My 15-year-old daughter was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa about a month ago. My husband and I have been sick with worry about her, watching everything she puts in her mouth from morning to night. She went from being an outgoing girl to someone I don't even recognize. She had to quit track because she had lost too much weight and was having difficulty breathing. This was heartbreaking to her, as excelling in sports has always been something she could feel good about.
I feel guilty that we didn't pick up on this earlier. Also, so many of the books I've been reading make connections between certain styles of parenting (demanding, critical) and eating disorders. I didn't think I was any more controlling and domineering than any of the other moms with whom I've circulated in the past 15 years. We all want the best for our kids and sometimes that makes us act a little crazy. But honestly, nothing has brought out the dictator in me more than seeing my daughter starve herself to death. The problem is, the more I strive to help her get better, the more she seems to fight against her treatment (she sees a nurse practitioner and a therapist).
She's always been my easy child, the cooperative one. But no more. This illness has taken her over and grown her will to resist food into a monstrous thing. I am terrified and cry myself to sleep many nights. I wish there was something I could do to bring back my little girl again.
-- Worried Sick
Dear Worried Sick:
The pain of seeing one's child snatched into the underworld that is anorexia nervosa is beyond comparison. You are living with the fear of having lost the daughter; if and when she will return remains unknown to you. You have every right to be beside yourself with worry, to feel crazy and demanding. The desire to protect our children from harm can from time to time turn even the meekest of us into dictators.
Go easy on yourself; the last thing you need to start questioning right now is your own competency as a parent. If you haven't yet found someone to talk to about how your daughter's illness makes you feel, do it today.
Why? Because, even though you have every right to feel as you do, you also need help in learning how these very natural urges to rescue your daughter from her illness might actually interfere with her recovery. As you so astutely observed, your daughter's will not to eat seems to grow in direct proportion to your desire for her to consume food.
You can aid your daughter's journey back to health in many ways. Some may seem counterintuitive.
First, spend time with your daughter. Just be with her, and while you're doing this, do not talk about the eating disorder. Find ways to engage with her that have nothing to do with her struggle.
If you two like movies, or shopping, or hiking, or whatever, make sure you start engaging in these activities regularly. The idea here is to spend time with the part of your daughter she has for the time being lost to her illness. By not focusing on the anorexia, you remind her of who she used to be before she got sick. It is impossible to overestimate the importance your vigilance and faith that she will return from this journey to her recovery. Your faith in your daughter to traverse the treacherous path she has found herself upon is akin to a lighthouse on a dark night shore.
Believe in your daughter. More than ever before, she needs you to be her beacon.
Ask Mom is a weekly feature in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. If you have a question you would like to submit to the Ask Mom panel, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. This week's column was written by Patrice Janda, MSW therapist with Cocoon Project SAFE. Cocoon Project SAFE serves Walla Walla parents of teens. For free consultation and support, call 1-877-339-4179.