By Judy Krasna, F.E.A.S.T. Executive Director
Somewhere along the way in every parent’s journey, I think it is inevitable that we all experience a sense of failure. Sometimes, it is the result of a bad day, week, or month filled with painful mealtimes that went horribly wrong. Sometimes, it is when we realize that our loved one has been binging and/or purging, despite our vigilance. Sometimes, it is when we see numbers declining on a scale and we realize that our loved one is moving further away from good health, despite our best efforts to restore nutrition. For parents who have been supporting their child through many years of an eating disorder without recovery in sight, that sense of failure can be all consuming. They feel that if their child is not recovering, then surely they must be failing as a parent.
I hear parents referencing “failure” all too often, saying things like they “failed FBT” or inferring that when their child needs residential treatment, they have failed. And I want to say that I think that framing these things in the context of failure is both detrimental to your child and unfair to yourselves.
I think many of us can agree that we knew very little about eating disorders when our child developed one, and what we thought we did know was not at all reflective of what eating disorders actually are. We all faced a steep learning curve, which we had to take on while our child was actively ill, and we were fraught with distress and worry.
I also think that most of us had expectations of treatment that matched what we experienced from the realm of physical illness. You are sick, you get treated, you get better. I know that I wasn’t at all prepared for the burden of caring for my daughter, and what it would cost our family, in so many different respects.
In retrospect, I know now how much I didn’t know at the beginning of my daughter’s illness. I scrambled to educate myself as quickly as possible, but the bottom line is that I made mistakes early on when choosing treatment because I didn’t know better. It’s painful to realize that our journey may have had a better outcome if we had taken a different path at the beginning, but I can’t bring myself to frame that as our failure. We did what any good parents would do. We got treatment for our daughter, not knowing that it was the wrong treatment. We followed “expert” advice. And getting stuck on the mistakes of the past would have prevented us from moving forward and doing things right.
I know that it’s all too easy to engage in the never-ending mind torture of the “what if” game. “What if I had done things differently?” I can tell you that going down that road will take you in the wrong direction, away from where you need to be.
In my experience, nothing positive comes from the framework of failure. It sabotages the empowerment that I believe is critical for parents to feel when dealing with their child’s eating disorder. You can’t feel empowered if you feel like you are failing. You can’t help your child if you feel like you are failing. Empowered parents feel more capable of caring for a loved one with an eating disorder, which I believe effectively does make them more capable.
I know that it can be difficult to see other people’s children recovering while recovery is not happening for your own child. And I know that when your child isn’t recovering, you question yourself as a parent, and you want to know what someone else is doing right that you are doing wrong.
And sometimes, the answer is absolutely nothing. The sad fact is that 2 families can be fighting just as hard for their child’s recovery, doing the same actions, even receiving the same treatment by the same provider, and one recovers early in the journey while the other does not. Having a child whose recovery is elusive is not indicative of failure as a parent, it is indicative of the vicious nature of eating disorders, the powerful pull that they have on our children; and at times, of co-morbid conditions that impede recovery.
I see parents in our community who do everything right; and still, their children have not yet recovered. Sometimes it’s a roller coaster of recovery and relapse. I relate to the immense frustration that those parents are feeling, and I understand the tendency to think of oneself as a failure, but I beg you not to.
I truly believe that for the most part, we are excellent parents–even those of us who missed the early intervention train, even those of us who didn’t recognize ineffectual treatment for what it was, even those of us who can’t seem to get our kids on that road to recovery; and yes, even those of us who lost our children. I have no answer for why doing all of the right things works for some families and not for others, but I sincerely don’t believe that it’s because we are failures as parents, and I certainly don’t believe that it absolves us from continuing to do the things that lead to recovery, even if we are not seeing results. People who feel like they are failing may stop trying to help their child, because they feel like their efforts are futile. Please don’t ever stop trying.
Every parent in our community is a hero in my book. You are all fierce warriors. Those of you out there who are really struggling, who can’t seem to find your footing, and who are feeling like failures, have a special place in my heart. I want you to know that I don’t see you as failures. All I see is your strength, your persistence, your grit, your determination to help your child recover, your fortitude, your tenacity, your endurance, your dedication, your sense of purpose, your unwavering love for your child, your relentless pursuit of your child’s restored health, your uneasy hope, and your tireless commitment to your child’s well-being. Try seeing yourselves through my eyes, and keep fighting, brave parents. Learn from your past experiences so you can do better going forward. Don’t get stuck in the quicksand of perceived failure. And know that I am here rooting for all of you and for your children, every step of the way.