Starved, a Love Story Part II
Happily Ever After
As good as we ate, I could never get enough and never felt entirely satisfied. Once I entered adolescence, my hunger consumed me. I felt starved not only for food, but for attention and affection too, and I was always in trouble as a result. It was impossible for me to fight all of my urges. There was something very wrong with me, and whatever it was, I was made to believe it was my fault, and it was dealt with harshly.
I was a hyperactive child with an overactive thyroid that went undetected for years. I’m not sure what age I was when a doctor put me on Valium, probably 11 or 12, or when or how it was that I came to know this as an adult. Interestingly, when I look back at my final years of grade school, it’s all a blur of shaking, sweating, sneaking alcohol, making out with boys, sleeping, fighting, and crying.
I remember once being so tired, desperately tired, and being kept awake and forced to do homework at the dining room table, where my parents could keep an eye on me and yell every time I dozed off. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that I probably had 5 or 6 donuts for breakfast, brought home from the weekly sale after church. I remember my mom vacuuming and my dad watching football, and turning the volume up on the television as high as it could go. Some sort of report was due the following day, and even if I had read any books on the subject, I would not know the first thing about writing a report.
I just couldn’t take it; the noise, the pressure, fighting to stay awake. Seeing no way out, I took a bottle of Tylenol into the first-floor bathroom with me, downing the whole thing, just so I could fall asleep and never have to wake up again. There were only 6 tablets fortunately, and my dad broke down the door and choked them out of me, screaming, “If anybody’s gonna kill you, it’s gonna be me!”
If I wasn’t asleep, I was out of control. My parents were pushed to their limits and became abusive. A few times my dad became so full of rage that he lost all control and l suffered ruthless beatings. These occurrences, however, led to rare intimate moments of tenderness, where my father would sit on the edge of my bed where I’d been crying, and he’d tell me that he did this because he loved me. I had no reason to doubt that, I still don’t.
By eighth grade, my hair began falling out, my hands shook, I lost weight, and I stopped having periods. My parents assumed the worst, but when a pregnancy test, that they had me take without knowing what it was, turned out to be negative, they decided to take me to see a doctor, not the one who had prescribed the Valium.
After just a few tests, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and was scheduled for treatment immediately. I was given a radioactive iodine pill, meant to kill most of the cells in my overactive thyroid, which left me with hypothyroidism, and an underactive thyroid. My metabolism was slowed as a result, and I would have to take a drug to speed it up for the rest of my life. Naturally, I gained weight. A lot of weight.
My parents began to worry that I was overeating, something I had always done and was not willing to change. When going for seconds, I would often get looks of disapproval, from my dad especially. He’d say “Do you really think you need that?” Then he’d eye me up and down, thinking it was more gentle to remind me that I was fat with his eyes rather than words. Ironically, my dad was fat. Very fat, but no one ever dared say anything to him. The hypocrisy added another layer of hurt and confusion.
Left feeling ashamed, unfairly mistreated and still hungry, I would sneak food and hide, often really overeating, out of fear that I might not have another opportunity. It was incredibly difficult for me to watch all of the other kids, especially my brother, be applauded for their big appetites. More times than I’d like to admit, I stole money from people I babysat for, so I could buy fast food or bags of candy and eat it all before I got home. I was disgusted with myself and could get no pleasure out of eating even the tastiest food, knowing what I had done.
As you can see from the diagrams, both hyper and hypothyroidism suck, and while I’d kill to have that unintentional weight loss back, and to be sweating rather than freezing, doctors believed that there was only one way to treat hyperthyroidism. As a chef, I often wonder, ‘Did God give me a fast metabolism to support my career?’ He is a merciful God after all!
After my treatment, my mother began packing me lunches with Triscuit crackers or rice cakes instead of bread, while the other kids got proper sandwiches. In high school, I’d sell my pre-paid bus tickets to classmates at a discounted price and buy Little Debbie Zebra Cakes or Nutty Bars with the cash. Later, I’d steal money for bus fare from my dad’s pants, which were the first thing he removed after dinner, draping them over a dining room chair, before lying on the couch in his underwear and falling asleep in front of the TV, which I now know from experience, is what grown-up fat people like to do after a meal!
