Underneath The Flesh


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My life as a Morbid Obesity Sufferer and a Compulsive Overeater
By Alexandra Gallagher-Mearns

ISBN: 978-1-905610-74-7
Published: 2006
Pages: 141
Key Themes: obesity, compulsive overeating, eating disorders, post-natal depression, childhood abuse




‘Underneath the Flesh’ is the brave, honest and shocking account of a lifetime battle against morbid obesity and compulsive overeating. Betrayed by her abusive father and grieving for her late mother it was almost inevitable that a young Sandra would develop an addiction to conceal her pain. For Sandra the addiction was food. At her largest Sandra weighed 28 stone; her weight became a shield, protecting her from the grief she felt for a lost childhood. As well as her affection-less, austere and often brutal childhood, Sandra recounts the traumatic birth of her son Edward, her failed and loveless marriage and her desperate attempts to lose weight and beat her compulsion. Despite all these problems and a life of true hardship and pain, Sandra remains positive. This book ends on a note of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and a victory for mind over matter. At a time when obesity is rarely out of the headlines, this is an extraordinarily strong, poignant and timely book.

Book Extract

I can always remember the first feeling of feeding the emptiness. It was with a packet of pink and white marshmallow sweets. I was 4½ years old and in my Grandmother’s house. I just had to finish those sweets, and I can remember feeling physically sick (and I was), but I just had to finish them. (If I had realised the powerfulness that packet of sweets would have over me I would have binned them.) I just had to get to the sick/bloated-stoned feeling that would stay with me for the next 29 years.

I was the youngest out of my sister and myself. She was a year and four months older than me and we stayed with my mum (Sandra) in a block of new-built flats in the south side of Edinburgh. My mum and dad divorced when I was four and I firmly believe this was when the compulsion started.

My mum and dad had married in 1966 because my mum was pregnant. They were both 17 and my mum soon fell pregnant with me after my sister. Seemingly, my dad had an affair when my mum was pregnant with me and maybe this contributed to the distant relationship between my mother and me.

My mum and dad, when they were together, were always at each other, shouting or in silences. When my dad was around, the living room always seemed to be dominated by the sound of horseracing coming from the TV (one of my father’s compulsions was gambling).

I had my dad on a pedestal. I loved him so much, and like most lassies, I was going to marry him when I grew up. Mum and dad had favourites, I was my dad’s and my sister was my mum’s.

Living in Holyrood Court (the flats) was OK. There really was not a family unit. We all stayed in the same house but it was like my mum and sister versus my dad and me. Quite a lot of the time my dad’s brother, Frank, would stay with us. He was a small, thin man who always looked much more powerful when he was drunk and that was 80% of the time. There was always drink flying around the house, not on a daily basis, but at the weekends (Friday through to Sunday there were parties in the flat for the adults). We were packed off to bed around 7 to 8 o’clock and would drift into sleep listening to loud voices singing songs to “I left my heart in San Francisco” (Uncle’s favourite song) with a high possibility of being woken with arguments or drunken brawls once the drink had hit the magic number.

I was very scared of drunken people. There was a lot of it around, in my home and on the estate where we lived. We constantly would travel through the Cowgate in Edinburgh, famously known for homeless people and alcoholics and I always held my mum’s/dad’s hand tighter when we walked through those streets.

Nothing was ever discussed with us about my dad leaving. I got up one morning and he was gone. After 4 or 5 days I came to realise that he was not at work and not coming back. I remember so vividly sitting in my bedroom, on my own, on my rocking horse and feeling so rejected, abandoned and alone. Self blame, what had I done so wrong that had made him leave, self-will came in, I would get him back. (Those feelings were very powerful and controlling in my relationships in my adult life.) The feelings of loss were so intense that is when one of my masks came in, pretending to my friends that my dad was working away, not wanting or being able to accept the separation. I was not allowed to mention my dad’s name as whenever I did to my mum, I felt daggers of anger from her. She would make it clear by her eye contact and body language that we were not to talk about my dad. My sister and mum bonded closer together at this time, and if ever I have experienced intense periods of loneliness in my life, this was one of them. It was my sister and mum against me and I was angry with my dad for leaving me to deal with all this.

Food was definitely my main comforter at this period in my life. I was eating lots of flour based food and at school we got free school dinners, so there was always second helpings.

My home life with my mum, sister and my alcoholic uncle was just a base to stay. There was not a lot of happiness going around. My mum cared for me on a practical level, giving me food and keeping me well dressed. My mum had my sister and I like two dolls, up to her eyes in debt to stores/catalogues because we had to be the best dressed and it was all for the benefit of other people. Probably to keep things clean on the surface, so that no one could see we were falling apart on the inside. All my mum’s friends were on low incomes as well but we always had to have the best. We had to have the best clothes, hair bone combed on a Sunday, and a spotless flat with ‘mod-cons’. We were the first to get a colour TV, round about 1972, in the flats. Neighbours would come in and look at it and the pride in my mother’s face that she had achieved this purchase. My mother was on Social Security but had a cleaning job in the morning as I always heard her boss being mentioned as, “A greedy, tight bastard”.

My mother was a very, very attractive woman with long, red hair, all the latest fashionable clothes (she was only 22 or 23 years old) and she turned male heads. She knew she had this power and I felt jealous of the attention she got from men, also mixed with anger as I didn’t want other men looking at my mother – that was my dad’s place. I hated her and blamed her for him leaving.


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