by Alison E.
Experience has shown that in many cases, recovery (especially in its early stages) can be hardest when you are caring for close family members. It seems the enmeshment between parent and child is too great, the emotional investment too profound, their relationship too jarred by the mental illness that surrounds the entire family with fear. Anorexia and bulimia are insidious diseases that can poison and distort even the most loving and devoted family dynamic. And while no parent can single-handedly rescue their child from anorexia or bulimia, recovery is still a family's responsibility. There is no clear-cut, fool-proof guide out there for supporting a child with an illness as pervasive and baffling as an eating disorder. But what we do have is the experience, strength, and hope of those who have already done so.
To write this post I sat down with my family and we talked about everything we went through as I battled my eating disorder. So, from us to you, here is what my family has learned…
This is what we learned about anorexia and eating disorders…
- An eating disorder isn't really about the food, or body weight and shape. It's a symptom of anxiety and/or depression, and is therefore irrational, unpredictable, and inexorable. It is pointless to waste time trying to argue some logic or rationality into the equation. It's not that she doesn't know that starvation will kill her, or that she needs fat in her diet to live, or that no one needs to spend three hours at the gym every day to "stay in shape"; her disease isn't an affliction of ignorance, but one of unrelenting obsession. Focus instead on identifying the deeper issues—sources of stress, sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, or frustration—and try to separate them from the meals that must be consumed, regardless.
- As a parent, it is impossible to protect a child from every challenge that comes along, but you can be there to support her through each and every one. An eating disorder is no exception: it can permeate even the most devoted and protective family, but the chance of recovery is much greater with strong family support. There is a place beyond which you as a parent have no control; you can't do the recovery for your child but you can provide her with the tools and support she needs to recover.
- Remember, an eating disorder is a disease, not a phase she's going through or a choice she made. It is important to consider how a family dynamic may have contributed to its development and how to make any necessary changes.
- Nothing you do, no matter your intentions or the supporting research, is a sure thing. But try everything anyways. Exhaust every option, and run with the ones that seem to work. Every case is different, but there's hope for each one.
This is what we learned about recovery…
- Recovery is an ongoing process that requires constant work on a daily basis. When she leaves treatment, she might not be "cured" or "fixed"; the long haul that follows graduating from a treatment program is where your support makes all the difference.
- Unconditional support is the best thing you can give your child in recovery. No matter what other plans or desires you might have, your child's recovery must come first. You may have to make a sacrifice or two, but it might just save her life.
- Just as no one can recover from an eating disorder alone, no parent can shoulder the burden of their child's recovery alone. Be prepared to ask for help, to get vulnerable and be honest about what you need. Accept offers of help from friends, family, and the community, and you'll soon discover the incredible depth and breadth of the relationships that truly matter.
- Similarly, be upfront with other people in your life about your child's situation. Drop your pride or shame and be honest with your employers, your friends, your child's teachers and coaches, and so on about the situation. If you are upfront and honest, you will likely encounter much less resistance in getting what you need to support your child's recovery (i.e. time off, change in work schedule, adapted commitments, etc).
This is what we learned about maintaining relationships…
- Remember, the person coming out of treatment is the same person that went in—what's changed is her ability to cope with and further her understanding of her eating disorder.
- Take some time to reevaluate the nature of the relationships and the environment to which your child is returning after treatment. Does your home and family dynamic nurture her self-esteem, or her eating disordered obsession? Does her school provide a supportive environment, or is it a minefield of triggers like fat talk and fad diets? Are you spending enough time getting to know how supportive these people and places are?
- Be honest and upfront with your child about separating what's healthy for her, in recovery, versus what's healthy for you. For instance, jogging may be an essential part of your routine, but it may be hazardous to her newly regained health at this time; however, this doesn't necessarily mean you should forgo jogging for her sake—it's a normal part of your health regimen. Sacrificing your own health does nothing to help your child's recovery. Do your best to reflect reality, not a life limited to recovery.
- Maintain a loving relationship with your daughter, but be prepared to be the recovery sergeant who must defend your child's recovery at the times when she is too vulnerable to do so herself. This might mean putting your foot down about things like eating what's served for dinner rather than preparing her a separate meal, completing her meal plan, limiting her exercise, etc. There may be tears and tantrums, but she'll thank you for it later.
- Be receptive and sensitive to the things she says are triggers, and encourage discussions about how to make challenging situations easier. By fostering clear communication around her recovery, you'll help her learn that it's okay to be vulnerable and ask for help.
- Realize that as a parent, there are some things that you just can't say without causing upset or tension; she may only be able to hear such things from other people with whom the relationship dynamic is less intricate, such as a doctor, counselor, friend, or partner.
This is what we learned about meal support…
- Even after treatment, meals can be a major challenge. A few ways to alleviate some of the pressure include playing games like hangman as a distraction, putting part of the meal on a separate plate and removing it from the table until she's ready for it, steering conversation away from food and what others are eating, keeping meals ready in the freezer for easy preparation, and helping her plate her food when the task seems overwhelming.
- Especially in the early stages of recovery, obtain permission to discuss medical information with her doctor and other practitioners. It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to take responsibility for your child's health without full knowledge of her medical status and total cooperation with those overseeing her treatment. Be prepared to hold doctors and specialists accountable for their diagnoses; ask questions and make sure you fully understand their reports.
To this day, my eating disorder seems baffling at times, and my recovery, overwhelming. But those times are much fewer and far between, thanks to the family that never gave up on me. When times are tough, we know we can go back to what we know works for us - and I hope our insight can help you, too.