by Jenni G.
I’ll never forget the moment I knew my 15-year-old daughter had anorexia. For a few seconds the world seemed to stop. When it started again, it didn’t feel like the same world. At first, I experienced my daughter’s eating disorder as earth-shattering. Today, I consider it a challenge that changed me. As a result, I’ve felt deeper pain and deeper love than ever before. I’ve grown from feeling completely powerless against the force of the eating disorder that took over my child’s life to feeling empowered to help my daughter.
When I hear the phrase back to square one, I imagine someone who has failed completely at what they set out to do. They have to start all over again. To me, back to square one means to be back at the starting point in the same situation with no progress made. When, after four years of battling anorexia, my daughter lost some of the weight she had worked so hard to gain, we’re back to square one is exactly what I found myself thinking.
As soon as I realized that she was restricting again and losing weight, I automatically went to the same place I was the moment I first knew she had an eating disorder. It was another frozen moment in time when I knew something that I didn’t want to accept as reality. Before I had a chance to think, my body reacted to the realization that she wasn’t fully recovered. My heart raced, my throat constricted, and an all-too-familiar pit formed in my stomach.
I felt the trauma of the beginning all over again. I played back her suffering and my fear along with the extreme behaviors I wasn’t prepared to handle at the time. I recalled in vivid detail the nights she slept on a mattress next to my bed so I could make sure she wouldn’t hurt herself. I remembered the exhaustion, the powerlessness, the heartache, and the pain.
For a short time, I indulged my emotions. I swam in the doom and gloom, believing this was worse than ever because now I knew how bad it was going to be. Now I knew anorexia. Now I knew about my daughter’s resistance to eating, her extreme behaviors, the puzzle of figuring out effective treatment, and the relentless emotional challenge ahead. Now I knew about the isolating experience of being a mom in what was no longer a new world—the world of facing my daughter’s distress for an ongoing and uncertain period of time.
It was only when I was able to move from my heart to my head that I observed myself thinking: we’re back to square one. My default belief when my daughter’s anorexia behaviors reappeared was that all of the progress we’d made was completely undone. It made her weight loss mean we had to start over, and that all we had been through was for nothing. My brain understandably went to the place of catastrophe. The thought of being back to square one scared me.
Thankfully I’ve learned that I don’t have to accept every thought my brain offers. Thinking that we were back to square one wasn’t at all useful to me. That thought was taking me straight back to fear, uncertainty, and paralysis. Once I became aware of the thought, we’re back to square one, I was able to compassionately observe it and hold space for it without judgment. Doing that enabled me to step back and question its truth.
Setbacks like the one my daughter experienced are common during eating disorder treatment and recovery, but they can be retraumatizing for those of us who’ve been on the front lines fighting for our kids, sometimes for extended periods of time. It’s only human for us to go directly into a fight or flight response when we sense danger to our child. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t taught to question our emotional reactions, especially when it comes to eating disorders. We also aren’t taught to question the thoughts that are creating our emotions. But what if we’re wrong about the story our thoughts are giving us?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned while parenting a child with an eating disorder is that what I think and believe matters. When I think we’re back to square one, I return to the past. I don’t give myself credit for everything that’s been accomplished along the way. I focus on the eating disorder and lose sight of my child. I forget to acknowledge how much more I know now than I did at the beginning. I dismiss the amazing progress my daughter has made. I don’t acknowledge our growth. I stay in fear.
I’m so grateful to have learned that I get to choose what I want to think on purpose. I can choose to believe we’re back to square one, or I can choose to believe something more useful that enables me to keep moving toward a full recovery for my daughter. I’ve gotten into the practice of questioning my thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve learned to observe what I’m thinking with curiosity and without judgment.
Here are some of my favorite questions to ask about a thought:
- Is it true?
- What evidence do I have that it isn’t true?
- How would I feel if I didn’t believe it?
- What do I want to think instead?
I can’t overemphasize the value of learning to manage my thoughts as I’ve navigated my daughter’s treatment and recovery. Without this knowledge, I might have gone on believing that we truly were back to square one. If my experience as a mom of a teenager with an eating disorder has taught me anything, it has taught me that I am most empowered when I watch my thoughts, become aware of how they are impacting me, and question whether or not I want to continue thinking them.
Managing my mind has become a primary way for me to take care of myself. Knowing that no matter what challenges anorexia presents, that I have the choice to believe what I want to believe, to choose the thoughts that are most useful to me and to reject the rest, enables me to show up as the mom I want to be for my daughter.
The truth is, we’re never back to square one. When we do an inventory of how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, how deeply we’ve loved, and how much strength we’ve gained, we’ll see we’re nowhere near square one at all. We’ve come a long way, and we can use our experience to continue moving forward.
Jenni is training to become a F.E.A.S.T. volunteer. She writes to share her experience as the mom of a daughter with anorexia, and also to acknowledge the efforts of those who are confronted with the unexpected challenge of parenting a child with an eating disorder.