I had one major goal as a mother and that was to raise both my daughters with positive body image. I literally did all the “right” things according to the professionals. But it wasn’t enough. As is the story of so many, all it takes is a certain set of conditions to align such as genetics, societal, behavioral and an eating disorder is set in motion. One of my worst parenting nightmares had come true. After dealing with my own disordered eating in college, I knew exactly what to look for, but I couldn’t stop it. An eating disorder still figured out how to thrive within my 13 year old. I blame myself for not intervening earlier; however, once I truly grasped what was going on, our family worked together and freed the beautiful soul of my daughter.
I am not sure if words can even capture the emotional depths of the journey. My underlying emotion was always one of fear. Scared that our first chance at treatment was our best chance for recovery so I better get this right. Scared I would send her to a facility that would harm her either emotionally or physically, scared of her dying, scared how traumatic this was for her, scared she would never recover. I felt particularly scared one night during her hospital admission, since she seemed to be getting worse, especially with her levels of emotional distress. I went down to the hospital cafeteria to eat and sat by myself. My brain was craving some sort of light and hope that recovery was possible. My coping mechanism that evening was to go to the ‘Around the Dinner Table’ forum and read every single story of recovery. I read them all, pages upon pages. They helped in numerous ways. One way was normalizing the level of emotional distress seen with adolescents, especially in early treatment. The other way was that true recovery was possible. One story that helped me the most was a dad sharing that, “five months later, it was like nothing happened.” Even if that wouldn’t be my story, the possibility that it even existed was powerful and something I needed to hear. There was a certain compassion I felt of the shared experience, even if it was just through reading stories of others. I think my antidote to fear at that moment was knowledge and hope.
In addition to hope, what I needed to hear was that I was doing the right thing. My biggest support in this area came from my cousin, who had also suffered from an eating disorder and endured many hospitalizations. There were five powerful words that she spoke to me one day and I will be forever grateful. She told me with gentleness and compassion, “You did the right thing.” This was in response to the one event that I didn’t think I could handle. The previous day my daughter pulled out her nasogastric tube at the inpatient facility and resisted having it put back in. The facility called me needing consent for restraint. A nightmare within a nightmare. My husband spoke the words of consent into the phone; I couldn’t do it due to my sobbing and because I didn’t want to do this to my child. Even though I had prepared for this moment, I just didn’t have the strength. But we did it and with the clarity of hindsight, it was the right thing. That moment may have been the turning point when the eating disorder realized it couldn’t win. Fast forward to a year of solid upward trajectory of recovery, and we are on the other side. The painful journey of my family has now become another family’s story of hope.
So far, I feel like the outcome for our family is the best you could hope for. But I write this with some feelings of guilt since this is not the outcome for all families. I still feel as if so many emotions of my journey live just below the surface. All it takes is the smallest thought or reminder to bring back the tears and feelings of fear.
I felt honored recently when an old high school friend reached out regarding her nephew who was just diagnosed with an eating disorder. His family was considering the same treatment program my daughter attended. My friend put me in touch with her sister-in-law and we set up a time to meet in person. In a symbolic way, I handed over the stack of books that my husband and I found helpful. I felt like we didn’t need them anymore and I told her to keep them as long as she wanted. We cried together and I shared with her everything I learned. And she helped her son, and this family is now their own story of hope and recovery.
A phrase I heard from a clinician at a parent support group is that eating disorders thrive in silence. I found this statement powerful and so true. It has stuck with me and I see the benefits not just within my household, but within society. Perhaps sharing our stories is just another way to stop the silence. Talking about our experiences, disseminating evidence based knowledge, and providing words of support and hope to each other are perhaps some of the most powerful tools we have as parents in the battle against eating disorders.