Life With a Child Who's Living With Anorexia
Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s daughter. If you live with an eating disorder or have experience with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.
From the moment your child is born, you instinctively start to worry about what they eat. Have they eaten enough? Are their meals ‘healthy’? Are they getting all the vitamins and minerals they require?
But the day you realize your child’s relationship to food and their body image has become disordered, you find yourself in a whole new level of worry you are totally unprepared for. As the days turn into weeks and months, you are at your wits end about how to deal with their constant body checking, their constant weighing, their increasing obsession over calories and their frequent meltdowns over their weight.
Whereas mealtimes were once an opportunity for the family to come together and excitedly share their news; it soon becomes a battleground of fear, anger and upset. Where, just days before, your beloved daughter had ravenously attacked her food with intense enjoyment and interest, she now just sits and stares. Her stubborn resolve to only eat the smallest amount of food possible cannot be broken. She is now the “food police;” intently watching over the food intake of everyone else around the dinner table. She makes sure her own portion size is always less than her 8-year-old sibling.
From what seemed like nowhere, we were now living with a young girl who would fling her unwanted food across the table accompanied with an outburst of expletives. Our 12-year-old daughter who was usually lively, quirky and a little mischievous at times had changed. Such behaviors were a big shock for us. Food was now our daughter’s enemy and by default we were also viewed as the enemy for trying to get her to eat. Usual parenting practices just didn’t work as our daughter would just not budge when it came to food. No shouting, no cajoling and definitely no punishments would move her to eat more than she thought was necessary. We suddenly felt totally de-parented and were at a loss as to what to do. When you are faced with the agony of watching your daughter slowly starving herself towards death, all other misdemeanors become insignificant in your eyes. Your only focus is to get your child to eat just one more mouthful because every bite was precious.
You witness their body size reduce dramatically over the coming months until they are a mere shadow of themselves. You watch as your child huddles up to all the radiators in the house in a vain attempt to warm themselves because their body can no longer regulate its own temperature with the sparse amount of calories she is consuming. Your anxiety levels increase with each month that their menstrual cycle fails to appear because their once working reproduction system has now shut down under the strain.
Your hopes are raised when they show an interest in food preparation and you welcome their involvement in the hope that they are learning to like food again. But, you soon realize the more they become involved with cooking, the less they seem to eat. This wasn’t an attempt to help out at home, but was rather an undercover mission to find out all the ingredients that go into their favorite meals. Before long, each and every once-favorite meal became firmly placed on her ever-increasing list of “banned” foods or meals that she would simply refuse to eat.
As parents, you try to encourage your child out of their disordered thought patterns about food and their negative body image, but whatever you say is wrong or gets twisted. They seem totally incapable of comprehending your advice; it’s as if you are speaking a foreign language that they just can’t grasp. You passionately plea to them on numerous occasions:
“You’re killing yourself!”
“Your body is slowly shutting down!”
“Please! Just eat!”
But nothing seems to work. Your child is simply unable to understand what is happening to their body.
In addition to your concerns over weight, you soon realize the exercise you once viewed as being a healthy development in your child’s life has now become an all-embracing compulsion that seems to have taken them over. You find them doing sit-ups in the middle of the night or rushing home to jump onto the treadmill. But, when their energy levels are simply too low to sustain any exercise, you watch them as they stand deathly silent in the corner of the room all day long with their feet growing cold, grey, swollen and cracked under this daily ritualistic attempt to burn more calories.
As a parent you have to maintain your optimism to simply preserve your own sanity, and you wishfully think this is just a phase because you simply can’t understand how anyone can sustain eating such few calories day-in and day-out. But, deep in your core you know your child’s situation is becoming desperately out of control. You turn to your local GP on several occasions only to be told that everything is fine. But soon you find yourself having to express your concerns more vocally and more persistently to obtain the referral that your child so desperately needs.
All your hopes get pinned on the next GP appointment, or the next dietician appointment or the next psychiatrist’s appointment, waiting for some magical advice that will put an end to it all. You’re just simply not ready to comprehend the reality that there is no quick-fix treatment, so you always come away disheartened that no one is really able to give you the direct advice you’re craving.
You turn to friends and family for comfort, but however carefully you try and explain the situation, they just don’t seem to fully understand. You have to listen to comments like:
“Can’t you just make her eat?”
“If she was my daughter I’d just smack her and then she’d eat!”
And the misunderstanding surrounding anorexia just made everything worse. The amount of times I heard someone comment about the pressures on girls to look good nowadays. But my child wasn’t being vain. She was only 12 years old, studying at an all-girls school and did not have any access to the internet. Her desire to restrict her food intake wasn’t borne out of a narcissistic need to improve her looks, but was rather borne from a twisted and deep-seated self-hatred that meant she wanted her body to take up as small a part of the world as possible.
