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.