The One Thing That Made the Difference in My Son's Eating Disorder Recovery

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Our 17-year-old son has been in and out of residential treatment for an eating disorder on four separate occasions. My husband and I prided ourselves on diligence, unyielding support and pure commitment to his recovery each time. During treatment, he was two states away. Working the plan and temporarily relocating for each relapse, we would return to practice the teachings and keep him recovery focused. Experts praised our dedication. Many times in classes with other parents, we shared our techniques to keep him on track.

We thought we had a great formula… except that we didn’t.

On three occasions in the fall right at Thanksgiving time, he would fall apart, and the relapse would happen right before our eyes. It was like a horror film unfolding in your living room as we watched him slip into the eating disorder abyss. What had we missed? What did we do wrong? We had done so much right, yet we still had this pattern that had to be broken. This past fall, with trepidation we approached the dreaded anniversary of his relapse. We were terrified that the pattern would continue. Victoriously, we made it through the holiday season with no relapse. We were home for the holidays for the first time together in three years. It was a gift we gratefully accepted and privately applauded.

You might wonder, “what was different this time you?” The key was changing one fundamental piece our parent recovery plan. Our fundamental shift is one most parents will not want to hear and don’t have the courage to stand up to. We changed one element that we believe broke the pattern at Thanksgiving and rewrote our playbook. Our son was diver on the swim team at his school. His season ran from summer diving into the fall high school season. During this season, his calorie burn was high, and his body morphed into one he prized. When dive season would conclude at the end of October, his eating disorder would kick in with vengeance. Secretly, he would go back to his disorder and it would ultimately put him in the hospital each time. Each time we left his partial hospitalization program and returned to our care team at home, the advice had been to not let him return to diving. The pattern always tied back to his sport season. Each year, up until this last time, we shrugged it off and said we could get him through it. We were confident we could manage and keep him on track. We could not imagine not letting him dive.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

This past fall, terrified of his eating disorder returning, my husband and I made a pact. We decided this last time had to be different. With our family therapist, we let our son know he would not be diving his junior year. We stood firm against the tears, screams, threats and frustration he felt.

We thought to ourselves, “what kind of parents were we?” He was a great at his sport. His whole identity was wrapped up in being a competitive, all state diver. Secretly, my husband and I were sad. We loved watching him soar and succeed at something he was incredibly skilled at. We knew as parents we would also share the feeling of a void by not going to meets each week and fraternizing with the parents we had grown fond of. We also realized this had been the one piece of advice we ignored on three separate occasions because we were caught up in the frenzy of his diving career. We were enamored with his success and the possibility of his future. With a lot of strength, the support of our care team and withstanding the wrath of our child, we endured two weeks of a miserable son. He was so angry with us and truly could not believe this time we were not changing our mind. Once he heard the news and started to accept it, the pain lessened. Each day, the topic came up less frequently and the tears began to subside. He began to accept his new reality and deep down, know we were saving him from himself. We got through the season, his grades soared, his confidence remained high even without a sport and he stayed recovery focused. He joined different clubs to find a way to belong.  We made it through and we broke the cycle. We are not naïve to think his eating disorder is gone, but, we are home now for a year without returning to Denver.

Therapists tell us saying “no” to your kids’ sport is the hardest thing for parents of children with eating disorders to do.

Most times parents do not take the advice. They feel badly not letting their child do the one thing they most adore and excel at. They think their child will be different and there is no way the sport will contribute to a relapse. Based on our experience, it was the single biggest mistake we made. We should have never gone against expert advice repeatedly. Saying “no” to our kids is hard. Watching our kids relapse is even harder. Standing firm as a parent is so vital to eating disorder recovery. What we learned is that when you hold firm, they adapt. Our son might not admit it, but judging by his recovery success and the fact he never mentioned diving again once he got over his shock and anger, we think secretly he was relieved. Parenting kids demands relentless commitment. Not letting the manipulation of the eating disorder get one foot back in your house is the goal. When you focus on that goal and stand firm together as a parental unit, following the plan and just saying “no” can yield a great outcome that ultimately is worth the fight. It might even save your child’s life. So, before you give in because you are afraid of the wrath, stand firm and realize a sport is not worth taking a chance that this horrific disorder will return.

Getty Images photo via finwal

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