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My Kid Is Getting Better, So Why Do I Feel Worse?

By Oona Hanson

When caring for a loved one with an eating disorder, you have to develop all kinds of new skills and coping strategies. One of the ways to survive the grueling treatment process is to adopt an unflappable, almost robotic approach in the face of unpredictable outbursts, cruel insults, and terrifying threats. 

Wearing a kind of emotional armor not only protects you from this painful onslaught but also helps you stand up more firmly to the manipulative bully living in your house (the eating disorder, that is, not your child). Taking a matter-of-fact approach has other benefits, too, as it can help your anxious or angry child find equilibrium. Through the process of co-regulation, your relative state of calm allows them to feel calmer, too.

Sometimes this firm stance can feel a little bit like going numb–and that makes sense as a survival strategy when you’re in a painful battle with an eating disorder. Helping your child heal forces you to find deep reserves of toughness, often drawing on strength you didn’t even know you had. It’s like the stories of mothers who have literally lifted a car off their child. In that moment of rescue, no one would ask a parent, “But aren’t you worried? How are you feeling about this terrible situation?” No, you don’t have time for feelings, let alone time for processing those feelings. You are busy trying to save someone’s life.

As your child starts to recover and you see glimpses of hope, there is a shift that can, at first, make you feel worse. Why? Because you are starting to feel again. You’ve begun to shed some of that heavy armor and can now tend to your war wounds. The muscles that lifted the car are sore, and you can look back and acknowledge just how frightening and devastating the experience was. 

Through sheer force of will and love for your child, you endured something harrowing. You didn’t have the luxury to experience all the feelings earlier, and here they come, welling up in uncomfortable ways. If you’ll entertain another analogy, it’s a bit like the pain from dental surgery after the novocaine wears off. The pain was always there–you just couldn’t feel it. Crisis mode provides a certain level of pain-blocking, but it’s temporary. 

What makes this transition even more challenging is that it tends to come when the outside world sees your child starting to look well, even if there is a long road of recovery ahead. You might start getting comments like, “You must be so relieved!” or even, “I bet you’re glad that’s over!” The outside world might assume life is already back to normal in your family and expect you to be back to your old self, too. 

When your loved one starts to re-enter their life–school, activities, socializing–it’s often a vulnerable time, as the child may be at risk for set-backs and even relapse. This is a terrifying stage for families, and it’s often when parents need the most support. You are exhausted, raw, sad, angry, and scared just when most people expect you to be grateful and carefree. 

Even if your child is in really strong recovery, you may be hit by waves of feelings that seem to come out of nowhere. Remember you’re probably making up for lost time. If you can, feel what you’re feeling without judgement. Try to make space for the sadness and anger in whatever way works for you–attending support groups, seeing a therapist, journaling, talking to friends who “get it,” watching tearjerkers, listening to sad songs. It hurts, but as with many things in eating disorder treatment, the only way out is through. And before long, you’ll start crying tears of joy again, too.

 

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21 Comments

  1. Laney

    Thanks for capturing this feeling in words, Oona. I’ve seen this conversation take place in the forums. It’s so important to make room to talk about and tend to ourselves as parents and carers too.

  2. Lori

    You can’t imagine how timely this article is, I am so grateful. We are just over a year in recovery with phenomenal results – now I am the basket case and saying things from the basement brain. Very helpful to read, bless you.

  3. Joanne

    This really spoke to me. She’s in recovery but I can’t get off of red alert and am finally admitting I am exhausted. Thank you for sharing. Is there a forum or group for parents on the topic of recovery?

  4. Jennifer

    Thank you for this! In some strange way, it was “easier” during recovery because there was only one mode — warrior, always-on, never give-up mode. This transition to getting “better” is fraught with so many mixed emotions. Gratitude, anger, sadness, relief, joy, resentment … but, honestly, most of all is fear.

  5. Carol

    So glad I found this group. Living with an angry person is hard. There is nothing I can do or say that is right. I remain calm, but it’s wearing me down.

  6. Linda Weigel King

    Oona , Thanks ( as always ) for capturing the hard to capture experience and normalizing the parents wild and crazy ride !!

  7. emma whigham

    This is EXACTLY how it feels. Thank you so much and well done for somehow putting that into words. Loved the analogies by the way.
    So much love

    • Dawne Badrock

      Thanks! It is really hard and the tears and fears don’t seem to make sense at times nor are they welcome. I find I’m lost at times. The things I enjoyed before I don’t and having a life not connected to hers is not comfortable yet. She’s 15 and wanting her secrets and privacy and I struggle with that although I know it’s normal and good. 😞

  8. Laurel

    Good timing for me too Oona. My lovely girl is off to school today (after 5 months at home) and after drop off I try to muster gratitude, but it doesn’t come. Nothing comes. No feelings. I am still holding up the car. I will return and we will thrive at the ‘end’ but, in the meantime, I stand at attention.

  9. Abigail Chandler

    Really resonated with me too. I am so so grateful for my girls recovery but I’m struggling to “let go” and allow her to become more independent – as she must do.
    I liken it to having PTSD – I am still shell shocked by what we’ve been through and need to find a way to process the feelings.

  10. Lerna

    Thank you. It’s like this article put what’s happening in my life and in my mind into words. This stage seems to be harder in a different way for me. I am dealing with my emotions and worried that if I don’t then I am not going to be able to support her in her journey and hold her back. Thank you!

  11. Lily

    Thanks. This is explaining a lot. I’m afraid that I might collapse now when my daughter is a bit better. Makes me frustrated when I can’t be happy and would just like to cry. I’ve been pushing all emotions away for so long time.

  12. Oona Hanson

    I’m so moved by everyone’s comments. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts here. Just yesterday something quite tender about another family’s story caught me off guard and made me weep seemingly “out of nowhere,” but I quickly realized why it touched me so deeply. I believe fiercely in the concept of post-traumatic *growth.* If we can be patient with ourselves and get the support we need, we can come out the other side even stronger–including the strength to be vulnerable in ways we might never have been before. Sending out virtual hugs and compassion to everyone.

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