathing suit. I’d never been made fun of. But the idea was there because of what I heard discussed at home as well as the messages we get in our culture. I began looking for excuses not to participate. I would forget my clothes on purpose. Say I wasn’t feeling well.

There was a vending machine at the Y that we were forbidden to use (this is in the days before there were vending machines in schools). I used to try to be the first one out of the locker room after class so I could quickly deposit my quarters to get a snack size bag of Keystone Party Mix. A compilation of pretzels, cheese covered tortilla chips, barbecue corn chips and cheese doodles. I would hide it away in my bag and save it for later. I would take it back to my bedroom and eat it in secret.

My parents found out I was missing swimming class and sat me down and asked me why. Was someone picking on me? No, I answered honestly. But I knew I couldn’t tell them why I was really skipping class. An unwritten, unspoken rule of the family. Don’t have negative emotions. Don’t expose your vulnerability or they will pounce. Everything. Is. Fine. And so I said what I was supposed to. Made up some unbelievable excuse which they readily believed. Everything. Is. Fine. After all.

My Keystone Party Mix comforted me. My Keystone Party Mix was the secret I kept from them. It was mine and mine alone. A protective wall. The more they know about you, the more they will hurt you. Reveal as little as possible. Protect yourself.

Hail Keystone Party Mix, full of carbs, … protect us, Mother.

That was the beginning of it. This is the end.

I know I deserve more now. I deserve love. And food is not love. I am finally able to eat healthily and be happy. I am able to comfort myself without turning to cake. I can get angry with my husband and not stop off at McDonald’s on my way to work for a Sausage McMuffin. I can make it through a boring, frustrating day at work without noshing on candy all day. I can stop after a handful of chips or a single brownie, because I am not empty and searching. I hope I am giving this to my children too. The ability to sit with the hardships of life, to turn to people who love and support them, to know they’re worth more.

I do cook for my family because I love them. I work urgent care for them and clean for them and kiss boo boos too. But I do not offer food as a substitute for love and compassion, emotional validation and open, safe, discussions. Sometimes our family *isn’t* fine. Sometimes we’re a wreck. No, like, a flaming tire fire kind of wreck. And that’s okay. It’s life. It is what it is. We all have permission to feel whatever it is we’re feeling at that moment. We’re allowed to have boundaries. I hope they like my cooking and the birthday cakes I make them, but I hope that’s the least of what I mean to them. They deserve more.