Our daughter was 12 when she was diagnosed with Anorexia.
At the tender age of 12, she was still playing with Barbies and American Girl dolls.
It is hard to understand how an eating disorder can completely take over the life of an innocent little girl and her family.
But it did. It flipped our world upside down.
It took me months to realize that we were dealing with an Eating Disorder. I knew there was a problem with our daughter. But I couldn’t put my finger on what the issue was.
The changes came slowly at first. They came in through the back door, uninvited and sneaky. At first the changes were delightful and exciting. Our daughter took an interest in cooking, cooking shows and reading cookbooks.
Unaware that Anorexia was lurking around the corner, I encouraged her cooking. She had a passion for it and I was proud of her commitment to learning it. But, slowly she stopped eating what she cooked. She was cooking for others and not for herself. This didn’t feel right. But I pushed those feelings aside. Because I enjoyed our time together in the kitchen.
Gradually she started to eliminate meat. And one day, she stopped eating meat completely. When I asked her why she didn’t want to eat meat, she answered quickly and without hesitation, “It’s strange to eat an animal,” she said. This was logical and it made sense. Yet, it didn’t feel right. But I pushed the feelings aside. She was 12 and she was experimenting with being a vegetarian.
She stopped snacking. She stopped eating sugar. She stopped eating peanut butter and she stopped drinking milk. When I questioned her about all of the foods she had given up, she snapped at me. “You worry about YOU and I will worry about ME!” she snarled. I was so taken aback by her behavior. I didn’t understand it. She had never spoken to me like that before. It didn’t feel right. But I pushed the feelings aside.
Shortly after she began eliminating foods, I noticed her constant desire to be outside. At first, I was glad for this. I want my kids to play outside in the fresh air. But then, I realized she wasn’t just playing outside. She was walking or biking laps. She never sat still. She never sat down. It didn’t feel right. I watched the light go out of my nearly perfect 12 year old little girl. I began to listen to what I was feeling. Although, I still didn’t understand what was happening.
I blamed Covid.
I blamed homeschooling.
I blamed pre-teen years.
I blamed myself.
What was happening to my little girl? Where was her happiness going? Where did the sparkle in her eyes go? What am I doing wrong? I asked myself this time and time again. Until one day, it all made sense. Because I saw him.
I saw the Eating Disorder, whom I refer to as The Dragon in my mind. I saw The Dragon. And he knew that I knew about him. I felt him size me up and down. Could he take me on? Could he manipulate me? Could he control me and my little girl? He could. And he did.
For months following that initial meeting of The Dragon – he controlled me. He controlled my daughter. He controlled our family. He wedged his way between me and my husband. The dragon was sneaky and my husband didn’t see him. The dragon made my husband and I fight. He weakened us. Through the chaos that he caused, The Dragon gained strength and he gained power.
He was moving quickly now. She was not allowed:
Sometimes, she was allowed lunch. Dinner was always a bowl of vegetable soup.
Faster and faster The Dragon picked up speed. And the faster he moved the more our little girl fell victim to him.
I could see her drowning in the ocean of his control. As hard as I tried to swim to her, he kept knocking me back. He sent me swirling in the opposite direction of her. I was kicking and spiting and drowning, right next to my little girl. He was drowning her. He was drowning me. He was drowning our family.
Then one day, my husband saw The Dragon too. The Dragon sized my husband up. Could The Dragon control us both and our daughter? He could. And he did.
We watched as our daughter faded away in mind, body, and soul. We felt helpless. Everything we had ever known as a parent was taken away by The Dragon. We felt defeated. We felt scared. We felt desperate.
For a while, we lived within the heart ache and control of The Dragon. We were feeling so lost that we couldn’t see the path out. Kind friends said, read about it. Learn about it. Call your doctor.
So we started reading and we made appointments. At our first appointment we learned that our daughter was medically unstable. She needed to be admitted. Her heart and her labs reflected months of inadequate nutrition.
Our daughter colored in the waiting room while the doctor spoke to my husband and me. “She will die without help.” The doctor’s blunt words cut through me like a knife.
