For as long as I can remember, I was very sick. My mother recalls feeding me applesauce and mashed banana, classic gentle baby foods, and watching me react violently. When she brought this information to my doctor, she was told that she was “overreacting.” She heard this sentiment from the medical profession over and over, a kind of gaslighting all of my childhood. At the time, my mother was one of the only Indian immigrants in my hometown outside of Seattle. Women of color often encountered prejudice within the medical profession. It was easy to dismiss her as a hysterical housewife, even though she was a highly educated woman, a social worker on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, and was responsible for legislation on their behalf, ensuring them access to education, public transportation, and non-discriminatory housing and hiring practices.
My mother was born and raised in Mumbai and came to the United States in 1980 through an arranged marriage. She eventually left her husband, met my father, and was an extremely Westernized wife and mother. She almost never wore saris. Her generation was taught that conformity to white American standards led to better job success, so our culture was almost entirely erased from the home and my upbringing.
Except for food. As I continued to have a turbulent reactions to eating, my mother cooked delicious Indian comfort food that nourished my body and soul. The richly spiced foods actually kept me healthier—turmeric is just now getting recognition in Western cultures as an excellent anti-inflammatory. But I was wary of any new foods—a family friend once chased me around the house to get me to try a French fry. At a young age, I began associating food with pain, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I eventually developed an eating disorder. Relatives considered it a character flaw and didn’t understand why I couldn’t simply “pull myself together,” but my mother was supportive, even as it took its toll on her—going from weekly meetings with the Governor to caring for a sleepy baby, then a fragile adolescent.
After college, the ramifications of anorexia worsened—from brittle bones to an irregular heartbeat. I was pursuing a career in music, but when I was acting in a musical, I had to sit out during a dance rehearsal and realized that I must solve my problem. That same week, I checked myself into rehab and informed Mom of my decision. She became an active part of my care, and within the year I was declared fully recovered.
A few months after my recovery, a weakened digestive system set me on an endless course of medical tests, with one doctor telling me chemotherapy was my only option. That’s when my mother had enough; we were going to see an old friend of hers. This friend is both an allopathic (a/k/a Western medicine) and naturopathic (or integrative medicine) doctor, and was happy to join the search for a solution. It turned out that I was severely allergic to a dozen different kinds of foods. He believed that constant exposure to these foods was causing an immune system response, and within a few months of an allergen-free diet, my pain disappeared and I was off most of my medication. Freedom.
My relationship with food is a work in progress. It can be hard to live on such a restricted diet. My mother and I are working through a lot of anger at decades of misdiagnoses, but we are actively turning that anger into advocacy for eating disorder awareness. She has given me her love of food, and cooking together has become a method of mutual healing. If anything, I have too much energy today, and I know that I would not be here without my mother’s perseverance, hope, and spices.
Sheila Houlahan is an actor and singer working on her first album. She is online at https://www.sheilahoulahan.com and @iamshiiila.
Stir-fried Curried Potatoes
4 medium-sized potatoes (any kind will do; I like fingerlings)
2 T. canola oil
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
1 t. cumin/coriander powder
1/2 t. sweet paprika
1/2 t. chaat masala (or substitute garlic powder)
Parboil the potatoes in water for 5 minutes.
Cut into rough cubes.
In a nonstick pan, heat the oil over medium-low heat.
Add the potatoes, salt, turmeric, cumin/coriander powder, sweet paprika, and chaat masala or garlic powder.
Keep stirring until potatoes are crisp.