Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating that some readers may find distressing.
Teenagers will be teenagers, right?
When you first suspect that something’s “going on” with your teenager, you almost can’t believe it. And you probably don’t want to believe it. You might have noticed that their behaviour is different, or they seem to be struggling with feelings, anxiety, or something else. It’s natural to put some changed behaviours down to them simply being teenagers, but most of us know in our gut when something’s not right.
Today, I want to share a personal story with you. With my daughter’s permission, I want to tell you how my family and I navigated recent challenges. I’ve spent the last few weeks reflecting on feelings that had been stirring up inside of me for months. And so, I’ve tried to tell my story in a way that honestly explains how I felt, as a mother, when my daughter became unwell, and I found my life spiralling in a very unexpected way. It has also been now 2 years since the eating disorder started to present itself, perhaps another reason for my time of reflection. But for now let me take you back.
My daughter has anorexia
During COVID lockdown our eldest daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder. Anorexia. That one word which signifies a debilitating disorder. Anorexia meant that for my daughter, eating – or not eating – seemed to be controlled by another force. An unwelcome, unbearable force that was ever-present in all our lives. A force that caused devastating havoc in the mind of my beautiful and very-loved daughter as well as dominating almost every aspect of my family’s life.
Despite the fact that I am a trained, practicing counsellor, I’m not telling you this story to educate you about this eating disorder. Instead, I want to tell you how it felt to navigate these stormy waters. Written from my perspective. A mother’s perspective. And remember, I am simply one mother, and my experience will be different from others. I’m also acutely aware that my experience may be vastly different from others who may have lost a loved one to the illness or may have battled this illness for many years. And some who will still be in the trenches. My heart goes out to those people. We still live with a very real fear that this awful force could emerge again and it’s something we will be mindful of for a long time.
I am fortunate that my child is currently in recovery and is now thriving in all areas of her life. But I’m not going to sugar coat it, getting to this point was a harrowing experience, and it continues to be an up and down journey.
What is anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is a psychological illness that has distressing physical consequences. People who suffer with anorexia usually (but not always) display an obsessive fear of gaining weight, and therefore try to deprive their bodies of food. They may also increase exercise with the aim of reducing weight.
The prevalence of eating disorders in both male and females is high. Too high. The number of people presenting with the illness was already growing at an alarming rate pre-pandemic. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence and severity of eating disorders has significantly worsened, along with other mental health illnesses.
With experience as a counsellor in a large public secondary school and in my private practice, I continue to see the negative effects of the lockdowns on mental health. And the challenges of re-engaging back into society in the aftermath is just as challenging (this may be another blog post).
All mental health conditions can cause severe emotional, behavioural and physical health problems. However, it’s worth noting that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. With the condition increasing in frequency and having such dire outcomes, anorexia is a fierce opponent.
What anorexia meant for my family
Anorexia was a frequent unwanted visitor in our home for a long 18 months. Its presence was not welcome. Early on, I made the decision to separate anorexia – the condition – from my child and soon was able to see when anorexia had overpowered her. As a family, we needed to learn how to create boundaries with anorexia and enforce them. Not as easy as it sounds when you consider that enforcing any form of control over anorexia also involves the child that anorexia has attached to.
I could see the struggle at the dinner table, watching her look at the plate with part of her wanting to eat, knowing that she needed to. Yet, another part, anorexia, would quickly take hold and I could only imagine the words she must’ve heard in her head that were being used to persevere against eating. This turmoil my child endured daily, was immensely upsetting to watch. It must’ve been torture for her to endure.
Hugs were rejected with force, defiance in refusing to eat, verbal attacks were common and there was even physical fighting against the gentle restraint her dad and I used to help her get through a meal. I’ll interject here and state that as part of the therapeutic path it is recommended that you do what it takes to enforce eating routines and amounts. The family needs to be in control and involved for there to be change and success. It was at times excruciating. We were linked in with specialised services who provided the guidelines and support.
What my daughter’s battle with anorexia taught me
Let me start by reiterating that I’m a qualified counsellor and predominately work with young people. I have the perfect balance of working part-time in a secondary school and part-time in my private practice. In my work at school, I regularly see kids dealing with self-harm, body image disorders, anxiety, stress and disordered eating. I know how to sit with young people in distress, work through risk assessments, and talk to parents/ carers about further support and resources.
