By Victorious Doc Mom
We were on a ski trip and my husband noticed our 12 year old daughter had become much thinner. We suspected anorexia nervosa (AN), so we reached out to our pediatrician who was not helpful. My husband and I are both physicians. I reviewed the medical literature and learned that Family Based Therapy (FBT) was the most successful evidenced based approach. There were surprisingly very few FBT therapists in Southern California in 2012, but we found Dr. Lauren Muhlheim. Lauren knew the gravity of the situation, saw us immediately, and even called and checked in with me a few days later. I had no idea how serious the situation was and what lay ahead.
The first 3 months of anorexia nervosa were horrendous. My daughter couldn’t attend school for 3 months. Both my husband and I stopped working. I focused on gathering calorie dense foods. My husband was better at forcing her to eat. We experienced all the typical behaviors—anger, cussing, food hiding, excessive exercise, constant negotiating, snail’s pace eating, obsessions with food shows (Cupcake Wars). But far more extreme for us was the depression (crying for hours every night), attempts at self harm (hitting her head against the wall), violence (punching us before weigh-ins, trying to jump out of the car on the way to therapy appointments) and extreme shame. It took me awhile to realize the hatred was the anorexia demon inside of her, not really her. Our house was like a secret fortress. Nobody could come over. She didn’t want anyone to know. I felt alone. I didn’t feel there was anyone I could share this with. And those few relatives I did share with certainly did not understand. My husband continued his routine of playing golf every Sunday morning. I never complained because I knew it’s what he needed to stay sane. I was scared and dreaded handling breakfasts and lunches on my own, but I did it.
After being weight restored, the depression lifted. But the next 3 years were a slog. It took that long for the anorexia to subside and for my daughter to no longer require food supervision. We often wondered if the anorexia would ever end. Dr. Muhlheim noted this was indeed a much longer course than average, but encouraged us. We had doubts but stuck with the FBT. I and others supervised lunches, snacks, dinners. Having her nonjudgmental friends around during meals and snacks was a tremendous support. During the last year of anorexia, having her text pics of what she was eating was a very effective transition to eating on her own.
As I reflect, I remember that I felt so sorry for myself as we were living through anorexia. How could this happen to us? I would cry in the car all the time. I actually felt comfort in thinking about other parents whose children had diagnoses like cancer. At least we have hope.
I vividly recall a turning point at 7 months into the illness. I realized that feeling sorry for myself and crying was useless. I met a terminal patient with an amazing attitude. She related that a book “The Road Less Traveled” helped her. I skimmed the book. I then made a solid decision to put all my energies into optimizing the outcome. I will do everything within my power to beat this disease, focus on what I can control, not focus on what I cannot control. This is the best I can do. Seek the best experts. Don’t waste time feeling sorry for myself. Don’t waste time trying to figure out why this happened Approach the situation objectively and scientifically. This changed my outlook forever. I never cried about our situation again.
Anorexia changed me forever and strengthened my marriage. I react to crises calmly and methodically now (no feeling sorry for myself), little things don’t bother me any longer (I don’t get mad at anyone except my own mother), and I appreciate every “normal” day without a crisis!
I will never forget how 10 years ago… all I wished for was my daughter to be alive, that it wouldn’t even matter whether she attended college, just that she is alive to see college. I recall telling my husband that it would be just fine if he quit his job and focus on keeping our daughter alive, I could keep working. My daughter is now a senior at a university. She is kind, warm, caring, grateful, has a boyfriend and so many close friends. She still has baseline anxiety and perfectionism, but meds and therapy control this. Most importantly, she tells me and seeks help when she needs it.
Unlike before, my daughter is now open to talking about the experience. She feels guilt for having put us through the stress. I reassure her that the illness was no fault of her own, that it was a demon that possessed her, and that the experience actually brought us all closer and made us stronger. She appreciates that we fought hard for her health. She loves us dearly and has great confidence in our strength. She now appreciates family more than anything. She knows that she can always count on us to be there for her. And she feels able to confide anything in me.