To the Parents of a Child in the Beginning Stages of an Eating Disorder
I want to write about what I wish I was able to say both to myself and to my parents 14 years ago when I first began struggling with an eating disorder.
More than anything, I wish there had been some way I could have shown my younger self how the following years would unfold, where the decisions I was making then would lead me. I don’t think I really understood what I was doing at all, and sometimes I think that if I had known, I would’ve stopped before things got really bad. And yet as much as I want to believe I would have, part of me is almost certain that I would’ve shrugged it off and convinced myself that I wouldn’t let it get that “out of hand,” that I just needed to stay under a certain weight, under a certain number of calories, just had to lose however many pounds, and then I’d stop. I probably would have still found a way to convince myself I was in control.
I was so convinced that I had control of it then, even though so many people tried to tell me I didn’t. And by the time I realized I didn’t, it was too late. I couldn’t get out of it.
There is so much I would say to my parents. First and foremost, I would say that I do not in any way blame them, that they did not “cause” this. My parents loved me, and while they weren’t perfect, I know they always had the best intentions in everything they did. When I first got sick, I remember my mom used to write me little notes all the time, and she would always ask me, “What can I do? How can I help you?” She told me over and over again that she would do anything, and she would beg me, that if I couldn’t eat for myself, could I please do it for her? If I could go back and answer those questions now, I would tell her not to wait, not to give me “one more chance” (regardless of how much I begged her to) before putting me into treatment. I would tell her to never believe my promises that I would “eat more this week” or “try harder.” I would tell her I was sick with a mental illness and that I couldn’t be reasoned with logically, and that this wasn’t a problem that could be fixed by going to the store and buying all the foods that used to be my favorite. That this wasn’t a diet I could just “snap out of.”
It took my mom a long time to start calling my struggle “an eating disorder.” I think it was hard for her to grasp that I had a mental illness, and if I could, I’d go back and try to help her understand/accept that. She used to tell me she just wanted “her Rachel” back, and I think one of the most important things I would tell her is that “her Rachel” never went anywhere — that beneath the struggle, I was still there, always. It always broke my heart when she or my grandma would say that, because I felt like whatever I was wasn’t acceptable, and I didn’t know how to go back to “the old Rachel.” I would also just want to apologize, to both of my parents, and really to everyone in my family, for the way I’d end up treating them throughout the duration of my struggle. I would apologize for how it affected family dinners, holidays, and vacations.
More than anything, though, I would thank them. I would thank them for all the things I hated them for at the time — sitting through all the crying and screaming and still making me eat, driving up to the school parking lot to eat lunch with me, dragging me to doctor’s appointments, dragging me to treatment. Ultimately I do believe that someone needs to truly desire recovery before they can actually get better. But my parents kept me alive until I got to the point where I could want it for myself. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it to my 12th birthday.
So I think most importantly, I would tell them — and any parent whose child is in the beginning stages of an eating disorder — not to wait until that person is ready to get better, not to buy into the idea that until someone wants it, there’s nothing anyone else can do. When someone is drowning, you don’t wait for them to clearly articulate, “I’m having trouble swimming, could you please come in and help me?” You just dive in and grab the person, and you would try and get them out of the water (even if they’re kicking and screaming). I would encourage them to keep going, not to give up regardless of how hard I fought back.
I would also tell my parents to try, as best as they could, not to take any of what I said at the time personally. I never hated them and never could hate them. I just hated that they were trying to take away from me what I felt at the time I absolutely needed.
I hope this helps anyone in a similar position. I would also say (last thing, I promise) that hope is one of the most powerful things you can offer to someone who is struggling. My parents refused to give up on me, and for that I am so grateful.
I’m not recovered, but I’m finally at a place where I’m able to, essentially, keep myself healthy and alive through my own choices. Food is still something I experience a lot of anxiety around, and to be honest, I’m not sure if that will ever change, but that anxiety is manageable now. I’m able to eat simply because I have a life that I want to stick around for versus because someone else is forcing me to, and that’s pretty cool.
I think, with the right support, it’s possible for anyone to get to that point. So if you’re struggling to hold onto hope for your child or if you are the one struggling and don’t feel able to hold onto hope for yourself, know that I am holding that for you.
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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.