No family is perfect, and every family has its own set of challenges to contend with, but early trauma can often lead to abusive or narcissistic relationships as adults. Susan Gold, author of “Toxic Family”, had to navigate a ferociously challenging childhood but in order to fully thrive as an adult, she bravely chose to meet the demons of her upbringing that were continuing to repeat. I recently spoke with her to understand how we can use the difficulties that we experience as children and younger people to grow into the most beautiful versions of ourselves as adults.
Susan has profound respect for her family, but looking back on her upbringing, she can identify now that hurt and damaged children were raising hurt and damaged children. The middle child of five, she was raised in a challenging and chaotic family system. Her father is a brilliant astrophysicist, but his issues with alcohol and food collided with her mother’s mental health issues to create a highly toxic environment to grow up in.
Boundaries were regularly crossed and she described body image in her family as a “war field”. Her father would ogle her like she was a piece of meat and judge her, which had a profound impact on a preteen who was reaching puberty. Susan sought comfort from food, from as young as 6 years old, damaging her own relationship with food for years to come.
The morning after High School graduation, Susan left the family home and rarely ever looked back. She made her way to New York City, like she’d always dreamed of. She used to watch Barbara Walters on TV in the basement, and ended up becoming her personal trainer to earn extra money while working for a large global talent agency. Barbara ended up coming to Susan’s aid one day, after discovering she had been sexually harassed at work. Barbara helped Susan confront this gentleman, who later dismissed her. Suddenly, Susan had a whole new world to deal with.
A drive for perfection
Newly sober Susan realized that she had a serious addiction to food. Food was always quietly circling in the background but it was never enough. She was never enough. Susan was a trained classical dancer growing up, and that drive for perfection was hellacious.
This is something I see so pervasive amongst women who struggle with using food or alcohol to cope with the difficulties in life. There always seems to be this associated perfectionistic drive.
But where does it come from?
For Susan, it came from an old, outdated, patriarchal system. It comes from broken systems and relentless judgment. In her twenties, Kate Moss was everywhere, and it was all about starvation. You weren’t okay unless you were a rod, and if you weren’t, then you had nothing to offer the world.
Looking back at photos of herself now, she recognizes she was not overweight, but the mental programming and demands were strict and stringent. This then played out through exercise, as she became an endurance athlete, running multiple marathons, and came third in her age group at the treacherous “Escape from Alcatraz” event. She was brutalizing her body, and despite having what would be described as the “perfect body”, she couldn’t see it. It was excruciating.
The ideal that we’re supposed to live up to is impossible, and sometimes women in bigger bodies think that they’re the only ones that struggle with this, which is not true. Ultimately what Susan learned is that it has to come from within. And so her journey began to find peace, compassion and self-love in order to heal.
Creating a different path
Susan was determined to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and held an ebullient belief and determination to resist self-destruction and instead convert her experiences to triumph.
So how did she find the strength to move forward?
Susan held trauma in my body at a cellular level. Her neural pathways are programmed very specifically, and what she had to do was extricate herself, go into those pockets, explore them, and let loose what she was holding. It was often not a specific memory that she can tie it to, but a feeling, a texture, a tone, or a timeline. She would go into it, explore it, open it, release it, and then replace it with light. That somatic work has made a profound difference in her recovery and making her who she is as a loving human being today. She has now built the esteem within herself that allows her to love others, as well as herself.
Something that I see very commonly amongst women who have experienced trauma earlier in their lives, is a complete disconnection from the body. And food almost becomes the signal that there’s a disconnect there. Mindless eating can often happen to keep you safe to a certain extent. This is why I always tell people that food is not the problem, food is the symptom of what’s going on. It’s a sign that it’s time for us to come back into our bodies and see what’s still living inside there.
When we grow up in families that make it difficult to learn about self-love and self-compassion and to understand that we are worthy of all the greatness in the world, we take on this identity of not feeling worthy of anything. Food can then become an escape. But it can also become a punishment, and something that we can have because we can’t have anything else.
Even though Susan was able to find the strength to leave home, move to New York, and start an amazing career, there were still pieces of her that didn’t quite believe she was worthy of love. Following the divorce from her narcissistic husband, Susan finally recognized that she was a powerful human being, who was vulnerable and worthy of love, appreciation, and kindness. That’s really when she started to care for herself in a brand new way. No longer was she equating exercise with how much she ate, and she began to feel a sense of freedom.
Susan’s experience as a mother is testament to the fact it is possible to break the cycle of trauma. She has the awareness that if there was any inclination towards manipulation, or abuse of any kind, she would seek out help immediately. Thanks to the work Susan has done, her son now has a healthy relationship with food and has been brought up in a loving home.
Susan strongly believes that departmentalizing trauma and tucking it away leads to pathology and doesn’t lead to authentic health. Ultimately, it will act it out in another way because our whole body keeps the score. Our bodies remember, and those memories are stored in our body, whether or not we choose to acknowledge that they exist or if we choose to keep them neatly tucked away. But the message to be acknowledged just becomes louder and louder until it is acknowledged. And those messages are often the alcohol, the food, the inappropriate sexual relationships, not being able to maintain relationships, and all of these negative things that manifest in our life and just keep repeating over and over again.
To experience a transformation of traumatic experiences like Susan means that you need to take the blinders off. It means choosing to acknowledge that trauma has occurred and recognizing how it’s manifesting in your life. And by making a decision about what you’re going to do with that moving forward, means you can turn life’s hard moments into something of beauty.
Find out more about Susan’s experiences in her book: