Parenting Teens with Eating Disorders: Find Strength in Connections
I sat alone one night at the counter of a popular take-out restaurant eating dinner. The counter faced a large glass window that looked out on the cold winter evening. It was Christmas time so the streets were festive and lit up. A huge, decorated tree stood in the center of the roundabout.
As I sat eating, I was scrolling the Internet and I landed upon a post from a friend. At the time, her husband was battling a form of cancer that was requiring him to undergo several surgeries and other rigorous treatments. She would post various updates for all to follow, as well as encouraging articles and quotes she found that were providing her with strength at this difficult time.
I admired her positivity as she took on this trial. And I drew courage from the circumstances and experiences that she was able to share.
But I also envied her. Not because of what she was going through — it seemed extremely difficult. No one would willingly take on that trial. What I envied was the support she was able to receive from others through her posts.
Her husband’s trial was not one that could stay hidden. It would be very obvious, for the rest of his life, that he had fought a battle of some sort. And her openness allowed others to see at least a small portion of their life at this tough time.
Strength for the unseen trials
But what about those battles that can’t be seen:
• The ones that are fought behind closed doors everyday
• The ones that leave marks and scars on the inside, but nothing visible outwardly
• The trials that require work and sacrifice
• The battles that you can’t really understand unless you are living them
• The struggles that cause heartache and suffering that can’t be posted on the internet
I felt that void on that evening in the restaurant. I was miles from home, in an unfamiliar city, burdened with worry. And I felt very alone.
I was there to visit my young teenage daughter, who was in an eating disorder clinic, as she battled a life threatening illness: anorexia nervosa.
Eating disorders are every bit as serious and deadly as many of the other illnesses that draw our attention. But not many have experience with or an understanding of them. This fact — coupled with the reality that our daughter was very young, and we felt a need to protect her struggle from the public in general — caused our situation to become a very private battle for our family.
This is not to say that others didn’t know what we were going through. We spoke openly with our family and close friends about our daughter’s illness. But we kept things on a very “need to know” basis. We were not ashamed. We were not hiding anything. We were simply just trying to protect our daughter and her future and give her the opportunity to share when she was ready.
Making connections with those who understood
Because the world of eating disorders isn’t familiar to most, and the bulk of our daughter's treatment went on unseen, it was easy to feel alone at times. What I found to be helpful was connecting with those in similar circumstances. I began to strike up conversations with other parents whose children were in treatment at the same time as our daughter. I made it my goal to get the other parents talking.
There was always this moment at the treatment center before they would open the doors to visitors, where everyone sat in the waiting room. Invariably, there would be people sitting quietly, talking to no one. Most were unaccustomed to being able to share their story openly. So I would seek them out. I would talk to them, ask them questions about their journey, and let them know I understood.
The Road of Recovery
We are almost two years out of treatment now, and are still walking the road to recovery. Our months continue to be filled with appointments, our weeks are filled with driving to different specialists, our days are filled with meal planning, and our nights sometimes still are filled with worry. But now we have hope. And we know we aren’t walking alone.
Most of our close friends and family have a vague idea of what we do everyday to stay on this road, but it’s tough to fully grasp unless you are living it. And, at times, it can still be lonely.
But, to combat this feeling, we now not only have hope, we are also filled with gratitude for the friendships formed during our treatment days, and in the months since. We have worked with and have met some amazing people with whom we have found both empathy and understanding.
I can send one of those friends a text that says, “Doing ok- just plugging along. 5 steps forward, 3 back, at times but overall doing good.” And she can respond with, ”I hear you, we are on the same path." The best part? I know she understands.
You are not alone
So, to other parents of children with eating disorders, when you grab your keys to drive downtown to another appointment, or are waiting for a nightly call from a loved one in treatment, or are sitting beside a child struggling to finish a meal — please know you are not alone.
When you are struggling to stomach another therapy bill, or boarding the plane for a weekend of visiting hours, or searching for an outpatient team, or wondering if all your effort is really making a difference- know there are others who are walking your same path.
They may not post about it. And you may not be able to tell from outward appearances, but they are fighting everyday. They fight a battle that can’t be seen, but one that is real all the same. And maybe in the knowing that you are not alone, you can find the strength and hope to continue your journey another day.
Sunnie Gruwell resides in Houston, Texas with her husband and six children. She graduated with a teaching degree in health education from Brigham Young University, but is lucky enough to be able to stay home to raise her kids. Her faith and religion are very important to her, and the strength that comes from those beliefs has helped her family make it through whatever trials they have faced. She has immense gratitude for the life-saving treatment her oldest daughter received at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, and recognizes the extremely important role that caregiver knowledge and education play in the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders. Her continued support for her daughter reinforces the reality that recovery is not a one-time event, but a journey. She currently serves on the Recovery Ambassador Council and feels grateful for the opportunities this has provided to share her story with others. She admires the strength, resilience, and growth her daughter has shown as she battles her eating disorder, and greatly appreciates the ERC for equipping her family with the tools needed to feel empowered in their fight.