Post by ATDT Parent, PsychoMom
Gaaaaaaa……!!! That was pretty much the sound ricocheting around inside my scull when I first realized my daughter had anorexia. I woke in the night, my heart pounded erratically, nightmare rising in my throat, deafened by the silent primal scream. In the daytime my sweating hands slipped off the computer keys while I researched treatment centers, recovery rates, high calorie recipes, amenorrhea and perfectionism. Ironically, I couldn’t eat. I made appointments and yelled at a nurse, parked my car cattywampus in specialty grocery stores, and barely restrained myself from pulling my hair out in fistfuls. I didn’t know much yet about clinical diagnostic terminologies, and even less about what ailed my daughter, but I had a clue what to call my own state: panic.
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you as well, have a loved one threatened by a deadly, debilitating and supremely bewildering eating disorder; describing panic is probably redundant. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you find yourself reading this. I’m sorry you’re embarking on a journey that involves quiet screaming. Please let me tell you two things that I and my husband needed to know when we first started hearing gaaaaaaaa…..in our heads: First, recovery is possible. Our girl is nearly well now, three years later, and in fact has just headed out the door on an international trip. Next, the journey from diagnosis to wellness requires a boatload of things: food, patience, support, food, time, money, therapy, research, food, pets, patience, food, and more time.
Panic is useful. It gives you energy to do nutty things like lift cars off squished people or put Nutella on an anorexic’s toast. It keeps you reading ATDT forums
late into the night, it helps the strength in your arms when your grocery bags are suddenly heavier, it makes overtime for one partner possible when the other has had to take work leave.
It blocks prudence and politeness, so you can yell at the therapist who weighs on a broken scale or drop work clients without explanation or cancel dentist appointments without rescheduling or buy a calming, distracting funny-faced mutt even though you have easily scratchable floors and an aversion to dog hair in the butter.
Panic is an excellent focuser. It jettisons everything in your complex existence that does not further your single immediate aim: get the food into the kid. Just as everything else becomes irrelevant if a bus is about to splat your innards on the sidewalk, panic can help, easily and instantaneously, discern what is important and what can be put off until the bus has rumbled on by. (The dentist? It’s been three years, maybe I should go….)
Panic is also heck on perfectionism. I remember early in refeeding, serving unannounced mac and cheese to my daughter. She argued and swore and negotiated and counted each noodle, pausing to insult each one individually. I used all my energy to kept my mouth shut for fear the change in my head pressure would cause an explosion–the way they tell you never to take the cap off an overheated radiator. We got through the meal, she yelled I was mean and unsympathetic and stomped off to her room.
“Probably there was a better way to do that,” I apologized to my husband (and poured myself Vodka).
But he said, in a perfect example of the quiet way he supported our noisy progress, “She ate.”
There’s no elegant way to refeed, there’s no best way, there’s often no quiet way or nice way, and there may not be a way that saves your family from nightmares. But the single-minded energy of contained panic can help you keep your resolve, get the food into the kid, raise the number on the scale and allow the synapses to regrow. In other words there’s no right way to avoid an oncoming train; there’s only the way that works.
Perhaps most importantly, my own panic gave me insight into the bizarre behavior of my daughter; a tiny glimpse into the nightmare she could never explain. The tightening muscles, the dry heat in the back of the throat, the sweating palms, the barely-caged impulses to run and to fight and to scream and to claw at a terrible tormenting thing–this is how she felt about food. Of course her fear wasn’t rational (whereas mine unfortunately was) and it was a thousand times more intense. But remembering panic, when I sat later watching her cut and recut a sandwich and hide cheese pieces under the lettuce, helped me keep patience. It helped me reassure, and helped me to know a bit how she felt when she was so sick she was convinced the meals I served her meant imminent death.
So if you’re feeling a little panicky—don’t panic! It’s a normal, and necessary, response to an abnormal situation. If someone you love has just received an eating disorder diagnosis and you don’t feel panic, then that would worry me. If everything you do isn’t tinged with terror, if there isn’t a gnawing hysteria when you breathe, then man, you haven’t read the mortality and relapse rates, or the long list of ways malnutrition can cause debilitating physical and emotional damage, you haven’t understood that this is a biological brain illness with measurable changes in brain capability and functioning, and I’m gonna guess you haven’t been reckless or nuts enough to serve the sufferer you know a plate of sizzling pizza, and seen her curl in a spitting, hyperventilating ball.
But if you’re waking up nightly with a scream in your head—good for you. You have understood the nature of the enemy. Embrace your panic and use the energy it gives, the focus and ruthlessness, the determination and empathy. Because on the long but very doable road that leads to a healthy life of recovery for your loved one, one of the first step sounds like this: gaaaaaaaa………
Psycho Mom lives on the west coast of the US with her husband, daughter, and their hairy, floor-scratching, totally-worth-it dog. Her daughter was diagnosed with EDNOS in May 2013 at age 15. Although she was refed quickly and never missed school, her recovery required a lot of effort, took for-effing ever, and is still ongoing. PM is a writer, homemaker and appreciative member of ATDT.