So your child has anorexia. You’ve decided on a treatment strategy: Admission to a medical facility or Home-based therapy (Maudsley). You have your support team assembled. Now what?
Having fought in the trenches with our daughter, Caylin, since October of 2013, we’ve learned a thing or two. Every battle with anorexia is unique, but some fundamental truths will help you cope.
- Anorexics don’t look like regular “sick people.” On the surface, they seem like normal functioning human beings, but the truth is, they’re as critically ill as any person lying in a hospital bed. Try to remember this when your patience and understanding snaps (and it will…many times). Remove yourself before you lose your temper, and if you do lose it, forgive yourself and start over. Anorexia is a long-term disease. There’s no clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. Just when you’re starting to lose hope, progress is made. And just when you think you’ve turned a corner, your child refuses to eat dinner, calls you every name in the book, and cries herself to sleep. Know that this is normal no matter what treatment approach you’re following.
- Anorexics need to stay busy. Too much downtime makes that nasty little voice inside their heads start telling them they’re fat. This is simpler during the school year, because school provides the busyness and structure. Summer is tougher. Before school was even out, we had Caylin scheduled up to her eyeballs with camps, fun runs, two jobs she loves, and vacation trips. And of course, we continued the regular appointments with the support team.
- Anorexics do better with advance warning of changes in their routine. For example, when we leave for vacation, we tell Caylin when and where she'll be able to exercise so she doesn’t work herself up into a panic. Or, when her class went to D.C. for a week, I researched the restaurant itinerary and planned it out with her ahead of time: “The third night is a pizza place, but you can order the whole wheat veggie lasagna instead.” These seemingly unimportant details to you and me are lurking MONSTERS to an anorexic. A normal person would show up at a pizza place and think, “Hmm, I’m watching my waistline; let’s see what else is on the menu.” An unprepared anorexic might actually have a panic attack and refuse to eat anything at all.
- Anorexics, like terrorists, must not be negotiated with: Three sit down meals a day, plus snacks. Period. Do not wimp out on this! Well she’s been doing so much better. Maybe it’s ok if she skips breakfast just this once. You know the old expression “Give an inch, take a mile.” Your anorexic will take 10 miles. Stick to your routine like her life depends on it, because it does.
- Although it seems like your whole existence is centered around food, try not to act that way. Don’t talk about food at meals, don’t discuss restaurant reviews, don’t complain about your own diet, don’t chirp on about the latest cooking show, don’t rave about the delicious cake you ate at the reception last night. Keep off the subject of food! Talk politics, world affairs, the latest fashion trends…..you might actually have a pretty articulate kid when you pull through this ordeal!
- The name of the game is POKER FACE. When your anorexic weighs in at the doctor’s office (remember, NO SCALES IN THE HOUSE!) don’t react one way or another. If you look unhappy about her weight, she’ll secretly rejoice that she’s outsmarted you and will triple her efforts. If you look happy about her weight, she’ll resolve to starve that smile right off your face. Though she’ll never admit it, your daughter is actually happy not knowing her weight. (And nix the school weigh-ins too. Call the school nurse ahead of time.)
- Anyone who works with your child is a member of your army. Caylin attended a cross country camp at a nearby university this summer. I called the director of the camp and explained her situation. He assured me that the camp covered appropriate nutrition for runners, and that he would personally talk to Caylin about it. He did, and she LISTENED!!! She loves running more than anything, and to hear this from a coach she liked and respected brought her around the corner!
- Anorexics bear tremendous guilt. Tell your child over and over: "IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT!" When Caylin returned from cross country camp, she was like a new girl. The coach (God bless him) told her that the anorexia wasn’t her fault, that it happens to a lot of people, a lot of athletes. We’d been dealing with her anorexia for almost a year, and somehow we missed this message. Of course it wasn’t her fault! We knew that! But we didn’t tell HER!! Anorexics know what their disease is doing to their families. Remove that guilt and shame from their fragile shoulders.
Most importantly, believe in your heart your child will reach a happy end to this terrible journey. I know your pain, your frustration, your horror, your exhaustion. I know it. I’ve lived it. Thankfully, I think we’ve come through the worst of the storm. Caylin is a happy freshman in high school now, a member of the varsity cross country team, and is connecting with her friends again. She still has rigid food demands (no sugar, low fat, non fried), but she eats everything else willingly and actually enjoys it. Despite the sunny outlook, we haven’t taken our foot off the gas with her treatment. She still sees her counselor once a week, and the doctor once a month. I look forward to a day when these visits are no longer necessary, but I won't risk losing her again.
I thank Jesus every day for the recovery of Caylin, and I pray every week for those families and victims still in the trenches. Be strong! You can and WILL get through this!