by Kevin Dunn, F.E.A.S.T. Parent Volunteer
The room is achingly dark. Foreboding. Seemingly soulless. Fiercely inhospitable and glacially cool.
Time, unsympathetically, creeps forward…surreptitiously, slyly, relentlessly…abandoning us in this space.
We suddenly, hauntingly, realize we’re not actually in a room. There are no discernible boundary walls, regardless of the direction we roam; and stooping down to glean what’s underfoot yields a handful of dirt, rubble, and sand.
We’ve gone through a symbolic door, chasing after our sweet, loving, 9-year-old, unknowingly eating-disordered daughter, and we’ve found ourselves (my wife and son included) in a chasm on a desert trail. The door behind us has disappeared into receding bleakness.
You may have found yourself journeying on this, or a similar, path. Your child is eating disordered, terrified, slipping from your outstretched hands. You are a parent, yes, with responsibility to raise, nourish, and love your child; but in this time and space you take on the corollary role of caregiver…supporting a loved one who is mentally or physically impaired for an undetermined duration, while helping them progress on a continuum from dependence to independence.
This is liminal space. Liminal, from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, implies change. When you are pulled into, or choose to enter, liminal space, be assured the status quo is no longer. Your very presence in liminal space precludes a return to prior circumstances. There will be no more business-as-usual. This path of descent is the main thoroughfare between who you were and who you are becoming…and it’s a one way street. You deserve to know that at the outset.
People are not reporters, nor observers, of liminal space. They do not simply return with a story or details. They move through, crossing-over the forthcoming threshold, as new beings. The eating disorder sufferer’s life has changed. The caregiver’s life has changed. Your family trajectory has been altered. Significantly, “changed” and “altered” are not monikers of negativity. Consider gestation to birth. Childhood to adulthood. Matriculation to graduation. Engagement to marriage. Illness to wellness. Life to death. All are liminal journeys on a spectrum in sacred space….resulting in notable changes and alterations…from which you do not go backwards. You have exited your “normal,” and are crossing the threshold of a new time and place, through a new door. This is change. It’s terrifying. It’s also freeing.
You’d prefer not to be in this eating disorder chasm. With love, you came after your suffering child on their descent. You don’t know the way forward or out, and no longer speak a shared language with your child; hardly recognizing the nebulous form next to you on the trail. There’s no bridge over the chasm, so a paved road to the proverbial other side, suspended above the muddle of the dirt trail, doesn’t exist. And in the desert heat, as you stumble holding your child’s hand, seeking a solution or salve, you hear nondescript voices: siren songs both seductive and satisfying. Appeals to the ego, the false self…intimations of easy ways out of the desert, reasons supporting your possible abdication of responsibility, and proffered diversions. As you strain to hear, it’s actually your vision that becomes more keen…and some metaphorical doors appear along the dirt trail. You open each of them, directed by the amalgam of trumpeted advice…and you see, while balancing at individual thresholds, these doors lead to closets of escapism, denial, blame, addiction, and veiled attempts to neutralize you in a box…removing you physically and emotionally from the eating disorder sufferer and your family… at a time, and in a place, when you are so needed. These diversions prevent progress on the path of suffering…a trail no one wants to trod…but a trail, nonetheless, that leads to emancipation. You don’t see what’s ‘round the bend, but you take the next step. The path toward enlightenment begins with disillusionment. You, caregivers of eating disorder sufferers…and eating disorder sufferers themselves…are intimately familiar with disillusionment.
Great Love, welcome to the chasm. Great Suffering has been awaiting your arrival. Together, the Great Love shown by parental caregivers, combined with the Great Suffering of the eating disordered child, yield the transformative power of the ages. Both Greats, Love and Suffering, are evident in all stories of overwhelming change and revolution throughout history. Both are in great supply at your particular crossroads on the trail. Observe your coordinates…in awe.
