Shadow Girl

1:36 PM


Art by Rachael Ibanez 
What comes first, the chicken or the egg? The hunger, or the binge?

And what begins the shame cycle: the shame itself, or the craving and ensuing behaviors that elicit shame?

I don’t understand the cause or origin of the hunger, but I do know that I was already chasing the dream of fullness by the time I was allowed to ride a bike, and be my own hunter-gatherer.

No plowing or planting necessary; I would comb my father’s change tray for fifty cents, grasp it tightly in my fisted hand, and then, take off to make a score. I would mount my bike, heart pounding and pedals pulsing, to cross the intersection at Sunset and Beverly, turning into the private bungalows of the Beverly Hills Hotel: illicit but familiar, this was my playground.

The bike would be dropped on the ground outside, somewhere on the hotel parking property, and I would deliberately slow my pace, tamping down my anxious demeanor in order to achieve a cool I-belong-here presence as I skipped down the spiral staircase branching off of the hotel’s pink and green flowered lobby to descend into the treasure trove available in the on-site gift shop. This was the Beverly Hills equivalent of 7/11 as the corner gas station and local candy pusher was yet to arrive on the scene.

I can still picture the array of possibilities: Three Muskateers, filling, but oddly unsatisfying due to the fluffy, air-infused interior; Snickers, too complicated;  M&Ms, lasting enjoyment but not filling enough; and my personal favorite, Nestle’s Crunch, light and creamy with satisfying rice crispies. I would stack up a pile of candy bars, five cents apiece, and lay out the stolen change, excitement mounting. The objective? Get home, sneak the candy up the stairs to my room, and eat as much as I could swallow. I have no frame of reference on how this habit relates to other little girls, 7 or 8 years old.

It was a ritual I enjoyed alone; I think I understood in some early childhood primal knowing that this was a behavior to hide.  More often than not, our sweet housekeeper, Jennie, would uncover the huge reserve of empty wrappers under the bed and mercifully eliminate them.

I would eventually abandon the bedroom as my pantry-and-eating zone; too many embarrassing discoveries made it too risky. But there were plenty of more private options.

I ate in the back alley behind my house, and I ate in the playhouse. I ate in any and all of my preferred hangouts, the spots where I would eventually learn I was able to pretend, dress-up, invent, and exist without fear of disapproval.

Sadly, on some level, it is clear that I was already disapproving of myself, compartmentalizing and sequestering behaviors that could be shared with others out in the open, from those that would, by necessity, need to be secret. Secrets were OK, even treasured, but they were only indulged in by this shadow girl, the girl who knew she was hungry, and knew she needed to keep secret both the hunger, and the means used to keep the hunger at bay.

There have been many conversations in the last few decades about the shadow-self; truthfully, when I wrote the following in the early 90s, I hadn't read any of it. I was living it.

An excerpt from "Shadow Girl," a poem I wrote in the early 90s:

Shadow girl dances in the dark, she eats in secret
She touches the unholy. Doesn't she know?
She shouldn't be so simple, shouldn't be so needy,
She doesn't stop to think.

Somehow you know you need her
She'll guide you to the treasure
She's dancing through the maze, and
She's the keeper of your pleasure

She's hidden your best things beneath the bed
and now, she wants to make friends.


Clearly, I was starting to count the cost of compartmentalizing, of allowing these split-off parts of my personality to only come out in certain contexts...mostly, in hiding. The hunger was telling me something, and I would continue to silence it to my own detriment.

Eventually, I would seek counseling for an eating disorder that, for me, manifested as months engaged in no-holds-barred feasting, swinging by necessity into months of eating rigidly with compulsive exercise patterns and obsessive thinking about food and weight. Although this shift took decades, the solution first introduced itself when my therapist suggested lightening up on the food restrictions and exercise, encouraging me to see whether that subtle shift might have an impact on the compulsive over-eating. It helped, and for me, allowing myself to eat without punishment was the first key that would unlock the obsession.

It will come as no surprise that this first romance was not my one-and-only. I would follow a similar pattern down a variety of mildly disruptive, to disastrous, trails until finally, aware of a repetitive pattern, I would begin to ask questions that were helpful.

How do secrets and shame feed the cycle of compulsivity?

What would happen if I embrace the hunger, imagining it not as a death trap but an opportunity for transformation?

According to Parker J. Palmer, “…there are no short-cuts to wholeness. The only way to become whole is to put our arms lovingly around everything we’ve shown ourselves to be: self-serving and generous, spiteful and compassionate, cowardly and courageous, treacherous and trustworthy. We must be able to say to ourselves and to the world at large, ‘I am all of the above.’ If we can’t embrace the whole of who we are — embrace it with transformative love — we’ll imprison the creative energies hidden in our own shadows and flee from the world’s complex mix of shadow and light.”

No longer "beneath the bed," writing surges through me as one of those creative energies, and it is certainly a self-nurturing arm through which I may embrace my shadow girl, allowing her to speak her inner thoughts out loud, to me and to the whole wide world.

She wants to make friends and all I need to do is be brave, and listen to her.


Art by Rachael Ibanez by permission only

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