My Daughter Had an Eating Disorder at 10: 'You Feel Like You're Free Falling'

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Lisa with her daughter Zadie. Photo courtesy of Lisa LaBorde.

To help raise awareness as part of National Eating Disorders Week (Feb. 22–28), Yahoo Parenting is featuring a pair of mother-daughter essays. This one, as told to and edited by Beth Greenfield, is by Toronto-based lawyer Lisa LaBorde, whose now 14-year-old daughter Zadie was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 10. Read Zadie’s story here.

She was still 9 when I first noticed an almost imperceivable personality shift that only a parent would pick up. She was a little crankier, and her set point is easy, easy, easy — the easiest kid. Zadie’s always been just lightness and good and easy. But she’d have these little meltdowns. And I thought, that’s odd. But you explain it away.

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But then we were going bathing suit shopping and it was taking forever, she couldn’t make up her mind, enough that I noted it. She started complaining of headaches and tummy aches, and I would get calls from school that she wanted to come home at lunch because her stomach was hurting. I took her to the doctor, and everything was fine. Then one day she was exercising — I heard a bang from downstairs and went down and she had a five-pound weight in her hand. I was like, “What are you doing?” She didn’t do it again, but something went off in my head. I thought it was odd.

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[My partner and I] have a totally feminist perspective [about body image]: We don’t own a scale — I don’t think my older daughter has ever weighed herself other than at the doctor — and we have few mirrors. I’ve never been on a diet in my life, never commented on my weight or my size, and she sees a range of women, there are no size comments. I mean, we’re the poster kids for raising healthy bodies. She’s the kid of lesbians! I come from a culture where there’s no thin-ideal focus, so she doesn’t get it anywhere.

What I knew about eating disorders was stereotypical — that it was the after-school special, type-A personality, and maybe some control. I’d have thought that it would come later, and that it would be a kid who exhibited some of that type-A personality, which Zadie does not. But when she stopped eating and not weighing as much, I asked the doctor, “Do you think it’s an eating disorder?” And he said no because he looked at her BMI [body mass index]. So even when she dropped weight and had fallen off her own growth curve, she was okay by BMI terms. So they didn’t catch it — also because she was so young. But by this point the kid has her coat on all the time (it’s May), she’s having a hard time with school, and she’s not happy anymore.

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Zadie with her moms. Photo courtesy of Lisa LaBorde. 

I remembered reading a New York Times article years before about a new treatment for eating disorders. I searched it, and it was by Harriet Brown, about Family Based Treatment, which is now the first-line best practice for adolescents. With it, parents are put in charge of feeding and nutritional rehabilitation, and it’s the first order of business. From there I found a website giving parental support and I read everything. Then I took her out of school and we went for lunch. She picked up a piece of pizza and she put it down, and I watched as something washed over her face and she said, “I can’t.” And I knew. I said, “We’re done.”

We went back to the family doctor, I told her she had to tell them everything and she did, and they said, “Yes.” They put her on a waiting list for treatment. Because I wasn’t able to access the services we needed, I took it upon myself to take her down to the emergency room every day she didn’t eat. I was like, “Basically you’re telling me to go home and watch my child die because there aren’t enough beds?” And they were like, “Yeah.” We went home and I just started trying to feed her. I knew she had to have three meals and three snacks, and every day that she didn’t I took her to the emergency room, where they gave her fluids or Boost or Ensure.

But she plummeted. The more I tried to get her to eat, the more she fought me on it, and she just stopped eating. I knew that might happen but I just kept reinforcing that she needed to eat. Finally she was admitted to the hospital because she’d become acute: Her standing blood pressure was so low that she would faint, she couldn’t walk far, and she was at risk of heart failure. Her diagnosis was anorexia. She was 10. She was a little baby. I think she was afraid. But she was not in right mind by that point — she was malnourished — so it’s hard to know what she was thinking.

I think Zadie was pre-disposed — it was a biological brain disorder, and if she loses weight she could be back there again. It’s the losing weight that triggers the biological response. The body dysmorphia and anxiety are the symptoms, and what triggered the symptoms in Zadie was the loss of weight. Some studies now are finding that the brains of anorexics are different, and that when they start restricting they can actually feel better, whereas most people feel worse. So then there’s no incentive to eat more on their own.

Initially, I thought there would be a psychological component [of her treatment], not fully understanding the new model. But Family Based Treatment is not therapy. [Proponents] take a pretty agnostic stance as to the cause, while the focus is on treatment, which is first and foremost nutritional rehabilitation — the full amount of calories they need daily. It’s behavioral, and very hard to do when they have so much anxiety over eating. You’re exposing them to food and also disrupting all the symptoms. With Zadie there was a lot of OCD behavior — body checking in the mirror, taking pictures of various body parts, OCD thinking is a huge part of it for her. I stopped working and the whole day was getting her to eat. And our vigilance went on for a good two years. [At first] we aimed to put two pounds a week on her, and if she refused her meal we would go to the hospital and get a NG-tube meal though her nose. It was necessary for her to know she had no other possible option but to eat.

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Zadie today. Photo courtesy of Lisa LaBorde.

Until being connected to a specialized program, you feel like you’re free falling. It’s like the illness is overwhelming. And there’s a lot of really bad information out there that psychoanalyzes it, and doesn’t treat it as a medical or brain issue. Yes, it has a psychological component, but so does schizophrenia, and you don’t really therapize someone out of being schizophrenic. It’s a complex mix of biological, genetic, and psychological factors and the old information is that the eating disorder is something that came out of dysfunctional family dynamic, and often they’ll separate the child from the parent. It’s old thinking, but a lot of it is still prevalent. Battling misinformation has been the hardest part.

When a parent comes in to the doctor and says, “There’s a problem,” we’re probably right. We’re canaries in the coal mine. But doctors don’t get much training on eating disorders. People think they’re complex and weird, and they don’t want to make a diagnosis, so we lost months — feeling like something was wrong but with no one naming what’s wrong. But if there’s a blessing to her being so young, we’ve got lots of time before she’s independent, and lots of time for her to learn to cook for herself and learn how to maintain recovery. She’s going to have to learn to eat by rote through anxiety. But it would be no different than if she had diabetes and we’d have to manage it throughout he life. That’s kind of how I spin it to her, and it’s how she understands it. Her recovery is something she’s got to work to maintain.

Parents: If you notice something, pay attention to it. A growing child shouldn’t be losing weight. And if your pediatrician is saying it’s okay, get a second opinion. Watch eating. Note if there are struggles around it. And get support. I couldn’t have done it without FEAST (Families Empowered & Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders) and the support of other parents. The parent forum sustained me and guided me through. Families need to know that recovery is possible, even probable, and that their involvement will be vital.

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