Men, fathers, husbands: The proverbial “they” say there are gender factors and societally-instituted impediments to your understanding and compassionate support of your own eating disordered children…in other words, your ability to provide aid on the trail…to your partner, the sufferer, the sufferer’s siblings, is compromised because of external factors. Advocacy focused on altering these perennial thorns is time well-spent…and is a way to pay forward your wisdom to those who follow on the trail. But, while on the trail (or about to enter, or to re-emerge from behind the door of a diversionary closet), fathers need to know where they are NOW. They need a GPS. They need to have this scenario re-framed…to know the real stakes…so they can learn on-the-job while on the trail: you can lose your child, your partner, your family, your self. This is not a list with a single answer option. All may be lost…maybe even sequentially. You need to know that excuses and diversions, the ones you provide or those given to you by organizations and society, don’t change reality. What changes reality is what you find yourself in the middle of: liminal space. You need to know liminal space is a time of great discomfort…often a time of traumatic change…a state of tension between the past and the future. And you will need to be disciplined in that gray area. You need to accept that leaning into that tension, and being present for it will stretch you in frightening…and exhilarating…ways. You need to know your Great Love is evident: it shows in everything from your desire to provide for your family to your desire to resolve the “problem.” However, with essential re-framing, you’ll see the Great Suffering in front of you is best met with your Great Love, an ever-expanding, humble, service-oriented, eager to listen and learn grade of love…and that there’s no way out of the eating disorder chasm other than through it, and you must be actively present during this transformative process.
Caregiving for another in liminal space is the highest human honor. You support your loved one as they cross-over a paramount threshold. It’s honorable to be of service, to suffer with at such a monumental time. We are all at-odds with change: fear of the unknown, loss of what “is,” the pain of transition. Throughout the extensive changes inherent in eating disorder discovery and recovery, you are attempting to rescue, rehabilitate, and then return your loved one to health. It’s akin to a firefighter re-entering the liminal space of the flame-engulfed home to save a trapped infant. Heroically, the firefighter goes in after the child as everyone else either runs in the opposite direction or gathers in the street to discuss the cause of the inferno. But the firefighter achieves intrepid resolve and deftly walks the tension tightrope in a terrifyingly gray area…keenly aware of the danger, but honoring the firefighting role, the infant, and the distraught family. Importantly, the firefighter’s actions, as with those of the caregiver, are not determined a success or failure based on outcome. When Great Love meets Great Suffering, there is no loss. There is legacy; there is honor. And Great Love is multiplied exponentially through the meeting. You need to know this at the outset also.
The dirt trail beckons. You are in the chasm; I am there with you, in fact. This I know: you will honor your child, your partner, your family, your self. You will rise up, firmly hold your child’s hand, and walk briskly along the path…seeing the diversionary door mirages for what they truly are, then squelching the desert siren songs, and seeking for the other side. Other voices will emerge above the clamorous din. The chasm will reverberate with their strength; they are batteries for your internal GPS…filling you with their power. Utilize them; they will fortify you.
Us? We are at a safe place on the trail; not on the other side yet. I’m not a casual observer of liminal space, reporting findings from along the trail. I’m a Dad, an active caregiver, a participant in this transformation…a process affecting all members of my family…leaving us stronger for having boldly taken the journey. I’m not “sitting this out” and “waiting” and “seeing.” On the trail, I’ve got my ear to the ground, my arms around our daughter, and my gaze on the distant horizon. And I’m not kicking up unnecessary dirt or digging for old bones on the desert floor either. Rather, we’re planting new seeds along the path and nurturing growth.
You…men, fathers, and husbands…who may not yet have found your stride on the trail, please join me on this path. It’s not a pace, nor a place, you’d ever desire to be. Rather, in this space you will suffer, and, even more painfully, watch loved ones suffer. Your false self will be stripped away. However, by going through liminal space, you will eventually leave despair, denial, diversion, and doubt in the trail dust behind you…and embrace hope.
To hear additional voices of lived experience, scholarship, medicine, and those on the other side of the chasm, please join us online for the FEAST of Knowledge, June 14th.