Sometimes the parents become very disillusioned because they don't have the child that they used to have. They certainly don't have that child when the child's sick. And then when the child gets better they are going to have a new child, because in order for the child to get better, they are going to have to, I think, become who they really want to be down deep inside.
Part of the journey of getting better for the child or the spouse, or whomever has the eating disorder... that person is going to have to find herself or himself. And that's the journey to recovery.
Parents of children with eating disorders come to Virginia to ask advice, to cry, to vent anger and frustration. When she tells them, "I do understand," it is because Virginia is a parent with personal experience. As the coordinator of a parent support group, she has seen many anguished parents, and she offers her perspective as an educator and a mother. We thought you'd like to hear her words and observations.
On the causes of eating disorders
A lot of people think you can have a predisposition to it. I think you can have a predisposition to an eating disorder combined with your environment. I do firmly believe that something in the environment has triggered this, and there are lots of people living in that same environment, but they have different coping skills and somehow they are surviving it. But then you get these other people who come along who can't survive it. It's just whatever plan they're on, whatever track they're on... it's just not working.
On parental expectations
I do think parents put a lot of expectations [on] their children, and my own children will say, "Boy, yeah, Mommy, you did." I don't think any of us do it on purpose. I don't think we do it realizing that we do it, but there are probably unspoken expectations that your children pick up on.
Saying statements like, "I'm really proud of you because you've gotten a 4.0,"... that's not the point.
I think that we can sometimes set children up for pleasing us, for being people-pleasers, rather than pleasing themselves when the first statement out of your mouth is, ...Oh I'm so proud of you. ... That was the change in my life. I started reflecting on my statements and I tried to change all my language with my children after that.
The pressures on a child
A lot of these girls have tremendous pressures that we don't even realize, and I think [my daughter] had a lot of pressure at school. Being in leadership. Being in the honors program. Keeping up her grades. Getting into a good school. Going to State in tennis. Tremendous pressures, that I didn't even see as pressures. I always thought these were things she could handle. I thought these were things she enjoyed doing. I thought it all came a little bit more naturally to her, and... she had to really work at it.
Your achievement becomes your identity. You've achieved so much, all that leadership, and good grades, and honors and sports and all that... that you have to uphold.
If your child, or the eating disordered person, is beginning to feel this mountain's too high that they've chosen to climb... they'd like to go climb a smaller mountain. How do you do that? How do you get yourself out of that whole agenda you have going, and your whole identity you have within your friendship circle and within your community? I don't think most young people know how to do that. A lot of adults don't know how to do that. Then you get somebody who becomes sick because they've got so much on their shoulders. And they just don't know what to do.
On food and control
If they can't control what's going on at school or what's going on with their life, or what's going on with their friends, or with making a huge decision like, ...Where am I going to go to college ... - not only that, but where will I be accepted - [then] food is something that they alone can have control over.
Loss plays a cause. It could be loss of a friend, just a friendship. It could be loss of a parent through a divorce or a death. Those are all things that none of those women can control, but they can control their food.
It's so hard to explain, but there's just something about being able to control that food when everything else is out of control... It's a vicious cycle.
When you have somebody with an eating disorder, you realize also how much eating is part of our society and part of our family life, and part of our celebrations. That is something I never realized until we had an eating disordered person in the family. And how much, in the beginning, you try and change your habits, thinking, "Oh, if I change my habits and I do this then my daughter will eat this."
I learned a lot of hard lessons. This isn't going to work even if you buy the type of food she wants, because she doesn't want you in that decision. She doesn't want you in that food.
An eating disorder is a psychological disorder, and it has nothing to do with food. It's the strangest disease. But people have to understand that the food is one thing that you can really control. I've raised three children and one was a very fussy eater and I learned early on-real early on-at six months of age, I could not make her eat, and eventually when my other daughter got an eating disorder I kept going back to that. You can not make a person eat. You can't make a baby eat.
Change means more than just eating. It's not about food.
The one thing you learn about eating disorders is the more you battle with your child about food, your child knows this too, the less time you have to really analyze what's causing this problem because they camouflage it, and all you're thinking about is food with the child and all you're fighting about is food with the child.
If the person eats three slices of bread but hasn't gained a new skill to heal herself, it's not going to work. It'll be three pieces of bread today, none tomorrow, none the next day, and none the next day, and one maybe five days later. But it's not the bread, it's not the slices of bread, or how much yogurt, or how much rice the person ate that's going to get the person healthy. You need to see some changes in behavior.
Recovery is not an event, it's a process. Your first inclination is, "I am going to get this child better." The biggest frustration is: parents don't believe the process is so long.
Everyone comes to an eating disorder with a little bit different recipe box of all these combinations. The important thing is everybody is going to get healthy in a different way.
People come to our support group, and they are hoping that we are going to have that prescription that they can go to the drugstore and they can buy that, and that is just not going to happen.
One of the things that I've learned about eating disorders and what we tell the parents a lot is, the daughter, or your wife, or whoever this person is with the eating disorder, will get better when the person is ready to get better, not when you're ready for the person to get better.
You're ready for the person to get better the minute you find out the person is sick.
It is really important for parents to understand it doesn't just happen in one moment, it's this long process. When you learned how to drive, or to ski, it went well one day and not the other. It's the same thing in recovery. Most people will have two steps forward and maybe a step back. It's because you are so hopeful, you want your daughter to get better so badly, that when she has a relapse, when she tumbles down that hill again a little bit, parents get very nervous, and some parents get very angry, and some parents get very discouraged.
On treatment: a hard journey
In order for the child to get better, they are going to have to become who they really want to be down deep inside.
What we try to help parents learn is that what this person is going to have to do is get new skills in order to become healthy. Hopefully in a treatment center, the person with the eating disorder can put on the brakes and have some rest and some peace, and not have everyone in the family around them, and they can begin to think about, "What's happening to me? What has happened to me? How am I going to get out of this?"
The journey's long because you have to be incredibly honest with yourself. You have to admit a lot of things, and you have to dig up a lot of things, and you have to learn how to express a lot of things that you've kept down in your pit. That time varies with everybody. To learn to come to that truth is really hard, incredibly hard for somebody who is suffering so much pain.
The eating disordered person deserves their own therapist, and the family should have another one. The eating disorder patient deserves a therapist of their own. They need that confidentiality, they need that freedom, and they need that space to discuss issues that nobody else is going to hear.
The parents' job
It's very frustrating for parents not to know what's being talked about in therapy. The problem parents have - and I know that my girls and I felt this way sometimes too - we were so afraid that we were going to get blamed for the disorder, for the illness. If you're not there in those counseling sessions when your daughter's talking about you, you don't know what's being said, so you're at home getting tense: "Oh, dear, I wonder if she's talking about me."
Even though the recovery is a personal journey, I think it's really hard to do if you don't feel supported by your family.
As a parent, you have to make sure that the person doesn't feel like they're ruining the family and causing pain for the family, because that's not what they're trying to do. They don't want to do that at all. If your child's going to get better, you have to do everything you can. You have to give them the tools, you have to give them the support, you have to find the money for therapy and hospitalization if necessary. But you have to give them that freedom, and you have to let them go, let them take risks and trust that eventually... they'll get better.
They really have to be free to be who they are, and parents have to accept their children for who they are.
Letting go means sometimes also letting your daughter know that it's okay to make mistakes, that this person doesn't have to be perfect. This person doesn't have to be a straight-A student. This person doesn't have to go to Stanford.
You get so frustrated with the disease that sometimes you get frustrated with the person, and you have to constantly separate the eating disordered daughter from the other daughter. And you have to hold on to what the other daughter was like.