This can be quite taxing, sitting with such sad stories and assisting in change. But as a professional, I’ve learned coping mechanisms to deal with it and it’s always been worth it to know that I’m making a real difference in their lives.
However, my internal dialogue shifted when it was my child that was suffering. I had moments of wondering whether I’m in fact in the right job? Whether I was really making a difference or if I’d failed as a counsellor as well as a mum. All of which was very unsettling, until I worked through it and identified that these doubts stemmed from fear.
My biggest fear was not being able to help my child.
Knowing what I know, and given the profession I’m trained in – how was it possible that I had a child who was not well, who was struggling with distress, anxiety, and loss of control? This wasn’t how it was meant to be.
I needed to become aware of my thinking and my feelings and acknowledge them. I had to acknowledge when I was nearing the end of my capacity to cope, and when I could take more on. I needed to get out of my way, to go past the fear and be the one who would battle anorexia with my child. She couldn’t do this on her own. And as a family, we needed to come together and be on the same page.
How my other daughter coped with her sister’s condition
My husband and I have two children. Two clever, wonderful girls. So, as we began to navigate what it meant to have a child who had anorexia, we also had to ensure that our younger daughter was okay. One agonizing moment happened when our youngest questioned me about what was happening to her sister. She’d noticed her sister was less patient with her than normal and knew something wasn’t right. She said, “I don’t want to see my sister slowly killing herself” with tears streaming down her face in shock and hurt for her sister.
This statement from my then 11-year-old hit me like a punch in the guts. Up to that point I hadn’t allowed myself to think about the worst-case scenario, but she was 100% right. I was flabbergasted by her accuracy, and proud of her remarkable perception. After all, until that point, all I’d mentioned was that her sister had an eating disorder and we thought it might be anorexia. (She had not been formally diagnosed at this stage). My beautiful girl immediately headed to her sister’s room to show her support and they talked. It was a bitter-sweet time for me. Every mother wants their children to get along, but it felt so sad that it took this to bring them closer together in that moment.
My youngest empathetically gained a deeper understanding and was able to differentiate the anorexia from her sister. Thankfully that meant she tried not to take hurtful comments to heart, knowing that the battle with a mental illness takes its toll on everybody who gets in its way.
I was also very proud that our youngest sought out body-positive social media influencers. Knowing how young brains (in particular) are affected by body image and self-worth, she thoughtfully managed the flood of social media posts and became aware of its effects.
Repeated open conversations with her offered me an insight into how she was working through having anorexia in the home. And I was proud of how well she coped. That didn’t mean I was able to relax completely. I was acutely aware she might feel like she was receiving less attention, mainly due to exhaustion on our part, as her dad and I were mentally and emotionally drained trying to stay one step ahead of the eating disorder. I made a concerted effort to spend quality time with her which of course was just as beneficial for me.
Anorexia and its effect on my relationship with my husband
As you may imagine the news of our daughter’s eating disorder was also hard on my husband. Initially, I don’t think he truly comprehended the severity of the condition. I believe he thought that she’d be fine, and just needed a few tweaks to get her eating properly again. And as a ‘glass half full’ type of person, it was hard for him to process that life as we knew it wouldn’t be back to “normal” very soon.
When we chose to engage in counselling for our daughter, we also elected to attend sessions ourselves. We received information about what our daughter might be struggling with and education on eating disorders. Although counselling helped, we both still went through stages of denial, anger, upset, and bargaining. We suffered loss, momentarily losing part of our child. There were many challenging times as we were both emotionally drained and all our energy was consumed with our daughter and anorexia. We both worked and needed to take time off occasionally to try and recalibrate.
While we tried to maintain communication with each other, our relationship suffered. Emotions would implode and explode creating friction. However, we both knew that we needed to prioritise our daughter during this time. We tried to make sure that we got to step out for breathing space occasionally so we could come back stronger and ready to take on anorexia. Thankfully our relationship has a strong foundation, and we were able to rise to the challenge and remain intact. I was, and continue to be, so grateful for his strength and support during such a testing time.