Our daughter was admitted to an eating disorder program at our Children’s Hospital that day. She was placed on a heart monitor. She had blood sugar checks and blood draws every few hours.
The feelings I had pushed aside for months came flowing out. The unknowns, the helplessness, the fear. Rivers of emotion streaming down my face. And mixed in was pure relief. Because we had help. We were drowning at home. And the eating disorder program was our life boat.
We learned Family Based Treatment. They gave us the tools we needed. They gave us resources. They gave us THE FEAST website. They prepared us to go home.
After a week’s stay, she was medically stable. And we were ready to take her home. We now understood that The Dragon was not our daughter. And our daughter was not The Dragon. The two were separate. We were ready to fight The Dragon and rescue our daughter.
We used the tools that we had learned: Food is medicine. Life stops until the food is eaten. Supplement shakes will replace uneaten food.
We used the words that we had learned to coach our daughter: I know this is hard, take one more bite. You can do this and you will.
We used the mannerisms that we had been taught: Stay calm, in control and persistent.
We had been warned that The Dragon would rage as we began to re-feed our daughter. And we were given the most beautiful words of wisdom: If the eating disorder hates you, you are doing something right.
The Dragon hated us. He hated us because he was under attack. For the first time, The Dragon felt threatened. He knew he was dying.
Our determination terrified The Dragon. He needed to act fast and hard. And he did. He used our daughter’s body and he used her voice. He hit us. He threw things at us. He screamed terrible things at us. He wanted our little girl.
BUT WE WANTED HER MORE.
Our little girl was alive, but she wasn’t living. She would cry, “I don’t remember what it feels like to be happy.” She would say, “I want to go to sleep and never wake up.” She would scream, “I don’t enjoy eating. Don’t make me eat it.”
We acknowledged her feelings, we ensured her safety, and we marched on. We were on the battlefield now. Our family against The Dragon.
We had assembled our army which included: our family, our therapist, our doctor, and every ounce of information we could get our hands on.
Yet, as hard as we were fighting, waiting for us on the home front, sat our other 4 kids. Left alone and abandoned. We felt guilt. The Dragon sensed that guilt and he used it against us. We were weakened but not for long.
Our therapist explained that this is Family Based Treatment. Everyone has a role. We taught our other kids that they were soldiers, fighting the war with us. They were part of our army. Their weapon was distraction. They could help by distracting our daughter with crafts, puzzles, games, jokes and love.
Our guilt turned to power. Our Army doubled in size with the addition of our little soldiers. The war continued. Our army against The Dragon. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was emotional. It was isolating. We pushed forward. There was no alternative.
Then one glorious day, skipping up the stairs came a little girl that we hadn’t seen in a while. She was laughing, a deep belly laugh. There was a sparkle in her eye. “Mom!” She gasped between fits of laughter, “guess what my sister just said!” she giggled. Happiness! We heard happiness in her voice. We saw joy on her face! We felt warmth in her actions! To this day we don’t know what her sister had said, because we were lost in the beauty of the moment.
We were doing it! We were slaying The Dragon. We saw a glimpse of our little girl. She was coming back! The Dragon wasn’t breathing down her neck as fiercely.
It gave us strength. It gave us hope. It gave us power. We moved faster and faster with treatment goals. We took on battles without fear. The Dragon had nothing on us now. Because we had seen a glimpse of our little girl and we wanted more. We wanted all of her. We wanted her free from The Dragon.
And then one day, her brain and her body were fully nourished. It was like a switch had flipped, our little girl was back! She was silly and giggling all of the time. She was singing and dancing with joy in her heart. She woke up happy! She slept through her alarm clock, she left laundry everywhere, and she never made her bed. All of the beautiful things that can cause a mom to go crazy!
It has been one year. The Dragon is almost gone. We can still see him lurking around from time to time. But we know what he looks like now. We have tools now. We have knowledge that we didn’t have before.
We take comfort in the words of FEAST families: Recovery is not linear. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Slip ups might happen, but we will never be back to square one.
We have built our army. We will protect our daughter. We will fight this fight with her. We will slay the dragon.
However this finds you in your battle: be calm, be persistent, be in control. You can do this. And you will.