The best gift I ever received was a pair of socks. A pair of socks doesn’t sound that spectacular, but let me explain. When my daughter was about 13, she stopped getting her period. She seemed very thin and had stopped eating certain things, plus she had started expressing a sudden, unusual interest in “eating healthy.” I took her to the pediatrician where we found that she was underweight, and she was told to gain weight. When she couldn’t/wouldn’t gain weight, she was diagnosed with having an eating disorder.
After the initial diagnosis we went down a rabbit hole of therapists, nutritionists, treatment options and eventually a psychiatrist. Most weeks I spent six or more hours taking her to appointments. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, returning to take care of the rest of my family and go to work. Fortunately I had a part-time job that allowed me carve out time for appointments, but I had no earthly idea what to do or how to help. Sometimes I prayed just one word, “Help.”
Books and articles I read attributed eating disorders to the environment as much as heredity, and often blamed the mother. This saddled me with incredible guilt that I had caused her eating disorder, or that I could have prevented it from happening. I was hoping a book would offer a secret that worked for someone else, but I stopped reading as it became harder to imagine the struggles of others when I couldn’t even deal with my own.
The stakes could hardly have been higher. I learned that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, with a death rate 10 to 12 greater than the normal population. It has adverse effects on the heart, brain, liver, intestines, kidneys and muscles. One in five anorexia deaths is by suicide. Malnutrition can lead to organ damage and bone loss/osteoporosis, while electrolyte imbalances can lead to irregular heartbeats and heart failure. Other problems include kidney failure, blocked intestines or liver problems.
As I watched my daughter lose more and more weight, my husband and I discussed the possibility of admitting her to an eating-disorder unit at a hospital. Her mental state had deteriorated as well. She spent nights crying at least three hours, while I stayed with her, watching helpless. Things got worse from there. I learned that depression and anxiety often accompany eating disorders; by being starved, the brain cannot rationally think anymore. In contrast to a child that is seriously ill but wants to get better, you are dealing with someone who is seriously ill but who is actively seeking to stay that way. Every step forward she took in recovery, she took two steps backwards.
After the initial diagnosis, I thought that the nightmare would be over in a year. I was very wrong. Months turned into years, and once we tackled one problem, another cropped up, like a horrifying, real-life whack-a-mole game.
I felt isolated and stressed because this was not my secret to share. If you have a child with a serious medical condition, you can share with friends and find a support network. I could not share with most people in my small town because I was afraid it would get back to my daughter, and that would make things worse. The stigma surrounding mental illness and eating disorders is real.
My daughter’s illness affected us all, and certainly our whole family could have benefited from therapy. At the time, it was hard to justify when I had just enough time and energy to get the basics done. In addition, we lived in a more rural area with no therapists who specialized in eating disorders or their effects on families. I would be adding another three hours per week for travel and appointments, which didn’t seem feasible.
My therapy became taking scalding hot baths and talking with my sister, who had always given prudent advice as I raised my kids. She listened to me, without judging, and that kept me sane. Once she sent bag of lavender scented bath salts. Another time, she sent me a pair of Wonder Woman knee socks, complete with a tiny cape on each one. In no way did I feel like Wonder Woman, but they meant so much to me. I kept them on my dresser to remind myself to put one foot in front of the other to help my daughter get through one day at a time.
Looking back now, and it seems like a terrible dream. After three and a half years, she beat her eating disorder, but will probably always be on medication for depression/anxiety. We are so grateful that she made a full recovery, but I can’t take the credit. She is the real Wonder Woman.
To any parent going through a similar situation, all I can say is that every situation is different. Don’t lose hope. Keep trying, and change things if they aren’t working. Also, try to find other people that have been through the same thing and ask them what was the turning point for them… what worked? Finally, take care of yourself and find your own support system, ideally someone who listens without judging and gives good advice.