Caregiving for Children in Treatment During the Holidays

By Sunnie Gruwell

Eating disorders are the number one deadliest mental illness, and they need to be treated as such. The main lesson we learned that holiday season was to put recovery first, and foremost above all else. This tough, but priceless lesson has made recovery a reality in our lives, and has allowed us to enjoy many happy holidays ever since.

It was November. The weather in Texas had finally cooled, and the holiday season was upon us.
My in-laws arrived at our home late one afternoon with a car full of food and suitcases. They would be staying with us for a few days through the Thanksgiving holidays. We exchanged hugs and greetings and we helped them unload the car. 
But something was different this Thanksgiving. In between talk of the road trip and where to put things, there were hushed conversations being had on the side.

  • "How is she?"
  • "Don't put stuff here; she will freak out if any other food is on her shelf!"
  • "She most likely won't let you touch her — sorry."

These were not your typical initial conversations with out of town visitors.
This holiday season was different for us; we were now caregivers to a sick child because it was our first major holiday with an eating disorder in the home. And, exactly four days after Thanksgiving, our daughter was being admitted into an eating disorder treatment center for anorexia
By the time my in-laws arrived, we were barely hanging on. My husband and I were accommodating all the demands the eating disorder was making and trying our best to survive until our daughter's admission date.
We were exhausted
Up to this point, we had tried really hard to keep all the normal holiday traditions going.
Halloween was a candy-filled struggle, but we decorated the house, dressed up, and trick-or-treated with friends because that is what you do on Halloween.
With Thanksgiving approaching, we ordered pies, planned a menu and made preparations for a feast.
Since our daughter would miss Christmas at home, we figured it would be a good idea to try and squeeze in as many Christmas things as possible before she left. We decorated the tree, had lights put on the house, shopped for gifts, and watched Christmas movies.
In our minds, these all seemed like important things to do.
We were attempting to just move forward with life — despite the illness we were facing. In fact, that had really been our strategy thus far: no matter how hard it was, we were going to try to keep everything the same in our lives (holiday traditions, coaching soccer teams, driving to music lessons, school activities, church functions, etc.).
And, we would do all this while caregiving for a daughter with a tremendously fierce eating disorder.
This strategy just wasn't working
On the outside, we looked like any other family celebrating the holidays. We had a festive home, family in town, and a house filled with the yummy smells of holiday goodies. But, inside the home, each and every day was a struggle. 
This was the new reality of our holidays as her caregivers:
Our daughter hated Halloween. To her, candy was terrifying. She had begun isolating herself from others, so a night filled with friends and treats felt like a nightmare.
Thanksgiving turned out to be even worse: our daughter feared touching and even smelling food. A day full of cooking forced her outdoors and caused us to wipe every kitchen surface, until they were practically spotless, once dinner was over. Essentially, we saw many troubling symptoms and signs of anorexia.
And, I'm not really convinced that our early Christmas efforts were worth our time. By that point, the eating disorder had so fully consumed our daughter that it was hard for her to see beyond it. She hid in my room the day I decorated our tree, and she couldn't sit still during our traditional Christmas movies. Decking the halls wasn't exactly forefront in her mind.
We should have seen that attempting to push forward like nothing was wrong was a recipe for stress and disaster.
What we learned at the eating disorder treatment center helped us realize we were going to have to change how we were living.
Previously, a lot of our focus had been on priorities that had no bearing on our daughter’s recovery. We needed to learn to put things aside in order to devote almost all of our attention and energy into helping our daughter get well. 
Recovery started to become a reality


Instead of sweet, sugarplum dreams in our own cozy beds, we spent Christmas Eve in a hotel near our daughter's treatment center, far from home. We took our traditional pajama pictures in front of a beautifully decorated tree in the lobby and threw some tinsel on our hotel dresser to make it feel festive.
It may not have been the Christmas we were used to, and we felt the absence of our daughter in those pictures, but the magical spirit of the season was still present.
It snowed that December 25th. For Texans, that was a real treat!
We enjoyed ice cream for lunch (after discovering that not many food places were open that day).
We played with the few things that Santa delivered to our hotel, and enjoyed a nice dinner together. 
But, the best part of that Christmas day was getting to bring Christmas cheer to our daughter. We visited with her, played games, and watched her open gifts.

A new kind of Christmas
It may not have been the picture-perfect Christmas, but we had an extra measure of love in our hearts as we sacrificed our traditional holiday plans to be with someone who needed us most.
Eating disorders are the number one deadliest mental illness, and they needed to be treated as such.

The main lesson we learned that holiday season as caregivers was to put recovery first, and foremost — above all else. This tough, but priceless lesson has made recovery a reality in our lives, and has allowed us to enjoy many happy holidays ever since.

“Successful mothers are not the ones that have never struggled. They are the ones that never give up, despite the struggles.” - (Sharon Jaynes)


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.

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Sunnie Gruwell

Sunnie is a parent advocate on ERC’s Recovery Ambassador Council. Sunnie resides in Houston, Texas with her husband and six children. Her faith and religion are very important to her, and the strength…

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