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One Bite at a Time

By Annika Agresti

The smell of sage wafted heavily in the air. My mother walked around every room and corner of the house with tears running down her cheeks as she attempted to cleanse the house of its unwelcome visitor. I had been taken hostage starkly and suddenly by mental illness and life as we knew it in our household was disrupted with a grinding halt. I was 17 years old, a senior in High School, and balancing in between life and death since being diagnosed with Anorexia. I had fallen so ill, so suddenly, and my parents were deeply shaken and uncertain of how to help their child who had developed the world’s most deadly mental illness. 

We soon met with my pediatrician, yet I was a very unwilling participant. She told us that I could either leave home and go to residential treatment, or join UCSF’s outpatient eating disorder program. My need for help was extremely urgent, so it became less of a choice and more of a decision based on who I could see the fastest. It would be about a month’s time of waiting, and in that time I continued to get sicker mentally, and my heart and vital organs also weakened. It just so happened that UCSF’s program had an open spot first. 

As a family, we went to my intake appointment to discover that UCSF utilized family-based treatment, or FBT (this happens to be the only evidence-based treatment for adolescents with Anorexia). Doctors told us that my parents would be tasked with refeeding me back to health until my brain was well-enough to where I could feed myself freely. This seemed like it would be the world’s most impossible task to my parents. Because I was malnourished at the time, I could be quite mean, and my eating disorder was willing to put up a strong fight in order to stick around. I had no interest in getting better, my sick brain wanted to become as entrenched in illness as possible. Luckily for me, I had parents that were not going to lose their daughter, no matter what. 

For the next many months, I would be fed high calorie meals and snacks, 6 times a day, extra butter and cream included. Mealtimes became a warzone, almost literally. Either my mom or dad, or both of my parents, sat with me at meals and essentially had to force me to complete my meal. This took about 3 hours for every meal at one point. My eating disorder became even louder and took up even more space in our house. Countless times in my memory I can remember yelling at my parents, telling them that I hated them, with such ferocity, flames could have been coming out of my mouth. I was so clouded by my illness at the time, that only now can I see how difficult this must have been as a parent. My mother had insults hurled at her, and sometimes even pizza, and yet she never gave in to the disease that had taken me hostage. Despite all the tricks and schemes thrown at her, she would continue to sit with me, day after day and bite after bite. Her doing this was truly the embodiment of her unconditional love for me as her child, although it did not feel that way at the time. These early months of my recovery were really just the beginning of the journey. 

It had almost been about a year of me being in treatment, and unfortunately my progress was minimal. Physically, my health had been restored, but mentally I was still trapped inside an eating disorder. When I say trapped I mean that literally- I had no friends, was hardly in school, and few things brought me joy. Laughter was a rarity in our house. Despite being out of the ‘crisis zone’ time of my eating disorder, I was still living what most would consider to be a horribly dull and sad life. My most poignant memories of this time are ones of my mother. I can conjure images of her holding my face in her hands, tears puddling in her eyes, saying to me, “You are the universe’s child now.” Although she is not a particularly religious or spiritual person, my mom who was desperately tired and at the end of her tether, called upon a higher power in hopes my life would be saved. At this point, we all saw that clearly, something needed to change.

 My parents had tirelessly cared for me for that past year, at a capacity that far exceeded what was normally called upon for parents of someone about to enter adulthood. Seeing that I needed even more support, my fearless mother quit her well paying, full-time job, in order to become my full time caregiver. I was essentially an infant, unable to care for myself, and my mom had to trek back many years in her journey of motherhood. She had to feed me and keep close watch on me the same way she had in the early times of my life. I was her baby once again. Our relationship was now stripped down to the basics. We knew that the only thing that really mattered was the love we have with people in our lives. She showed me that she loved me constantly, despite the fact that I was blind to it at the time. She saw the rules imposed on me by Anorexia, and made me break them one by one, repeatedly. She made me break out the tiny bubble I was trapped in, even if it scared me. She fought with a Herculean strength for me until I was able to conjure the same strength inside of myself. These were brave acts of love.