No one seemed to grasp the true reality of my daughter’s illness. But how could I really expect others to comprehend it when we couldn’t even make sense of it all ourselves? But the simplistic views of my friends and families often increased my feelings of isolation. I had literally no one to turn to for support other than my husband. No one could understand the distress, dismay and utter confusion when you are faced with a daughter who would rather grab a kitchen knife and threaten to slit her wrists rather than eat the lunch that you are exhaustingly trying to persuade her to eat. You live your days in a constant state of heightened panic not knowing what each mealtime will bring, but knowing blatantly clear that if you couldn’t find some way to get your child to eat then they would eventually die from this dreadful illness.
To add stress to an already stressful situation, we felt that we had to hide my child’s illness from the wider community because mental illness generally, and eating disorders specifically, are so misunderstood. You quickly develop the skill of putting a mask on in front of others when inside you feel like you are drowning emotionally. You no longer feel that you can relate to anyone. Many days you feel like you just don’t have any conversation inside you anymore — you feel like you are just watching conversations unable to join in because what you’re experiencing is so different to everyone else’s parenting worries. The reality is, nobody knows the real you anymore because you are living a secret life that you can’t tell anyone about.
When people ask their generic question, “What have you been doing lately?” I just didn’t know how to answer. I became very good at asking everyone else questions as a coping strategy that ensured the limelight was kept well and truly away from me and my life. My days consisted of meticulously weighing three strictly calculated meals and two snacks. Each meal would take hours trying to cajole my daughter to eat and would often consist of long periods of high-pitched sobbing and screaming at the top of her voice:
“I hate you!” or,
“I’d rather die than eat this!” or,
“I want to be put into care!”
And when she did reluctantly start to eat, I had to sit opposite her with hawk-eyes to ensure that she didn’t purposely drop her food or hide it in her pockets.
What do you say when your days are filled with cleaning up after your child when they have thrown their plateful of food all over you and the dining room walls and carpet? And when the trauma of that particular meal is over you can’t relax because you then have to watch your child for a whole hour to ensure they don’t exercise or go to the bathroom to vomit. By the time one meal is over you’re getting ready to start the process all over again with the next meal.
How do you even attempt to bring into a lighthearted, friendly social gathering about how traumatized you felt when you found your beautiful daughter with self-inflicted wounds? And, the utter dejection and helplessness you felt when your daughter wouldn’t even let you near her to tend to her wounds. All I wanted to do was to be able to hug my daughter and take away all of her pain. But, instead I had to watch from afar; my child being totally lost, in pain and in utter turmoil. She just wanted to die and I was so desperately trying to save her. As a mother, these days will forever haunt me.
So I never knew how to answer such generic questions, but I was always left feeling amazed that my mask hadn’t slipped and couldn’t quite believe how people didn’t see through my fake smile or didn’t notice my eyes so worn from crying. The strain of it all meant I would often end up at home in floods of tears after any social gathering because I just felt so broken and unable to comprehend, or fit into, normal life.
My support finally came when my daughter was admitted for four months to an Eating Disorder Unit 40-miles away from home. We were finally taught how to understand and more importantly support my daughter with her anorexia. We were also fortunate to be told about a fabulous online forum that provided advice and support to anyone caring for someone with an eating disorder. This forum became my absolute lifeline. I would turn to it whenever I had a particular worry, concern or a particular question. The members always provided evidence-based advice in a kind, supportive and friendly manner. Through this forum I was also able to arrange local meet-ups with other parents going through the same journey. I would meet up regularly with a few members and we would support each other and most importantly were able to find laughter in our shared experiences. It was like a breath of fresh air to be able to speak freely and openly with someone who totally understood what I was going through.
So, when we finally reached a stage where my daughter had been weight restored for about a year, I had a strong desire to support others going through the same journey. I had been the one who craved support and understanding throughout the whole process, and often searched the internet for local support groups but unfortunately found nothing. I was sure there must be others in the same position as me that would benefit from an organized support structure. This is why I decided to set up a support group in the hope that together, we could share tips and advice in the hope of beating our loved one’s eating disorders. Our membership is currently small, but I am hopeful that in time we will reach those who are going through the horrendous journey and looking for support.
And my daughter now? Well, thankfully she is finally showing signs of eating intuitively once again. She has been weight restored for nearly 18 months and her brain certainly seems to have healed from the damage caused by the prolonged starvation. The deception, hatred and depression seems to have gone, too. There are still issues that need attention, but we are so pleased and proud of her progress and are hopeful that she will continue to go from strength to strength.
And my message to other parents who currently have a loved one with an eating disorder? Treating anorexia is certainly a long, distressing and difficult process, but recovery is possible. Keep positive and remain hopeful. Try and find other carers who understand your journey so you can share advice and just be there for each other. But, most importantly, look after yourself and be kind to yourself. You can do it and you will do it. Stay strong.
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Thinkstock photo via prudkov