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A Father’s Care

by Kevin Dunn, F.E.A.S.T. Parent Volunteer

A Father’s Care from Kevin Dunn on Vimeo.

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.

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    • Kevin

      Daryl…thank you for your kind words. Hope intensifies as parents move along the caregiving path. It is never lost. There is always the next step.

    • Salvador Perez

      Hi Kevin,
      Thank you so much for illuminating the path. While reading your article, memories of the path walked with my older daughter diagnosed with paraplegia and hydrocephalia came to my mind. I remembered the Great Suffering being met by the Great Love and the redemption of my spirit through the process. Now that our family is faced with another challenge your kind words reminded me in these moments of trial we can find unconditional LOVE. Thanks for taking the time to share and enlight the journey. In Unity and LOVE: the Perez Family

    • Kevin

      Deenl…As challenging as I’m certain your journey has been, my hope is that it has been rewarding in equal (or greater) measure. My best to you to gird you along the path.

    • Chris

      Superb wise words – be proud, be manly and strong, genetics of life have struck and you will carry the load on your broad shoulders and I love the part about honour. It is an honour to serve and do our time in the trenches as we wage noble war against AN and you and the person you care for will prevail, I firmly believe that, and this is life with a capital L as no one said raising children – the bravest thing anyone can do – was going to be easy. I pray for and praise all parents dealing with this.

  1. Diane McGee

    Kevin, your words are so powerful. This is the most beautiful and apt description of the suffering of a family caring for a loved one – whether through a physical or mental illness – that I’ve ever seen. It can apply to anyone, not just a father, but a really appreciate what you’re trying to say to fathers on this journey. My daughter is now fully recovered, and has been for a few years now. Though I wish my daughter had never had to endure anorexia, and the experience was so painful for me, I would not want to be the person I was before my daughter became ill. Through the experience, God truly worked in my life to transform me, resistant though I was, into a more willing servant. My daughter is a beautiful soul and it is such a joy to have her in my life. I pray that you, and all the parents of FEAST, will one day experience joy on the other side of the chasm.

    • Kevin

      Diane…I’m humbled by your response. Thank you kindly…for seeing the message applicability to all family members of the care recipient…and for sensing my desire to activate fathers sidelined by a myriad of diversions and deflections. I hear in your words the wisdom and true conversion of someone who has been “with” a sufferer. I applaud you and your family. It’s your words and journey that are “so powerful,” and your footsteps along the path that give so many others hope. Please speak up and out, as you have here and are likely doing through your example to friends and family, of the power of this transformation (for you, your daughter, and your family). It’s a distinct honor to read your words and reflect on your wisdom. Thank you!

  2. Renee

    Thank you for sharing this. Your words are so inspiring and the imagery is really sticking with me. I am filled with hope.

    • Kevin

      Renee…thank you for your response and for sharing that you are filled with hope. Hope is precisely what we need on this path. If we have hope (or gain it) on the journey, our loved one (who is the care recipient) will feel hope in our presence, know hope through our actions, and make hope a guiding light on their future path.

  3. Andrea

    Kevin, how can I say thank you enough for your wisdom and vulnerability in sharing such powerful words depicting the paradoxical and powerfully transformative concept of liminal space in the context of eating disorder. I read this the first time and held my breath. I read it the second time and cried with the powerful sense of sacred hope that emerged, Your words remind me so much of Richard Rohr, speaking to families struggling with eating disorder! While I am a mom of a 15 year old with an eating disorder, your words to dads resonated deeply with me too.

  4. Kevin

    Andrea…thank you for taking the time on your journey to greet a fellow traveler. It’s your words that offer respite to those weary on the path…as they recognize in you their own hopes for transformation. Your apt description of holding your breath (actually and metaphorically not wanting sacred time to pass) and then crying (the release and letting go of all that has gone before and all that is) delineates the very essence of liminal space. I look toward the horizon and see you, your 15-year-old, and your family moving toward the the well-lit threshold. Thank you dearly.

  5. kay

    Thanks Kevin for sharing.
    Have you any words of wisdom to get my husband involved in my daughter care (AN 18yrs diagnosed at 12) He does not feel she is sick and feels I’m OTT re food and snacks checking and monitoring. Food is medicine and he hates the conflict of trying to get her to eat more and regularly .
    Since Covid and she is off from school it has allowed me see her actual food intake and level of restriction. Was been told eating lunches snacks etc at school she restricts , limited food variety and quantities. very strong ED behaviours.
    Her Ed team discharged her as she 18yrs. They have limited knowledge of ED and don’t believe recovery is possible you learn to live with it.They fall far short of expecting full weight restoration

    He openly disagrees with me in front of her and is not willing to support we both on same page and food is a priority. D runs rings around him. ED is very cute and not sure if he don’t notice or chooses not to notice.

    I have tried and tried to get him to read talk and now I cant even bring up the topic.
    I believe there is always a solution to a problem but I cannot find one here.

    • Kevin

      Kay…thank you for reaching out. I hear what you are saying, and I also know you are very familiar with F.E.A.S.T. resources and services. It is critically important that you put in place support for yourself at this time…so that you can best help your daughter. In whatever form that takes in your location in Ireland, you need a critical care team that understands and supports evidence-based treatment for Anorexia Nervosa..and you specifically need practical support for yourself to manage the load of eating disorder recovery. At F.E.A.S.T., we are not critical care providers nor therapists. What I can reiterate (as I ‘m certain you are acutely aware) is that denying there is a challenge or running from conflict in the realm of eating disorder recovery allows the ED to gain strength. Please continue to seek the support team you need.

  6. kiru

    This article was simply amazing, beautifully put in words. The struggle is real. I am learning a lot about this disease every day. This knowledge itself is taking me to a whole different level. I was so ignorant last 6 months when my daughter got diagnosed with Anorexia. I hope i will see light at the end of the tunnel. I am just hoping and praying for the same. Your words touched me so much!

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