Eight years ago I finally faced up to the fact that all was not well with my beautiful 14-year-old daughter's health. She had over many months and in all reality a number of years been gradually changing her eating and exercise habits. I didn't want to see, I didn't want to name what I suspected was happening to my girl.
The numerous trips to the doctor, the hospital trips for any number of 'presenting' conditions hid from all of us -- family, doctor, friends, consultants -- the fact that my daughter was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa. I was witnessing the gradual diminishing of my daughter. Her weight, her energy, her vitality, her general well-being and health were not what they were. The lack of concentration, her mood swings, and her withdrawal from life were all the evidence I knew I needed.
What unfolded next is a mother's worst nightmare -- the fear, the guilt, the anxiety, the sadness, the anger, the distress, the desperation. My daughter was sick. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, the psychiatrist, the nutritionist, the psychotherapist, myself. I wanted to know why, I wanted to know how. This illness rocked our family to its foundation. My husband (at the time) was unable to come to terms with her illness. We have never spoken about it and are unlikely ever to do so. My sons were bewildered. The eldest (17 at the time) felt an enormous sense of guilt -- "if I'd been a better brother"... "if I'd been around more" ... "if I hadn't done as much sport" ... My youngest (8 at the time) withdrew completely, daydreamed his way through school and cried. His words still resonate, "I just want my sister back."
I carried the weight of not only her illness but the emotional turmoil it was causing in our family. I supported my sons and my wider family in their anxieties. I found some support amongst my friends and my sister, but felt completely isolated and alone.
One of the hardest issues I had to deal with was recognizing and understanding that I couldn't "fix" her. I couldn't make her better, I couldn't give her paracetamol or put a band-aid on a grazed knee. This illness was hers, not mine. She had to want to heal herself. In a way, I had to watch events unfold and be there with unconditional love for her at all times. When the rage came I stood and took the full force. When the tears came I sat and comforted. When the rejection of food came I suggested something else that might appeal. When the fear came I held her in my arms.
Friends and family asked me how I did it. How I coped day to day, week in week out, being constantly there for the family and my daughter. I'm not sure I had any other choice (yes of course we always have a choice, we can choose our attitude even when things seem impossible). I chose to get on with it. I chose to do all I could to be there for my family. I chose to allow my daughter to take control of her illness, her life.
I found a way to separate my daughter's identity, the real person, from the behavior, which was the illness. I coped with whatever the "behavior" threw at me. My daughter wasn't her behavior. Thinking back to how we parented when our children were young -- we loved the child but didn't like the tantrums. This is how I made sense of it in my head.
I now appreciate how resilient I am, how I bounce back after setbacks. I believe this is the case because I choose to live my life fully -- ups and downs. Even today, 8 years on from her diagnosis, and I struggle to write without tears. Anorexia lived in our house for some time, casting a heavy shadow. It moved on, my daughter is well and living her life having learned like all of us from the experience.
I originally wrote this post before Christmas when many of us come together to celebrate around the table, however, it's just as relevant during the summer when we spend time on holiday together. Take time this holiday to notice those around you. Be brave, have courage. If you have the slightest concern, talk to someone.
There is much to be written and shared on this subject, and this I know barely scratches the surface. How are you coping with caring for a loved one with an eating disorder?If you or someone you know needs help, call the ANAD helpline at 630-577-1330 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central).