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When a Burden Becomes a Privilege

By Selina Elison

On a promising day, my daughter would go to school and I would be alone in the house. I would make a coffee, stand at my large kitchen windows, and stare into the trees on the neighbouring property. I could never recall for how long I stood there, paranoid that I might find my daughter unresponsive in her bed one day because her stomach had ruptured, or her heart had stopped beating. Fear had altered my perception of time ever since she had been diagnosed with bulimia nervosa. She was sixteen then, and she had been binge eating and purging for ten months prior to her diagnosis. I call bulimia the silent illness because it can live in secret without being detected. If it hadn’t been for my daughter’s boyfriend, who had dragged her to the school councillor, who knows when I would have found out?  

After her diagnosis, I searched for an eating disorder therapist. The clinic where the therapist worked put my daughter on a waiting list for treatment. During the four months that we waited for therapy to begin, I persisted in raising the eating disorder topic with my daughter. I was convinced that once she understood the absurdity of her disturbing thoughts and their subsequent behaviours, she would heal. Our talks included analysing the causes of her low self-worth and discussing ways of dealing with negative emotions. There were days when she would reason with great ease, and other days when she was immune to reason. That’s when she would respond with mumbled indifference or refuse to interact altogether. She would pretend to be tired or yell at me, “Go! Go away!” I would quietly withdraw, confused. Emotionally, my roles as a mother and makeshift therapist became blurred and exhausting. It took me along time to understand that even though she hadn’t lost any weight, she was malnourished, and as a consequence her thoughts were irrational. I needed to wait with these talks.

Finally, family-based therapy started. I was told that food was her medicine. And although I made every effort to stay firm during mealtimes, it was easy for the eating disorder to take advantage of me because I couldn’t bear seeing her pain. My identification with her suffering spiralled out of control, and so, when my daughter said that I couldn’t expect her to clean her plate when her stomach was bloated and hard, I gave in. And when she suddenly decided that she was a vegetarian, I took the steak off her plate. I knew it was wrong.

It is challenging to stay calm and controlled, when you see the light go out in your child’s eyes, when you feel fear like you have never felt before, when your parenting skills come under constant scrutiny, when you are tormented by “what if-questions”, and when people around you tell you that your child looks great. I was longing for someone to understand my plight, but ‘she hasn’t lost any weight, she must be doing fabulous,’ was all they would say. Each time I would swallow hard, and feel incredibly lonely. 

Then, in one of the therapy sessions, I discussed the mealtime struggles with my daughter’s therapist. 

“Imagine your daughter was suffering from cancer,” she said. “You wouldn’t stop giving her medicine, even if she didn’t like it, would you? You would be scared, she could die. Bulimia can kill, too.” 

I realised that I had no other option, but to set firm boundaries. I couldn’t allow the eating disorder to win this cruel game. At the same time, I decided to learn as much about eating disorders as I could. I studied the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. I listened to TED talks. I read dozens of books on eating disorders. The knowledge I gained empowered me to shift my mindset, it helped me to reframe my situation, because I realised that in moments when my daughter challenged me with bulimic actions and behaviours, I was her greatest hope for recovery. Who else would be able to give her certainty in the face of such an uncertain illness? 

From then onwards, I made sure that I gave her enough food, compassion, and time to mature, and to slowly rewire her brain. I also gave her certainty. I frequently told her that I believed she had the strength to overcome this difficult illness, and I made sure that she knew that I wholeheartedly trusted the recovery process. Relapses were embraced as part of the learning. Gradually, I began to see her progress. She didn’t change her clothes a hundred times a day anymore. She quietly asked me to help her manage her extreme hunger. And when we ate out, she chose a burger over a salad. Today, I know, that every single day of her recovery journey, she gave it her best. And when she thanks me for having supported her, and she gives me a hug, I feel privileged.

1 Comment

  1. Lorena Robles

    Thank you for your essay. I can relate at many levels with your experience. Thank you for sharing your story because in this journey you can feel very lonely.

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