Once after writing about my own personal struggles with an eating disorder, I had a mother write this note* to me:
“I have a 27-year-old daughter who suffers from depression and an eating disorder. She recently moved far from me, but I remain her closest contact who knows of her struggles (other than online forums and eating disorder support groups). Since moving, she is purging all the time even in public restrooms. She is a student and also works as a nanny for several young children. She loves the babies and doesn’t want them to know of her struggles, so she escapes to public places to purge.
My daughter talks openly about this, but she doesn’t seem to want to get well. I think she equates getting better with getting fat. I’m so distraught and wondering what I can do to help my daughter. When I tell her she’s hurting her body and how unsafe it is to make herself throw up, she says she cannot control it. I’ve reached out to some close friends of mine and confided in them. A few people are disgusted by her behavior; many feel helpless in offering support. Most think my daughter must just pull her socks up and stop acting in this way. I know it’s not that simple, but I would love to discover a way to make her see that living is worthwhile and that she is a wonderfully beautiful person and will always be beautiful even if she gains weight. Please let me know if you have any suggestions to help me minister to my sick child.”
*I’ve changed some of the details to protect the privacy of this family.
This mother’s letter broke my heart and before I share my response to her in hopes that it might help another family touched by the pain of an eating disorder, I want to make it clear that I am not a psychologist, counselor, doctor, or any other kind of medical professional. I’m just an ordinary mom who has faced her own inner demons when it comes to food, body image, and longing to be someone different than the person I am by God’s design.
Although I’ve written openly about body image and my eating disordered past on this blog and elsewhere in recent years, I haven’t told the full story. I can’t tell it all today either because it really could be an entire book. Someday I’d like to maybe write a memoir, but it can be difficult to own up to my sickness and my irrational thoughts and unhealthy behavior as well as to face some painful pieces of my past.
All that said, I do want to share just a little insight though because it’s tempting for people to size me (and others up) based on our current appearance. If you know me in person or catch an occasional photo of me on this blog or on Facebook, you’ll see me either acting goofy and acting very carefree or sharing a confident smile because #1 I am goofy and #2 mostly I am a confident woman these days because I know God created me and loves me and I find great joy in my faith. It also doesn’t hurt that I have an amazing husband, three precious children, a wonderful extended family, and oodles of friends. In other words, I ought to be confident, if not grateful, for all of the blessings bestowed upon me. But this present-day image of me, smiling, beaming because I love my children and really, really love my life most of the time when I’m not caving in to my propensity toward melancholy, doesn’t tell the whole story. In my photos, in many of my words, and the way I present myself to others you won’t see the pudgy girl I once was, the girl who got teased and called Miss Piggy. It doesn’t make sense, but sometimes I still see her when I look in the mirror. Don’t we all sometimes see pieces of ourselves that we loathe? Most of us are pretty good at self-loathing – maybe not about our body but about something we don’t like about ourselves.
I first thought I was fat when I was nine. Yes, nine. It might have even been sooner, but the first real memory I have of feeling like I was covered in too much flesh unfolded around the time I was in the third grade. I also want to preface the advice that’s about to follow with this: I’d like to say I’m 100 percent over my eating disorder, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I used say my own struggles were like having a pebble in my shoe. I’d be walking about in life feeling good when I’d notice that stubborn stone poke at the flesh of my feet. I’d take off my shoe, try to shake it, and sometimes I’d think it was gone, but then I’d take a misstep and I’d feel it pricking my skin again. But I’m not sure if that’s the right analogy anymore. Because a pebble in your shoe always aggravates. It punctures. It’s a constant and sometimes painful reminder that you’re not walking comfortably.
However, in my ongoing recovery (or should I say restoration? I’m slowly restoring myself to become closer to my original creation, a loved and beautiful being body and soul who has goodness and worth at her very core no matter how she looks, no matter the stupid things that might tumble out of her mouth), I’ve had months, even a few years, when I haven’t thought (much) about my body or weight. I’ve relinquished control. I’ve eaten food and savored it without feeling guilty or indulgent. So, no, the pebble analogy isn’t quite right.
I’ve come to think of my hangups – and anyone’s addiction or hangups – more like the dead part of a garden. In my mind, there’s a garden. Most of it is lush, fruitful, but there’s a shady spot. This is where discontentment, self-doubt, body hatred, self hatred reside. I can choose to go there just as I can choose to bask in the sun, to notice the beauty and the growth instead of the decay and the stagnancy.
What we must remember is that it is our choice.
No one can drag us kicking and screaming or crying or even dying out of the shadows into that place of beauty. We have to decide to go there, and we have to decide to walk away from the darkness into the light. It’s scary, especially when we feel more comfortable trying to be thin. How can we live without dieting or purging or eating too much or too little when this has been a part of us for so long?