Slowly but surely the light came back in my eyes. I began to become an active participant in my own recovery and life, regardless of the fact that I was not sure if what lay on the other side for me would be worth it. If everyone else was having ice cream, and I felt scared of the ice cream, I knew it meant that I should have some. If my eating disorder told me that I HAD to eat the components of my meal in a certain order, I would do the opposite. Little by little, I was  beginning to find joy in my life again. I often sat with the question of what my future life could be like. I knew what having my eating disorder stick around would look like- my life force fading away until one day it would completely stop. I did not know what my life could look like without an eating disorder. This thought daunted me, but I came to the realization that I had to try to recover fully if I wanted any sort of life. I began to put my all into my recovery. How I managed to conjure this strength, I am not sure. My parents were still there to watch and support me as I made hiccups, of course. What unfolded next was a life that my 17-year old self could not have even dreamed of. 

At age 19, I was fully recovered from Anorexia, and I was living a beautifully full life. Everyday felt like a miracle, and still does today. I began to cherish my life and discovered that I was someone who was completely and unconditionally worthy. Any doubts that I had about recovery being worth it were squashed. Recovery is worth it 1000 times over. I now have a sense of self love that I feel is unshakeable to my core and I know that any challenge is something that I can overcome. I began to share my story publicly, and came to be a fierce advocate for awareness around eating disorders. I see my journey as nothing short of a miracle and I am grateful for my life everyday. There is so much beauty in the world to see and experience and I am only here to experience it all thanks to my parents. 

My relationship with my mom and dad was once quite rocky, hence me telling them I hated them daily, but now we are as close as can be. My mom nurtured me through what no mother should have to see their child experience, but now we are both better for it. I came out the other side of my eating disorder and was reborn as the person who I was always supposed to be. My mom is my hero and best friend. I am soon to turn 22, and I feel eternally blessed for the life she has given me. Not only did she birth me, but she saved my life. She is everything I aspire to be. Regardless of what happens in this life, we will endure and love each other through it.


  1. Cassandra

    Thank you for sharing this. I wanted to keep reading the whole way through. It’s so good to bring awareness. You’ve done a beautiful job communicating this terrible and consequently beautiful thing.

  2. Michelle Nichols

    Absolutely beautiful, Annika. And knowing your parents, I know they have always supported you 100% — with love and understanding. But, you deserve the credit for fighting this and making yourself whole. I am in awe of the fight and determination you all have. So happy to see you all doing so well!

  3. Robyn Fisher

    You are the bravest of brave to be telling your soul filled story, you beautiful girl!!! I am so proud of you!
    And your sweet mama!!!!! So many tears reading this.
    Lucky you all are to have a home filled with so much love and support.
    So much sweeter it is after pain and trauma.
    Thank you for sharing. No doubt you will help countless others to know they too can be at peace someday. ❤️

  4. Mary Barker

    What an eye opening,heart wrenching but inspiring story! Not many are brave enough to share such a raw, truthful story about mental illness thank you! I barely know you, rarely see your parents but DO KNOW I can always reach to her for help & support what ever the case may be!

  5. Tracy

    My 18 year old daughter is still in denial. I am providing her with medical and psychological support. She says she is not ready for help, it breaks my heart to see her shrinking away. Thank you for this story, I hope we too can turn it around.

    • Kirsten

      Hi Tracy my daughter is 20 and studying at University. I can’t remember when she last ate anything. She too is in denial and is convinced she is fine. I am desperate to help her but she refuses and I just don’t know where to go from there. Feeling helpless.

  6. Matt

    As the dad of a 17 year old daughter who is ensnared in this hideous disorder, I have just read your account with tears rolling down my face.

    Your story is hitting home in so many ways but also fills me with the hope that she too can beat her demons.

    My heart also goes out to all of those parents going through this currently, and I take my hat off to your parents for sticking to the plan and supporting you in the way they did.

    I am delighted that you have recovered fully, you have obviously fought so hard, and I wish you all the luck in the world moving forward.

  7. Doreen

    Tears rolling down my face. I am so happy for you and the determination of your parents to once and for all destroy this hideous monster. Of course, it was you who had to trust the process and worked very hard even though ed continued to fight harder.
    My daughter is 40 years old and continues to suffer from Anorexia to this day. She wasn’t as fortunate as you and I as a single parent at the time, didn’t have the support needed. My daughter is paying a very high price because of the incompetence of our medical system here in Canada at that time.

    Congratulations, you are deserving of all good things to come your way.
    God Bless from Ontario Canada

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