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The One Thing I Needed to Know About My Son's Eating Disorder Recovery

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When I talk to people about my story, I am surprised by how many people have similar stories, or at least have close friends or family who have them. When I talk to people who have children going through similar struggles, I am often taken aback by the desperation in the questions they ask me. It’s usually quiet and controlled, but ever-present, as if they are looking for a lifeline of any kind to save them.

I’m surprised, not that people are desperate because God knows I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to turn anything floating by into a life preserver. I am surprised because they are looking to me as if I may have answers. All I can think is, although I may be floating here on this apparently sturdy kayak, I’m also out in the deep ocean with a mess of hungry sharks circling me.

The thought that I have any practical information that may be of real assistance is quite strange. It makes me reflect on where I was two years ago, where I am now, how far I have come and how far I still have to go. It brings me face to face with the mother I was when my son came home from residential treatment, the tentative, scared, scarred women who just needed to know how this was going to end.

The first morning after my son was discharged from his residential program he cut himself, badly and on purpose. We knew eight weeks of refeeding, therapy and stable medication weren’t going to “cure” him, but we were hoping his discharge was more or less the end of the hardest part. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time musing on how things might have been different if I knew the things I know now. There was so much I didn’t know about what to expect and what to look for. I was just treading water and trying to stay ahead of my emotions. I didn’t have the energy and space to look at any of the lessons from these types of experiences.

Of course, just because I wasn’t ready for the lessons didn’t mean I didn’t have to learn them. It just made things a bit harder, and there were a lot of lessons learned from this specific incident.

The most practical and glaring was he wasn’t ready to be sent home, and I should have fought harder. I see now it was more of a business decision on the treatment center’s part. There were easier kids on the waiting list, who the insurance companies would pay for with less effort on their part. At the time, though, I thought it was something my son had done or not done, or something I had done or not done. But I still wish I had known in the moment. I feel like it would have given me some stability, but maybe not.

I sometimes write a list in my head of these things, the stuff I wish I had known then. It seems this list would have been very useful to me at the time. I often think about taking pen to paper and writing it all down now, just to have it, kind of a talisman or tangible evidence of progress. I’m not sure which one.

It’s hard sometimes to separate hard work from dumb luck in the recovery process. I guess I should just embrace both. Yet every time I set about writing this list, it feels wrong. Like if I had known it, then I wouldn’t have been able to apply it anyway or would have applied it incorrectly. If I had known that my child’s treatment was a business decision, would I have been able to handle it? Would I have been able to move forward and get the benefit we did out of it, or would I have waited and held out for perfection? Would the wait have cost my child his life?

These are the questions spinning out of control in my mind when I indulge in what-ifs. If I let them, then the what-ifs will consume me. I risk not being able to see the other lessons available to me from that time, ones I can apply in the future.

Yet, I still feel the desperation of needing something to hold onto in the uncertainty.  I think, think and think about how to distill this journey into the one lesson of value beyond my immediate situation, something I can tuck into my kayak and use when the sharks feel closer than they are. My mind will wander around the twists and turns of this thought process for a while before it hits me I have put this journey in the wrong frame.

I am thinking about it all wrong, I’m using the wrong metaphor. Because the lesson always come down to one thing: There are no ends in this process. There are only beginnings. Finishing a residential program, a meditation retreat, a skills workshop is not an end. Finishing is not a rescue. I am not being pulled out of the deep. It’s just another beginning. It’s when the real work starts and the work is not your child’s alone. No one will “fix” your child, no one can “repair” your family. You, your family and your child have to do the work. It’s all a beginning.

The cure, if you can call it that, comes over time, by all of you working, working and never giving up. It comes from accepting what is and working toward what is better. Even when you know you can’t handle it anymore, you still get up and do the work, just like you did when he was an infant and needed to eat every three hours; when he was a toddler and had nightmares at 1 a.m.; when he was 6 and his pet died; when he was 10, 15 and 16, and on and on. Every day is a beginning. Every day you feel like you’re starting over. You’re not, it’s what it feels like, but you’re not.

It’s just the beginning. His recovery and yours, is a series of little steps into the unknown, small yet important course corrections as the path becomes a little more clear to you. As the fog begins to lift, you can see the trail a little better. The fog will come again and trip you up. So you can’t race blindly ahead with the false confidence if you can just get to the end it will be OK. You just keep going and listening for clues to where you are and where you are going. Sometimes, when there is no path, you have to cut one out for yourself, hacking away with the tools you have until you get to another moment of clarity.

Those moments of clarity aren’t the end either. They are more like beginnings. Hopefully, they will lead you to an easier path than the one you were on, but they may not, and you have to keep going anyway. You can, even when you think you can’t, you can.

If you can picture it as a journey to accomplish, instead of a place to escape and if you can see your child as he is, bewildered just like yourself, then you may be able to find peace. You may find space to step back and create something good and whole you can use as a foothold.

It’s easy to fall into cynicism and doubt and hard to let go of anger and blame. As comforting as those tools can sometimes feel, they rarely shine any light on the path ahead. They never help you clear it. You have to hold on to hope, even when it isn’t reasonable. You have to question your route, even when it is clear you are on the right track. It’s a tricky and convoluted path, and you are going to need all your wits about you. As Robertson Davies once wrote: “These matters require what I think of as the Shakespearean cast of thought. That is to say, a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively skepticism about everything. It keeps you constantly alert to every possibility.”

So stay alert, search for your next foothold, breathe and know. Know this journey, as grueling as it may be sometimes, is just another opportunity to create. You can choose the frame. Pick your own metaphor. It’s not what you know going in, but how you use what you know to create your path and open up vistas. It’s OK to rest for a while, you have no end you have to reach. It’s OK to enjoy the view.

Even in the clamor, you can stop for a moment and look at how beautiful what you have created is. It will give you sustenance for the next hill, courage for the next trial and hope for the beginnings ahead.

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Originally published: June 29, 2016
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