This post was written by a former colleague, whom I can’t thank enough for sharing this very personal, heartbreaking essay. It touches on some of my deepest fears as a mother, so I appreciate the hard honesty of this piece. I will quietly bear witness to your brokenness, my friend, and I will hope.
It felt like a punch in the gut.
“Sometimes, I wish I had that.”
That was the reaction of a friend on finding out that our daughter has Anorexia. This is a close and dear friend who admittedly has struggled with weight issues, so I took a breath and smiled. But this, dear friend, is why you do NOT wish you had this disorder.
Anorexia kills. It kills a lot. It is, in fact, the deadliest mental disorder in existence. Overall it increases the likelihood of death by nearly six fold, more than Schizophrenia, more than Bipolar Disorder. My daughter was diagnosed when she was 16 so she’s even more at risk. According to Web MD, that makes her 10 times more likely to die early than the general population. The most likely cause: Suicide.
She has the trifecta of bad: Depression, anxiety disorder, and an eating disorder. Imagine a world where you are so anxious you have panic attacks, where you are depressed out of your mind because you are so anxious, and where voices scream in your head. That’s the world of my daughter. Every day we fight a battle for her soul.
Every waking moment we live with the fact that our baby is under a death sentence. Every sharp knife, razor blade and prescription pill in our house is under lock and key. Every morning we get up and check our daughter’s breathing to make sure she didn’t find a way in the night to end her life. We live in terror of the time she spends alone.
We have many well-meaning friends and relatives who try to buoy our spirits with encouraging statements. We totally get that they are trying to help, but if you know someone who has a child with an eating disorder, there are a few things you need to know to support them, and a few things you should be warned not to say.
“She looks great.”
Yes, our daughter looks like the picture of health, and that’s good. You can no longer see her cheek bones etched in her face. When a woman faces starvation, the first thing the body shuts down is the reproductive cycle. She has come back from early starvation enough so that she has her period. That is a major victory.
The process to get her back to health was crushing. We had to find a way to get 3,000 to 5,000 calories of food into her, into a girl that thinks celery is a full meal and who would go all day without eating. We rubbed her back while she had panic attacks between bites. We spent hours and days off of work getting her to and from the hospital and various doctor and counseling appointments. We cried ourselves to sleep on many nights.
And the daily cost to keep her fed is enormous. Every meal is a battle for her – not with us, but with her eating disorder. We set a timer for an hour, a deadline that she hardly ever makes, and she spends two hours trying to beat back the voices in her head that are screaming at her that she is ugly, pathetic, and will never be loved until she meets an impossible standard of beauty. Until, in short, she looks like a concentration camp prisoner. Until she is dead.
In family therapy, they name the eating disorder as the villain, not the parents. The reasons they give are that science doesn’t know what causes the disorder and it isn’t productive to blame the parents. But we know. We spend six hours every day watching the damage we have done to our child come out. We put on calm but implacable faces to be tough to the eating disorder but empathetic to our child.
But every time she looks like she is going to vomit if she takes another bite, every time she cries, every time she closes her eyes and screams back at the voices it’s a knife in your chest. We spend six hours a day reliving every fight we’ve had with her, every unkind word, every thoughtless action, wondering how we could have gotten it so impossibly wrong. There is nothing we wouldn’t give to be able to go back and fix this.
But you can never show your pain. There isn’t any room for your pain, only hers. There is no room for anything, not your marriage, not your friends, not your family. There is only the relentless war, the struggle to get enough calories in your child to keep her alive, the fight against this monster. There is only the knowledge that if you falter, even a little, your precious child could die.
So, how do you help? What do I need?
I need for something in my life NOT to be about my daughter, if even for 5 minutes.
I need you to understand how broken I am. I am watching my baby go through hell and I can’t protect her. You have no idea how helpless that makes me feel, and how worthless.
I need to tell you that I feel like an abject failure as a parent without you feeling the need to deny it. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it matters that I feel it to the core of my being.
Please don’t tell me it will be all right. You don’t know that. I don’t know that. Most of all, my child can’t see that.
I just need someone I care about to sit with me, hold my hand and be a silent witness to my brokenness. This sucks and I’m not prepared for it. No one is prepared for it. Nothing can make it right. Surround me with your care and tell me you love me. I need that because right now because I can’t love myself.
So dear friend, I don’t wish you had an eating disorder. If you did I would have to be strong for you, and there is just no room for that.