Parenting a Child in Recovery: Eating Disorders and Families
Dear Mom and Dad,
I don’t think words can fully express the gratitude and love I feel towards you and all that you have done for my eating disorder recovery process.
I can say without a doubt that I would not be alive if it wasn’t for your support, love, and tenacity. You fought for my recovery harder than I did when we first began embarking on the recovery process. I say “we” because I couldn’t have made it to full recovery without you.
When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, I often blamed my issues on you. I did everything in my power to fight your tireless efforts to help me — so that I could protect my eating disorder. I often saw you as the enemy, as trying to take my eating disorder and safety net away. Mealtime was often a battle, one that shouldn’t have been so hard. I hope you hear me when I say I am thankful for all you did parenting a child in recovery and fighting for me when I didn’t know how to fight for myself.
There were also things that frustrated me about the way you supported me at times and I often displayed my feelings toward you through anger. I didn’t know how to use my voice to advocate for myself. Now that I am fully recovered from the eating disorder I once had and have learned how to use my voice, here are a few things I wish you knew when I was struggling:
1. My eating disorder was not your fault nor was the eating disorder my fault.
You did not cause my eating disorder and neither did I. I know it felt like I was acting out against you at times and that I chose to act on certain behaviors. I remember how hard it was for you to wrap your head around that in the beginning of my recovery. I remember blaming my illness on you, but what we both had to learn was that I had a number of traits (perfectionism, stress reactivity, high sensitivity, low distress tolerance, etc. along with environmental factors) that played against me at the time. What we did learn, though, through trial and error, was that families do play an important role in eating disorder recovery.
2. Hearing you talk about your body in negative ways greatly affected me in the early stages of recovery.
Mom, I know you felt insecure or self-conscious with the way your own body looked. I remember hearing your scrutinizing words about your body, but what you didn’t realize was that, as a highly sensitive little girl, I began taking on those words. I started to believe the same harsh words about my own body. I thought that if my mom didn’t like the way her strong legs looked, then I shouldn’t like the way mine looked either. As I grew up, and as my eating disorder developed, I spent hours picking apart my body in the same way I painfully watched you do when I was little. When I came home weight restored from treatment, and although you tried to hide it, I still heard the negative words you spoke toward your body. It made the recovery process difficult for me because I still believed them to be true of my own body.
3. Watching you diet was not supportive of my recovery.
I remember growing up and watching you “count points”. Our refrigerator was full of low-fat and non-fat foods. You always encouraged normal eating within our household, but your actions sent a different and confusing message. The message I received was that I, too, needed to go on a diet. Mixed with body dissatisfaction, the eating disorder took hold of that message. Fast forward to years later, after returning from my stay in treatment, I returned home to the same environment. I was being told that I had to follow a meal plan without any low-fat and non-fat food items while I watched members of the family on various diets or food restrictions. This was not the ideal environment to return to when in early recovery, and I want you to know that it’s not your fault because you didn’t know any different.
Together through the years, my recovery and finding stability has been extremely hard and tumultuous on us. Thank you, Mom and Dad for supporting me in the ways you knew how and for never giving up hope for my recovery. Thank you for learning all you could to help support me in the best way possible. Our process has not been easy. Thank you for seeing me through to the other side of freedom.
To those parenting a child in recovery, my hope is for you that you learn how best to support your loved one. It is natural to feel frightened. Don’t stop fighting for your child even when they resist your efforts. Although the process may appear like an uphill battle, full recovery is possible!