My relationship with my parents was and continues to be estranged, off and on, and to varying degrees. They spent a great deal of my childhood being ashamed or embarrassed by me, my weight, my hair, my clothes, but mostly my behavior. Admittedly, I was a troublemaker, runaway, rebel, and a slut; a parent’s worst nightmare.
But then, in my early twenties, I learned to be of use, to be a joyful contributor, and changed everyone’s mind about me; my family, former teachers and classmates, and even some of those people I stole money from while babysitting!
I can say without any doubt, that the best years of our relationship began when I finally found my calling and true passion. Cooking played a huge role in redefining who I was in my family and in society, giving my parents a reason to finally be proud of me. Even my grade school, which had been so desperate to be rid of me that they let me graduate from 8th grade with straight F’s, invited me to come back and give a speech about becoming a chef on career day!
Finding My Calling…
I began experimenting in the kitchen when I was 18 years old with the foods and flavors I was being introduced to at Ninth Street Grill in the Galleria, where I had a job bussing tables. Taking full advantage of the massive open kitchen, I spent a great deal of time watching Chef Karen Small and her team of cooks, learning all I could, in the hopes of recreating my favorite dishes at home. Every day was an inspiration and every night was a feast that I took great pride in making and really enjoyed eating.
My boyfriend Paul, however, was simply unimpressed by my cooking and anyone else’s for that matter, and with good reason. He was Slovenian and grew up among aunts, uncles, and grandparents, on an urban estate with fruit trees, grape vines, and a sizable vegetable garden. The women in his family didn’t just know how to cook, they knew how to grow their own food, and can and preserve, using recipes and techniques that had been passed down for generations and the men knew how to make wine and spirits the way they’d been taught by their fathers and grandfathers.
When I’d grow tired of having my cooking compared to that of Paul’s mother or his aunts, I’d go running to my family to get the reaction I thought I deserved. I would just show up at my parents’ house unexpectedly, with a bag full of groceries and I’d try and duplicate one of Karen Small’s pastas, salads, stir-fries, or frittatas. I knew I could count on them to be as excited and enthusiastic as I was, and I’d feel appreciated, celebrated even. Cooking for others gave me such new and wonderful sensations, and as I got better, I began hosting dinner parties at my house for friends and family.
Once I started working at Johnny’s Downtown, nine years later, my nights were no longer free to cook spontaneously for loved ones. Most of what I learned there, I’d practice after midnight when I’d return from work with an incredible bottle of wine, which the owners sold at cost to employees (a brilliant tactic to get you to forget all the abuse and come back the next day!) Working all those long hours, absorbing everything that I could, brought my cooking, as well as my drinking, to a whole other level, taking my repertoire from Contemporary California Cuisine to Classical, and from White Zin to Red! My teeth and lips took on a permanent purple hue and co-workers started calling me Bridget Bordeaux! I was becoming a workaholic and an alcoholic as well, but not by choice.
One fateful day, as I had been working 3 double shifts in a row and was falling over with hunger and exhaustion, one of the chefs put a scoop of rice into a soup cup and slid it to me when no one was looking. I grabbed a spoon and scurried away to the back stairwell, where I had intended to scarf it down quickly, but after one bite, my knees buckled. Catching myself on a step, I just sat there, not believing what I was tasting. It was sublime, a revelation! My worries melted away. I no longer cared who had ordered what or what table needed to be cleared or reset, or who was waiting for their check. No, this was too good. They would all have to wait, while I savored every bite and licked every morsel from the spoon.
When I walked the cup and spoon into the kitchen and over to the dishwasher, I turned to the chef and whispered breathlessly, with tears in my eyes, “Whaaat was that?” She ducked down to see me better under the pass, and looking amused, she told me it was ‘lobster thyme risotto.’ It may have been the extreme fatigue I was feeling, but I just started weeping and laughing at the same time, remembering that I was allergic to lobster and thinking to myself, that I didn’t care at all if it killed me, it was just that good!