Anorexia’s effect on my life outside of home
While I’m talking about relationships, I must admit I was surprised by anorexia’s reach beyond my home life. During this time when I was feeling very vulnerable, I opened up to people around me for support. Some of them checked in to see how I/we were coping, and I shall be eternally grateful for those people. Others surprised me. Despite telling them about the struggles we as a family were having, I didn’t hear from them. I appreciate it was a hard time for everyone as we were living through COVID lockdowns and adjusting to life in a pandemic. It seemed everyone’s mental health was affected in some way, for some more than others. But as I was struggling to keep my daughter from relapsing/regressing or developing new unhealthy behaviours, I must admit there were times that I was lonely in my world.
I could justify their position and I knew there may have been reasons for their silence, but I was also disappointed and sad that people weren’t there, despite me reaching out and letting them know I was finding it hard. It might be that I wasn’t heard in way I thought I was expressing myself. Maybe people just presumed that I’d be okay, perhaps, because of the work I do? I’m sure some knew that I’d keep going and get through it. Which I did and have. But I still felt isolated and needed to lean on others in order to prop myself back up for the next battle.
This experience has reinforced the concept that it’s hard to truly understand a situation until you’ve been through it. Yet, empathy is a thing. Checking in shows you care. Even having something small dropped at the door makes us feel acknowledged, appreciated and less alone. Small, thoughtful acts can lift someone’s spirits. We all need to know that someone cares and is there for us when we need them. With so much education around mental health, I believe this is well known. However, I don’t begrudge anyone. After all. the pandemic didn’t allow for much more than providing for our own and I know that we need to fill our own cups first.
Our tips for surviving life with anorexia
I’d like to finish up with a few tips that worked for us as a family to beat anorexia in round 1. In fervent hope that there’s no round 2.
If you recognise any changes in a family member around eating behaviours, attitude toward self and food, including language differences, or general mood, please start a conversation about what you’ve noticed. Eating disorders don’t want to be seen or known, and they will usually be met with denial. Keep monitoring and if your suspicions continue to cause concern, then contact the services that I’ve listed below. Early intervention is vital.
This list is based on what I did when I noticed signs of changed eating behaviours and heightened anxiety levels in my teenage daughter.
- Build your team of professionals. This is important for the whole family.
- Contact your GP for an assessment – ideally find a GP who knows about eating disorders (ED).
- Contact Eating Disorders Victoria and/or the Australian Centre for Eating Behaviours (ACFEB) for direction on what you can do.
- When making an appointment with an eating disorder specialist, there will most likely be a waiting list. I strongly recommend you link in with a counsellor or psychologist as soon as possible. Counsellors work with the presenting issues and can support you until you get an appointment with the psychiatrist/psychologist. The counsellor’s role will not be to diagnose the condition, but to help you deal with the emotional distress.
- Make an appointment with a dietician. Some ED clinics will have a multifaceted team of psychiatrists, psychologists and dieticians. Again, if there’s a waitlist, book a dietician who has experience in ED behaviours. It’s better to deal with someone who has the knowledge to start building an eating plan.
- Engage with the child’s school to make them aware of what’s happening. When the brain is starved, learning is harder. Ask teachers to modify their teaching/expectations for the time being.
- With your consent, allow, or encourage the professional team to discuss your child’s case with each other. This allows them to identify roles (i.e. know who’s doing what) and what the treatment goal is.
- Keep doing fun things! Your child is still there and will show themselves and in those moments you’ll feel like all the hard work is worth it.
- Reach out to friends and if you need them, let them know. They may not know what to say or do, but just having people there can offer you the added strength to keep fighting anorexia.
Thank you for reading to the end, I truly appreciate your time. If you have found this to be an interesting read, have any questions or comments I would sincerely love to hear them. If you know of someone who is supporting someone with an eating disorder, I would love for you to share this. It’s essential for them to know they’re not alone. I am one story of so many, and I have really only touched the surface of my experience.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story and part of my experience. Take care of yourself and those you love. Eryka.
If you have found any of the content distressing or has raised concerns you can contact Eating Disorders Victoria, Call lifeline, Kids helpline. Please look after yourself.