My Missing Child: Anorexia from a Mother’s Perspective

Author: Nancy L., mother of a young woman who is recovering from anorexia

One day, in April of 2016, I looked at my beautiful, successful, funny, loving, caring 15-year-old daughter and saw an anxious, angry and depressed skeleton.  How did this happen?  What is going on?  Disbelief one minute – terror the next. Immediately I went into action as she asked for lettuce for dinner or chewed her food and spit it out.  I didn’t have any clue what was ahead for us – or how inadequate the treatment is that is available for her. Not only was the treatment ineffective for her, but also each option that I had researched contradicted the other available options; all of this just added to the sheer insanity of the illness.  We need advocates for eating disorders – why are there no commercials on tv?  Why are eating disorders so prevalent in our teens and young adult and yet we are ashamed to talk about them. Ashamed. There is  a stigma around this puzzle of mental illnesses.  Something has to change.  I hope that making donations to bEAT or F.E.A.S.T. helps – we need help.

There was something in the back of my mind in early April – something nagging at me that my daughter wasn’t “right”.  She got upset with a 98 on an exam.  She stayed up until 2:00 a.m. finishing a school project to make certain she had an A.  After practice one day she was angry and sounded confused when she was speaking – what?  What’s going on? 

My mother passed a comment a few weeks ago, “[Jane], do you have anorexia?”. I wrote that off as a critical grandparent – not able to be happy that my daughter successfully, by herself, was able to eat healthy and exercise and lose those 10 extra pounds. [But, I was wrong].

My daughter seemed to have it all: a peaceful home, friends, family that love her, successful academics (awards and high honors classes) and 3 sports in freshmen year – and a varsity letter for one.  She is an elite athlete.  Oh – did I say, “is” – I mean to say “was” as the eating disorder, in just 4 months, had convinced her that she is no longer successful. She is quitting her favorite sport – the one she has played successfully (to this day, even in the eating disorder) since she was 4 years old.  She had so many plans for the summer – all erased like on a big white board with the eating disorder eraser.

The eating disorder has taken over my daughter.  Her anxiety (which was always there appropriately before events – like big tests or the talent show or big games) has now dictated what she does or doesn’t do each day.  I’d like to say that over the last 3 months in treatment, she has good signs of progress [and] recovery.  This isn’t [to say that] her health has returned.  There are glimmers of the child that used to be, and we are trying each day to create a new life – one with purpose and a sense of well-being.  She has returned to a healthy weight. The first step is physical as this is the worst [part of the] mental health problem – one that all the literature tells us is potentially deadly as these kids either commit suicide or die from the physical side effects (heart problems and more). 

***

Anorexia – really?  I can still hardly believe it as I live with it every day.  A very dark energy has come into my home and taken the child that was [once] there – taken over.  Even the dog is upset each day.  She cries.  My daughter still has panic attacks (they told me [the  panic attacks] would leave when she was out of malnourishment.  Then, when they didn’t, they told me they would leave when she was weight restored.  [The attacks never left].)

Are you a parent who has cautioned your child not to eat that extra bowl of ice cream or that brownie?  I did – all the time.  I thought “healthy eating” was fruits and vegetables, protein, whole grains.  This is how [the Eating Disorder] started. 

Yup – my daughter is a perfectionist.  So when those 10 pounds came off, and she received one complement after another, and her running was improved, and she felt great in her clothes, she kept going, to the point where she was severely malnourished in a very short time.  Now the food plan she follows is rich in calories, sugar…all the foods we avoided.  This is restoring her to physical health, and I am so grateful we are eating together – as slowly as it is. 

They say this is a disease of control: the person with the eating disorder feels that the food is one thing they can control (through restriction – like my kid – or binge eating or purging).  I know that  [this] is completely true – but what to do about this?  I believe she was experiencing such bad anxiety that the restricting gave her a sense of comfort – indeed something she can control.  And, she is not a talker: she likes to try to figure it all out herself.  They say that she has constant voices in her head telling her that she is not good enough (especially when she is eating).  I know that is completely true – she told me that is true – but what to do about THIS? 

Her dad doesn’t really believe this is happening; [he thinks]that she is ‘faking’ it. I totally understand that belief as I want her to be faking it: how can someone be so happy and successful one month and, then, appear that they cannot function [the next]?  But this is anorexia. 

They say that this mental illness has the highest relapse rate.  I believe that too.  But what to do about that?  I have bought and read every book on Amazon – “Brave Girl Eating” was my bible – my companion – a complete picture of my life with my daughter.  Now that she is weight restored, her control is exhibiting itself by finding a comfortable place in depression. She doesn’t talk to anyone or participate in her life – for sure, a false sense of safety as this is a very dangerous place for her to be.  But what to do about it? 

Mental health treatment is really poor – and we live in the wealthiest part of the nation with incredible health services available to us.  I shudder each morning as I work in Newark and see the homeless men and women who predominantly have mental health issues (untreated or poorly treated).  They had moms – who probably worried through high school and probably tried to find resources and health.  Is this the future for my daughter?  Is this her path?  Some moments I think so. Other moments I just move forward to the next right thing.

If I could tell you that we sought medical help, and she is getting better, that would be a lie.  On July 14, 2016, I wrote, “[Jane]– She smiles a lot of the time now.”  That was short-lived and isn’t happening anymore. 

Her heart rate and vital signs are all healthy now!  That is the first step.  We have followed everything that her treatment plan has put forth, beginning with 8 days in the hospital, then partial hospitalization (not returning to school was so hard – or not returning to her day-to-day life was so hard. Okay we were in mourning about the loss of who this child was just in March of 2016.)  We have sat for hours upon hours eating each meal – dinner has gone from 1.5 to 3 hours some nights as she eats a burrito (something I can finish in 15 minutes, [something] she loved in March).  She is struggling.  She is not getting emotionally or spiritually better.  The doctors appointments increase.  I do know for certain that everyone on her “team” cares about her and wants her to get well.  But she hasn’t – not yet –, and will she ever?  She has given in to the eating disorder – for today. 

I feel like a frantic mother at this time: I have prayed, I have cried, I have yelled; I have called every treatment center, doctor and caregiver. I have made certain that someone sits with her and eats each meal. I have taken her on a trip and when we arrived home I kissed the ground – we made it.  We celebrate each small success.  I make gratitude lists.  I have made many mistakes as this is a battle that is much bigger than any of the challenges that I have had in the past.  I have raged and cried so hard in the car I had had to pull over.   I have yelled, thinking that the loud voice would be  heard over the eating disorder.  And right now – just this day – she has given up.  I haven’t.  I just got new resolve.  I looked into Anorexia/Bulimics Anonymous – a tough group of folks dedicated to recovery through the 12 steps!  They said that anorexia is just like addiction – okay, but what should I do about that?

They say I should leave my job – okay, I’m a single mom – then what?  And what if I do that and she remains sick? 

I want to give you a message of hope.  I have seen and heard about others who recover – I thought and prayed and hoped that my daughter would be one….and each day I look for signs of recovery and like a parent who has a child gone missing (because that is exactly what has happened – my child has gone missing), I don’t give up.  But I would not be authentic if I said all is well after 3 months. 

But, it’s a beautiful summer morning.  My child is ill.  I will continue to pray and find the next right thing to do for her.  Will she die from anorexia?  Maybe.  But if she does, I will know that I have done everything possible to help her live.

-Nancy L.

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