The chef shook a few pans, turned some knobs, threw a towel over her shoulder, and walked out from behind the line to where I was standing. She put her hands on my shoulders and I tipped back into a wall, still delirious from the deliciousness of the risotto! She said, “We’ve been watching you and we think you’re on the wrong side of the kitchen. We think you’re one of us!” She let go and gave me an all-knowing smile and a bit of a nod, permission perhaps, to consider what she had just said. I felt honored, and a bit embarrassed that I was the last to know what had been so obvious to everyone else! “Talk to Vid!” she said, as she hurried back behind the line and I pulled myself together.
Vid Lutz was the executive chef and was not someone you talked to, you merely stood in awe, observing him orchestrate the cooking, firing, and plating of food. He liked silence in his kitchen and would often shout the word, sending servers running for the dining room in fear that he might throw a dish at them next. Once, I nearly killed someone who was deathly allergic to dairy, because I was too intimidated to ask him a question (a great story for another time!)
When I finally worked up the courage to ask him how I would go about becoming a chef, his entire demeanor changed. He softened ever so slightly, his eyes which were always laser-focused on what was happening behind the line, flickered to look at me for a split second. He pointed to two of the cooks, Johann and Chris, and told me that they were culinary students on their externship and that I should talk to them about Pennsylvania Culinary.
Four months later, I was enrolled at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and I had a tiny furnished apartment in Millvale, a borough four miles north of Pittsburgh, and the rest is history!
September 21, 1998
I went to Pittsburgh so I could step back and look at my life from a distance. Two things surprised me the most. The first is that I can’t stand to be away from that dysfunctional, obsessive-compulsive, overly judgmental, co-dependent group of people I call my family! The second is that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. I’m capable of mistakes. Another thing I’ll admit is that Paul is usually right. I didn’t need to go to this school. It is a waste of money, however, I am learning a lot about myself, that I probably never would have known, if I hadn’t taken this journey.
The proudest, happiest day of my life (before Ari!) was in 2002, a year after opening Tastebuds, when my brother and his wife presented me with a beautifully framed custom plaque of our first review, for my 31st birthday. I was moved to tears, remembering how it felt to hear my mom reading that review to me on my answering machine the morning it appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer! My dad sat down beside me and rubbed my back telling me how proud he was of me, how proud they all were of me.
Once I moved the restaurant to a larger space, I began hosting many important family occasions, mostly baby showers, weddings, wedding showers, and some holidays as well, and I already told you about my epic niece and nephew overnights! Again, I would be praised and told over and over how proud I made my parents.
In all the excitement over the restaurant, I guess we forgot the pain we caused one another. While I feel that my adolescence was just a huge misunderstanding and mishandling, of my mental and physical health, the pain my parents and I caused each other cannot be undone, it seems.
It was always there, just below the surface, a pressure cooker of hurt, anger, and resentment. We had our ways of dealing with any flare-ups, theirs was denial, and mine was to drink. Of course, it wasn’t until I had Ari that I even noticed, how completely damaged I was. Having a child of your own raises questions about what you know of parenthood from your own experiences. It opens your eyes to a child’s vulnerability, and you see clearly how physical abuse leads to trauma that can carry into adulthood, its toxins seeping into every relationship.
I’ve always come to love, not as a refugee, but as a hungry stray, that’s been kicked so many times it barely flinches when threatened. Show me any kindness and I’ll follow you home. Feed me, and I’ll likely turn up in your bed. And like a bitch, I’ll lie, cheat and steal for love and end up shitting on people I care about, or worse, those who care for me. In the end, I will mistake a lack of rage, for a lack of passion, interest, or care, and I’ll slip back into the shadows, looking for trouble once again, unable to differentiate between love and pain.
Picasso said, “There are only two types of women, goddesses, and doormats,” however, these roles are cast by men, and thinking that the wife was the doormat, I auditioned again and again for the part of the mistress, knowing I’d been trampled enough and believing that this could make me a goddess.
