My mother fulfilled a personal dream when she added a red version of a wishing well to our backyard. It was in her much-beloved lilac grove that she chose to nestle her wishing well, and it completed the landscape of lawn ornaments, peonies and tulips. Once placed, we took photographs to commemorate it.
That’s where I come in. In my first wishing well photograph, I’m about five years old. Wearing a red jumper-style dress,standing in bare feet and holding a baby doll, I look every bit the happy little girl, which I was. This photo holds special significance to me; it was a version of me before the disorders of image and eating. I don’t remember the taking of this first photograph; I have no memory of being “issueless,” but at one time I was. I was not aware I was defective because I was “fat.” I didn’t need to wish to be happy; I already was. But that little girl didn’t last.
My mom battled with her weight her entire life. She was alarmed to see this dreaded sin manifesting itself in her little girl, and felt she had to fix me. When she introduced me to my first diet, I was seven years old. I thought, If I do this, then I’ll be okay. The culmination of abuse within my home along with my mother’s food, weight and body image issues produced an environment in which Mom and I engaged in unhealthy enmeshment and coping attempts, which flip-flopped from sharing our love of food to sharing our self-hating belief that we were “too fat” and therefore we needed to engage in mother-daughter diet projects. These projects were meant to achieve, as my mother often vocalized, our “right weight.” This was our wish.
At eight years old, I was already approaching eating disorder territory. This was reflected in my second photo by the wishing well. I had learned image manipulation strategies, such as the type of clothes I wore. In this photograph, I am fully aware that I am “too fat.” Already experienced in failed dieting, I had learned to alter my image any way that I could.
Achieving the right weight was now my wish. Months earlier, Mom had bought me a red and white cheerleader Halloween costume, which I had never worn because it was too tight. However, I had a revelation: this tightness could serve as a corseting device. The costume was at its tightest around my midriff, the area about which I was most self-conscious. Although I was uncomfortable while wearing it, this attire became one of my go-to outfits. Knowing I could not wear it to school in its original cheerleader form, I tucked it into tight jeans, maximizing the aesthetic.
There I was, a rigid toy soldier, standing stiff, with bulging eyes, holding my breath. I was beyond uncomfortable; I was in pain. The midsection of the costume was cutting into me, but I had to do this because I was “too fat.” I had to look thinner if I couldn’t actually be thinner.
My next wishing well photograph was taken on my last day of high school. Leaning on the well, wearing dark blue cutoffs, a tank top and a jeans jacket, I didn’t know I was at a crossroads. As I prepared for college, I had a lot to prove – to myself, to the haunting jeers of classmates, and to the boys who had not asked me out – but all that would change that summer. I drank diet drinks that tasted like chocolate-flavored chalk. I started exercising on a stationary bike, a real bike and a mini trampoline. I started losing weight and keeping it off. I felt exhilaration and power!
Things took a sinister turn during my freshman year of college. Wishing became obsessing about emaciation. There is no wishing well photograph of me in this state because I rarely went outside. My life was about starvation and over-exercise. It was about trying not to die, but not wanting to live.
Every morning, my heart and pulse would pound and race. I could feel throbbing from veins that were sticking out on the backs of my knees and the crooks of my elbows. Passing out was now a regular part of my day. I would shakily stand up, already dizzy, only to blackout and wake up lying on the floor. I was tired physically, emotionally and spiritually. I didn’t want to be here anymore. My only wish was to disappear.
As I struggled with various disordered eating and image issues, and experienced the lessons and milestones of adulthood, the wishing well remained. I grew up, finished college and got married. I was subject to the various stages of wishing: the unaware bliss, the naïve hope, the desperate striving, the broken heart, the imperfect acceptance. Wishing brought me to and through every era, behavior and mindset. Life carried on.
Much has changed since those three photographs. After a stroke that rendered her wheelchair-bound, Mom now resides in a care facility. I am faced with the task of cleaning up the home where I grew up. Neglected by my mother, the flower garden is overgrown with weeds. The flowers are gone. The lawn ornaments are broken and dirty, including the once-charming red wishing well. Fallen branches, tall grass and briars made it challenging to take a photograph of me positioned next to the once-mystical wishing well. As the photo was taken, the wishing well spell was broken. I suddenly felt free.
As adults, most of us recognize that we must deal with painful, sometimes ugly, truths. Wishing can disconnect us from ourselves; it can keep us stuck, even make us regress. We must move beyond simply wishing for something external to give us “happily ever after.”
Wishing promises us magic answers. Unfortunately, while in our addictions and disorders, we sometimes wish harmful things into being. However, our wishing wells can provide a self-assessment opportunity.
What are you wishing for?
Sheryle Cruse is on a mission to declare the Gospel message, affirming that no matter what disorder or obstacle may exist, relationship with God, vibrant health and a prosperous life are, indeed, possible. She is a speaker and the author of Thin Enough.