The Skinny Elephant in the Room
(by Olivia Keable)
My brother and I sat side by side on the train, slowly rocking home to Norwich, about 100 miles northeast of London. I planned to stay three days for my father’s birthday, but my mother had other ideas.
It’s hard to say without making her sound malicious, but coronavirus brought my mother a certain amount of joy. She couldn’t wait to have both her children at home, filling her empty nest. Like the witch from Hansel and Gretel, she fed us gorgeous expensive dinners—poussin, whole sides of salmon, juicy honeydew melon—in an attempt to make us stay, fattening us up so we couldn’t leave. I felt like I was in a prison of forced affection. After every meal, hugs and thanks were expected, and if undying love wasn’t expressed for the mediocre Bolognese, blazing rows would ensue. Mother constantly told us that we couldn’t leave because of the pandemic, but I couldn’t stand being in that suffocating, overwhelming house any longer, so I returned to live on my own in London.
My mother had always used food as a catalyst to keep us close. That was never truer than two years ago, when I had escaped a tumultuous relationship, but was not unscathed. I was left broken, with depression, anxiety, and anorexia—the holy trinity of mental health. My relationship had distanced me from my family. My ex was very controlling, and it became awkward to talk with them, as I tended to explode into tears, wishing for change. When I finally went home for a visit, my mother confronted me. We had never spoken about my eating disorder before. It was the incredibly skinny elephant in the room, and when it was finally said out loud, it felt like a knife run right through my stomach. That one word changed everything. “You have anorexia,” my mother said softly, with concern wobbling her words. I could no longer ignore what had been staring me in the face.
So I moved home. The first month was a nightmare. I couldn’t adjust to eating more, and my antidepressants were making me nauseous. I just lay in bed or on the sofa, cuddling up to my mum. She would brush my hair, do my washing, everything. It was the first time in years that I had permitted that kind of maternal attention, since I had moved out on my own when I was 18. (I moved in with my boyfriend at the time; classic big mistake.) And even as a child, I liked to sort things out myself. When my mum wasn’t cooking or cleaning for me, she felt like an unnecessary part of my life. Now I had reverted to a childlike state, completely dependent on Mummy (I felt like Norman bloody Bates). Spending day after day with each other, we became very close—shopping, watching family videos, walking in the countryside. It was lovely. We finally had the relationship we had both chased for so many years.
A few months passed, and I started to recover, mentally and physically. I got a job as a pastry chef, which helped to change my relationship with food in a positive way. But as I became more independent, my mother grew angrier. She seemed to try and distance me from things that were making me happy, like if I worked overtime, she would say they were using me. Every mouthful of food, she wanted to snatch away; every giggle, she wanted to muffle. Things like that would result in rows, all because we wouldn't confront what was really going on. She was making recovery difficult, so I moved out. But every jealous phone call, every argument, only pushed my mother and me even further apart.
Thankfully we have both grown a lot. I tend to take a more silent approach, and I realized why my mum behaved the way she did. She doesn’t accept that just because I’m not dependent on her, it doesn’t mean I don’t love her unconditionally, and I really do. I only hope that one day she understands.
Olivia Keable is an art history student who lives in London. She can be found on Instagram.
I’ve worked in kitchens and bars for the past couple of years, but nothing beats my mother’s Beefy Bake. The memory of my childhood is the sweet pain of indigestion from too much of this dish.
1 lb. fusilli
1 lb. chopped beef
10 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1 Oxo beef stock cube
cheddar cheese, grated
In a large pot of boiling water, cook pasta for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
In a large frying pan, brown the beef and mushrooms.
Dissolve beef stock cube in a spoonful of pasta water, and add to meat mixture.
Drain pasta, and place in a deep ovenproof pan or baking dish.
Pour meat mixture on top.
Top with cheese (as much as your heart can take).
Bake until cheese melts and browns, about 15 minutes.
Serve with ketchup.