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Back To Square One

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.



  1. Lara

    Hi Jenni, I love this piece. It reminds me of a resource I came across recently about the importance of self-care in order to do exactly what you have described – to have the presence of mind to be able to reflect, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by emotion and to work out a way forward. Well done on your thoughtful blog and thank you for sharing. Xx

    • Dani

      This was just the time I needed this. Thank you for the sensible and heartfelt reframe on back to square 1 this really resonates for me. Thank you!!

  2. Eva Musby

    So well said and so useful, Jenni, thank you.
    And when you write, “Managing my mind has become a primary way for me to take care of myself”, I cheer on. We are miles away from self-care being all about bubble baths.

  3. Laurel

    Thank you Jenni. Your post is so timely for me. My 15yo girl is very brave and now 6 months in recovery but every time she resists food or restricts (even just leaving food on the plate or dropping it on the floor), I go back to the fear of day 1 in the emergency department. I go back there, she doesn’t. Your advice is helpful- I need to challenge my fear-based thoughts. My daughter’s courage is leading our family through this. She will recover and we are growing from the experience and my fear-based thoughts are real, but they are not helpful. Thanks again.

  4. Ann

    Thank you Jenni for your article and sharing your journey. It provides encouragement, courage which we all need as we battle this not totally known disease. We need to be strong as we cannot help our child if we are weak.

  5. Noreen Janzen

    I love this. My daughter’s anorexia began at age 14, and after being fully recovered for 15 years I realized on her wedding day that she’d relapsed. My questionable thought was “ I can’t take charge and re-feed her this time, so she will never recover.” And turns out the thought was incorrect!

  6. Chris

    Thank you for this post- it’s very powerful. It’s something I’ve been trying to teach my 15yr old for a while, but in the midst of this battle, it might be too much for her now. I’ve been so focused on her, it’s a great reminder to watch my own thoughts as well. We are new to this fight. I’m scared, but I’m believing in recovery. Destructive thoughts of guilt, doubt and paralyzing fear are not helpful to our mental health as we help our children thru this disease.

  7. Dave Dunn

    Thanks Jenni. I love this post. With all things parenting, I think what we model matters more than what we say. Our kids with eating disorders need to learn to take care of themselves, manage their anxiety and live in the present. I think there is little value in talking to them about these things when they are struggling, but there is huge value in modeling these things. And the big bonus is that if we learn to do these things for our kids, we get to live with these skills for the rest of our lives.

    My 19-year old daughter started struggling when she was 10. She is finally in a pretty good place and our family as a whole is doing great. Anorexia has played a big part in our lives. I love where every member of my family is at now. Individually and as a whole, we are all well. I’m not about to say thanks to anorexia, but it was on our path and our path as a whole is seeming like a good one. I wish I could have known during the bad times that we had times like the present in our future.

  8. jacqui mann (UK)

    Wll said Jenni….Oh, that description of a moment of realisation the sick feeling, the awful horror of recognising anorexia, resonated with me, but so too did the way, as much as I’d prefer us to be without the trauma of anorexia, you talk about growth as a parent. Anorexia affecting my daughter required a lot of me as a parent, to learn new skills, take charge of maternal instincts, adopt and modify other behaviours in order to be the best parent I could be to the daughter with anorexia. I needed to learn how to navigate the delicate relationship whilst helping her to oppose the anorexic thoughts. I also had to have an outlet to manage my feelings of anger, of fear, of frustration with lack of services help for her, for us. Understanding and managing myself was a challenge anorexia threw me and I did take psychotherapy to help me with my trauma, and it was the best thing I did for us, for me regardless of her illness.. She fell ill age 12, recovered 18 months later, she relapsed age 18 and took longer till age 22 to recover but she did, though I’d say she still has issues and likely to have been autistic all along too, but that’s another story. I am proud of her perseverance in staying well, her achievements to qualify as a professional despite anorexia and anxiety. I love that I’ve managed to stay her friend and mum, though recognise its not the relationship we might have had without the illness. So I think parents have to recognise and process feelings of loss and grief too. It’s a difficult thing to be a mum to a child with anorexia and adjust to them becoming a grown up. We learn all the time and need to credit ourselves, reason and remind ourselves of those things when panic strikes.
    Thanks Jenni

  9. Laura cohen

    Thank you for this. We have our first setback too and it shook me to my core…. Emotionally. I embraced it and let myself feel it but then moved on remembering we know what to do.

    Perfect words. And I’m training to be a volunteer too with feast.

  10. Dana

    Thanks, MUCH for sharing, Jenni. I love and can completely relate to what you shared. It is Buddhist in nature which is what I find most close to home. And It also sounds like you study Byron Katie, as do I. KNOW that you are not alone in this battle. I think of all the parents out there fighting this fight, I will pray for you and your daughter and I hope you kick anorexia right in the ass. Deep breaths and carry on soldier. Dana

  11. Michelie

    Thank you for this! Very timely for me as my daughter has recently lost a few pounds and I have been falling down that rabbit hole of fear. I’m breathing and recognizing how far we have come since that very first terrifying day which you describe so well! A lot has changed since then, for all of us, and where we are now is not where we will
    always be.

  12. Joanne

    Thank you for this post. I definitely relate to this at the moment. The journey from diagnosis to recovery…..we definitely aren’t there yet……feels like such a rollercoaster both physically and emotionally. I hope my daughter does recover but at the moment we are just going from day to day. I have had days where I have felt completely broken but you just have to dust yourself and carry on. Our daughter has gained weight but mentally……I just don’t know whether she will ever fully recover. Hopefully in time she will. Thinking of everyone going through this journey at the moment. Stay strong!

  13. Marta

    Thank you Jenni! Just last week I said “we’re back to square one”. I am trying to see my thought as you proposed and to question it. That is how I met Feast.
    Thank you so much.
    Love to all of us parents in this fight. We’ll win.

  14. Myra P.

    This is so very helpful, Jenni, and so much a part of the mindfulness practice and meditation that I do but am having trouble practicing when I need it most: right now with my daughter’s anorexia!!!! So thank you for the potent reminder not to believe everything we think but rest in peace and in extended exhalations and in yoga until we have our strength and hope back.

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