Following is an excerpt from the book By Their Side: A Resource for Caretakers and Loved Ones Facing an Eating Disorder. The book is filled with personal anecdotes and helpful advice for parents who are facing a child’s eating disorder diagnosis and recovery.
An eating disorder? I didn’t even know what an eating disorder was! But what I did know was that something was not right with my child. Actually, something was terribly wrong!
A missed diagnosis
Her lips were blue—why was that? The pediatrician said the erratic behavior, crying, defiant reactions, odd immaturity, and withdrawal were just hormonal and that this, too, would pass. She actually commented on Sten’s weight loss and how she must have taken good care of herself that summer at camp.
“You look good,” she told Sten.
The pediatrician was wrong. It did not pass.
I have lived a colorful life, seen some of the worst the world has to offer, and experienced the best. Gifted with wisdom, experience, street smarts, and a strong female psyche, I was afraid of little. But this? This confused me.
I did get scared. I was afraid. I could not tap into my own wisdom for answers, and my forty-two years of experiences did not offer me any peace.
My young daughter, at thirteen years of age, was just as confused as I was. Neither of us had experience with anorexia, and neither of us knew the destructive, self-loathing force we were about to face!
The fog of guilt
For two years, I lived in a fog of guilt after my child was diagnosed with an eating disorder by a specialist and then hospitalized. I constantly questioned myself, wondering how in the world my child could have this problem: No, not my child. I know her better than anyone else on the earth. She’s complex, but no way could she have a mental disorder!
I’m a great mother. What did I do wrong? I have given all of myself to raising children. Our family is good, well respected, and resourceful. We functioned as a perfectly healthy family. I’m a really loving mom, and I have a grounded marriage and great kids. How could this have happened?
Well, it did happen, and sadly, I lost my confidence those two precious years to self-ridiculing guilt. All those things I’d wondered were from my misguided perspective on how I viewed my healthy life.
I was tight lipped about my daughter’s illness because I thought it would protect her from others’ judgment. I did not want her to be labeled. I was also hesitant to admit to my child’s illness, so I did not confide in friends or family.
I did not want to put this type of pain on my siblings, mom, or dad, so I pushed them away, acted strong, and thought I could fix my daughter’s issues because . . . for God’s sake, I was her mom.
I was scared. Scared to death of losing my child to anorexia, scared of losing my own self, and scared of life imploding around me. Internally, I was sad and constantly obsessing. I blamed my husband, I blamed family genetics, I blamed athletics and unprofessional doctors, dietitians, and teachers. I was lonely but wrote the loneliness off to being misunderstood.
My marriage was almost destroyed, and the way I handled—or should I say neglected—my other two children had moments of negative dysfunction. By being secretive about the illness, I was protecting my child’s reputation—or so I thought. Really, maybe I was worried about my own!
My feelings were real, but it was my perspective that kept the guilt alive. The guilt was about me! There was no need to air all our dirty laundry, but there was a desperate need to ask for help.
Asking for help
Then, finally, I realized there was no shame or weakness in asking for help. So I did. It was at that point that the hard work of healing began and I refocused my energy. I asked for help from friends, family, and professionals.
Just like my child and my family, I, too, began learning coping skills. That was twelve years ago.
Today, after family counseling and intense honesty, we are comfortable being not a perfect family but an honest, loving family. With hard work, our marriage has made it, and it is more robust and based in truth than before.
Yes, we had bruised hearts, and it hurt like hell—really hurt. But with commitment to genuine, unconditional love, we healed. And yes, there is scarring, but we’ve learned how to address the past blamelessly and honestly.
We were forced to dig deep into our psyches and sincerely lean upon our faith. Our love and respect for one another is far greater than it was a decade ago.
The aftermath of an eating disorder
Today, we are great together. We know more about who each of us really is and accept the differences, all while working to prop up one another’s hopes and dreams.
Our daughter, who battled a severe eating disorder for eight years, just graduated college and is living in another state, having fun, working full time, being social, interesting, and responsible, and enjoying a healthy life. There was a moment in time when her success was against all odds. But she beat the odds; we beat the odds, and we are better people for it.
Are we perfect? Absolutely not! There is no perfect. But we have forgiven each other, and we have forgiven ourselves.
—A once-scared mother
By Their Side: A Resource for Caretakers and Loved Ones Facing an Eating Disorder provides an excellent overview of what loved ones need to know about caring for someone who has an eating disorder. Written by a collection of families, friends, and healed advocates, it includes stories of what it’s like to love someone who has an eating disorder as well as helpful information about eating disorders and treatment options.