I know that this isn’t what this poor mother wants to hear. She wants to be able to fix her daughter’s eating disorder. She wants to love her enough to save her. But her daughter has to first want to save herself.
That’s the difficult news to shoulder.
But there’s good news, too. There are some things we can do to help loved ones who might be struggling with an eating disorder or a food addiction.
Here’s some of what I shared with this hurting mother:
- Food and the desire to be thin is not at the heart of your daughter’s illness. I used to think I was only afraid of getting fat. I didn’t want to get better either. Like your daughter, I equated recovery with letting myself go. But what I was really afraid of was not being loved and not being in control. When life turned tops turvy, there was always the scale to give me some equilibrium. I could not make people love me. I could not make my children behave the way I thought they should. But I could refuse to eat. It’s very difficult to recover from any addiction that involves food because you have to learn to have a healthy relationship with food. An alcoholic can give up booze, but we have to eat to live. In order to make peace with food, your daughter must address underlying problems. An eating disorder is not only a problem, but it’s a solution to a problem or problems. Why does she feel like she has to hurt herself? Why is she so afraid of getting fat? A professional counselor could help her answer these questions. You might be able to help, too. But maybe not. Your daughter is ultimately responsible for her recovery. Also, it’s important to realize that a diagnosis of an eating disorder often does not coincide with a sufferer’s willingness to get help. The first step is identifying there’s a problem, but this may not mean that your child will get treatment and will magically be recovered. It’s a process – sometimes an agonizingly slow one.
- Which brings me to my second bit of advice: Please keep in mind that eating disorders are like any other addiction – you confront the sick person (also known as intervention), let them know you love them, and then you have to release them into God’s care and take a step back. While I encourage you to continue to support and love your daughter and communicate your concern for her, please do not take responsibility for her sickness. Ultimately, you have no power over whether she gets well or not. As a mother, I can’t imagine how difficult accepting this must be. Mothers take care of their children. We’re supposed to be able to make the hurt go away, but sometimes we’re left feeling powerless as we watch our children hurt themselves and suffer. We can not force them to get better. We don’t have control over the situation, but we do have some power. We have the power to pray. We have the power to dole out love and support. We have the power to take care of ourselves.
- When you do express concern, try to avoid using accusatory “you” statements like “you’re too thin” or “you’re going to hurt yourself.” Instead, try saying, “I think you’re out of control. “I think you’re really hurting yourself, and I am concerned about your future. Let’s get some help.” Try also not to focus on the eating, her weight, or her purging. I imagine your daughter is experiencing some profound pain right now. As I previously mentioned, her behaviors aren’t really about her fear of getting fat or food. I could guess it’s more about her fear of not being accepted or loved or no longer being in control. Send her letters, emails, etc. that remind her of your love for her. Remind her that there’s so much more to life – and her – than her body size. Ask her to get help. And then pray she is ready to be healed.
- Don’t rehash the past. You cannot rewrite history. As parents, we so often want to identify the scapegoat for our children’s struggles. Maybe if I’d loved her more she wouldn’t be at this unhealthy place. But you can’t beat yourself up. We don’t have as much control over our children’s temperaments, futures, pains, and joys as we’d like to think. In addition, there’s a growing body of research that suggests the development of eating disorders is genetic and not simply a product of a child’s upbringing or home environment. Remember how I talked about what is in your power to do? Well, you have the power to free yourself from the burden of why. Why did this happen? Why did my child develop an eating disorder? There are no black and white answers, and figuring out the “why” isn’t as important as you might think. Let it go. Let the guilt go. Don’t look back, but set your eyes forward on what’s to come. Take your daughter’s hand, and help her begin the walk into a healthy, happy future. But remember there will be trips and falls. The road to wholeness is always under construction. It may be helpful for you and your daughter to make sense of how her past shaped her, but it’s counter-productive to linger or hyper-analyze that past. Remember, we are blessed with the ability to change and to grow. There is hope for something new and better. Cling to that hope.
- Don’t give up on your daughter or more importantly, your faith in God’s healing power to save. One of the reasons I finally accepted help was because my family continued to get through to me and to deliver the same messages over and over that they loved me and were worried about me. They didn’t give up on their love for me, the saving power of God, and they didn’t give up on me. They also didn’t judge. Although they could not understand why I was doing what I was doing or why I felt the way I did, they didn’t criticize me. They accepted my feelings. They kept caring even when I didn’t want their concern. And my mom especially prayed a lot. She still does.
Finally, I have to reiterate that your daughter needs professional help. She may even require medical care if the purging has become severe and/or she’s dropped a significant amount of weight. The National Eating Disorders Association has a confidential, toll-free information and referral helpline (1-800-931-2237).Your daughter is not alone. Neither are you. You have my prayers.
If anyone else out there has dealt with a loved one having an eating disorder or has personally struggled with one and has wisdom to share, I’d love to hear from you. Blessings!