Having never gotten it right or long-lasting, I have long since called off the search for romantic love, and as my leading men fade into misty water-colored memories, I am thankful for each and every hard lesson and heartbreak. And sorry Pablo, only I get to decide what type of woman I am now, and I am a golden chalice. A woman who has learned to get her fill of love, joy and happiness, by giving to others and “My cup runneth over!”
I have had more than my fair share of love. By feeding others, my soul was nourished, the empty places inside me were filled and I found everything that I had ever craved. My commitment and communion are with the world now as humble, joyful servant, with Ari as loving and patient mother, and with God as a channel of His peace. In those callings, I have found true love, and I will indeed live, “Happily Ever After!”
The truth hurts!
My writing is not meant to hurt anyone, though it will, inevitably. The stories I need to share are like larvae living inside me, slowly eating away at my heart. It is only through writing that the feeding stops, the metamorphosis begins and its beauty is revealed. I feel I am releasing a butterfly into the world every time I publish, carrying with it on its wings, my hope of finding someone who will be comforted or inspired by its message or meaning.
Someday, very soon my heart will be whole again and it will be me growing wings and taking flight, light as air, having emptied myself of the weight of my past.
The truth will set you free!
But only understanding and forgiveness will allow you to enjoy your newfound freedom. We live in a hostile and combative world that is quick to condemn and cancel, leaving everyone miserable and exhausted from having to defend themselves or apologize for decades-old mistakes.
I don’t want to do that.
Our need for instant gratification has overtaken our ability to think rationally. We keep judging people’s past behavior by today’s enlightenment without any consideration of the sacrifices or the contributions they may have made.
I don’t want to do that either.
My father, married and expectant shortly after graduating high school, was working at a bag factory in the late ’60s when he got a better-paying job at Lakewood Hospital, sweeping and waxing floors and transporting patients. During the course of my childhood, he relentlessly climbed his way out of the poverty from which he came, one rung after another, putting himself through college and pushing himself through various medical professions, from paramedic to cardiovascular perfusionist and respiratory therapist. By the time I entered high school, he was the Assistant Administrator of that same hospital and was pursuing his MBA at CSU. All of this, while raising six kids, paying for their Catholic education, doing all home repairs and renovations himself, coaching boys’ football and wrestling, and attending Mass every Sunday.
It would be very easy to forget all of that and focus only on the mistakes he made and the pain he caused, but ironically, with all that college and bettering himself, he raised me to be a critical thinker. He exposed me to great literature with rich and wonderful tragic heroes, introduced me to writers and artists who were deeply disturbed and famously flawed, and my love for them taught me to feel empathy, and sympathy and to show compassion. So how could I not do the same for him? And how could I not forgive his fatal flaws and just love him anyway?
My childhood was just as happy as it was horrible. For every complaint, I have a compliment. My parents did the best with what they knew and what they had, and this…? THIS IS LIFE PEOPLE! So quit you’re cryin’ or I’m gonna give you somethin’ to cry about!
Mother Teresa's Anyway Poem
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
.What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
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Thank You For Being Here My Butterfly Blossom!
I used to think I was a success despite my upbringing, but I realize now, that it was because of it.
There is a romantic myth that I choose to believe, that to make a truly great wine, the vine must suffer; that the struggle to survive gives the grapes their rich aroma, character, and complexity.
I find too, that people who have suffered and struggled, seem to seek each other out, and tend to be, not only deep and interesting characters, but also the most compassionate, empathetic, and kind souls on Earth.
Some even find a way to break free from the shackles of their past traumas. They roar and beat on their chest and they create the music, literature, and art that comforts those who can’t and inspires those who can! I consider it a privilege to count myself among them and a blessing that you choose to read and support my work. Thank you!
Thank you so much, Inta!
It's funny, you were there from the very start pushing me to pursue my passions. We live in a remarkable time that we can remain so close after so many years and with so many miles between us! I love you to the moon and back girl!
You are amazing and I feel such comfort reading your newsletter’s. Thank you for just being you. You’re loved. Thank you for sharing your wonderful history the ups and downs. Hugs to you and Ari.