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What Happens After Your Child Is in Eating Disorder Recovery

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I was cooking dinner the other night when my 16-year-old son came up to me in the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said, ”What’s for dinner?”

I replied, “Baked chicken with marinara, capers and olives.”

He smiled and said, “Yum, that’s my favorite sauce you make.”

As he walked away to return to his homework, I burst into quiet tears. Now, you might think how sappy and how silly that is. In ordinary cases, it might be. When you have a son who almost died from anorexia just 10 months earlier tell you something you’re cooking is his favorite to eat, it is a pinch me, surreal moment. Suddenly, you realize recovery is working, and his brain is healing to become a healthy teenager again. It is a wonderful thing when recovery is sticking. It is also a scary thing when recovery is sticking.

As we count the days and see life return to our new normal, I live in emotional turmoil controlled by swings of elation at times such as this and fear of another relapse. How can you trust that the media, a friends’ innocent comment or simply a smell or time of year won’t trigger someone who’s recovering? There is perpetual fear that one single event or just a moment can send them spiraling back to the hell in which they fought so hard to get out of.

You work so diligently to get to this point, and then, you reach it. You are victorious yet waiting for the other shoe to drop. You want to protect them from the harsh cruel world and do everything you can to keep them healthy.

When they first return home from treatment, that protectionism is vital to the success of achieving recovery. Once they are in recovery, you have find a happy medium to allow them to be normal teenagers and reclaim their lost freedom. It’s an art, not a science. There is no magic formulas that exist. The one piece that’s so critical is leaning on your care team comprised of a nutritionist, a therapist and a psychiatrist if medications are involved. This team can coach you along the way and act as your “go to” strategists.

I find as time marches on and your child recovers, you are left to your own thoughts, sometimes for the first time in months. Finally, you have time to assess the emotional toll an eating disorder personally has taken on you. Moving forward for everyone is healthy and living in the present not the past is essential for familial healing.

Yet, there are those moments when you have flashbacks of your journey that are haunting and come over you like a tidal wave. I will ask my husband often, “Did we really just survive this horrific time? Are we still OK?”

In these moments, you have to allow yourself to just breathe, acknowledge them and realize you too have been through a traumatic event. It is normal to have these emotions. It is also rational to have fears and skepticism regarding being able to really trust recovery of a loved one. It is not only from an eating disorder but for any type of addiction recovery.

In order to cope, I have learned recovery is not a linear curve. Success is not measured in days or weeks of being eating disorder free. People with eating disorders may still experience eating disorder thoughts. They still wrestle with body image issues, and they still fight a demon in their head that can call to them as an old friend in times of stress.

Successful recovery for is learning to not act on any of those distractions with their eating disorder behaviors. It sounds simple, but some days it takes an inordinate amount of discipline for the person with an eating disorder.

Learning to observe your loved ones and recognize their signs in times of stress can help them cope. Recognizing the signals and paying attention, even unobtrusively, will aid them best in their recovery. It is a skill that takes time to perfect.

In answering my own question of when do I get to trust my son’s recovery, I would tell myself that sadly, not anytime soon. Possibly, you never trust recovery. I respect how hard my son has worked to get here. I will always love him and support him in any way I can and catch him if he falls.

The reality is his eating disorder will always be a part of him, somewhere deep inside. My role as a parent is to be the guardian and always be watching out, realizing that he may slip and he may have a bad day. That is part of this disease.

My advice to myself is that each day he is in recovery is a gift. Treasure it, protect it and savor each good day you have. Living life in fear and distrust is not productive. You have to keep moving forward and celebrate the positives. It is much healthier and happier existence!

 If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 3, 2016
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