I’m going to start by apologizing for the length of this post. It’s a post that has been almost two years in the making and really, probably longer than that.
Last week I watched my daughter graduate from high school. Now for any parent that is a proud, happy moment but for the parent of a child who has overcome an eating disorder it is so much sweeter. There was a time we didn’t think it would be possible. Fearfully we worried she may not survive to even have a chance. Certainly she wouldn’t graduate with her class. With intervention, determination and a lot of hard work she did survive, and then she flourished and that beautiful, beaming spirit of hers is again lighting up the world around her, stronger for having survived.
Looking back, I can remember a little girl who really only acted up when she was overly hungry. The Snickers candy bar commercials could have been written about her: “Eat a Snickers. You’re not you when you are hungry.” So we fed her. Little did we realize just how true that statement would become. The middle school years came and anxiety / panic disorder took a toll on her. Over the course of a few months our lively, vivacious daughter became dimmer and dimmer. By the end of 6th grade she could barely leave the house. To go anywhere I had to go with her. I sat in the corner at various friends’ houses and much like a toddler she would check in with me every so often and that gave her the strength to go off again. She gave up dance and started equestrian riding which served as a kind of therapy for her. Slowly with the aid of medication, a wonderful psychiatrist, a very good therapist and consistent work learning coping skills the anxiety grew dimmer and Natalie was once again flourishing. By 8th grade she had joined the cheerleading team and surprised us all by starring in the Spring Musical. We didn’t know she could sing! She never sang around us. High school came and she sailed through her first two years. At the end of that second year I had started a wellness campaign for myself. I joined a gym and started “eating healthier”. Natalie joined me in my efforts. Not that she had a lot of weight to lose, maybe 5 lbs, but she wanted to get stronger. She was captaining the cheerleading team and wanted to be the best she could be. We climbed a mountain together that summer. We have a picture of us together on top of that mountain beaming. I now mark that steep descent down the mountain as our decent into hell.
She lost those 5 lbs and then another 5 and then some. She dressed in multiple layers of baggy clothes. Food choices changed. She asked for more health food items. She was restricting but hid it from us by eating dinner with us as usual so that we would see her eating. It became the only meal she did eat until she couldn’t even eat that. You all know the scenario. Finally we got her to her pediatrician. At 5’ 3.5” she weighed 90 lbs. An appointment was made for a well-known outpatient program in our area. I naively thought we would get her in that program and all would be fine. We went to the appointment and they told us she would require a higher level of care. That’s when my panic set in. They were telling us about residential programs out of state and then said she may require hospitalization and that would be two states away and there is no time to waste. WHAT?! Fortunately, we were able to get her into a residential facility in state. Beneficially, it was just a few miles from my mother-in-law’s house and not far from my husband’s office. Those two weeks of making arrangements were torture. Anxiety for all of us was sky high. We tried to get Natalie to eat. We bought Ensure. Knowing that I was “sending my baby away” I didn’t want to add to her anxiety any more than necessary by requiring her to eat fully. Isn’t that what “good moms” do? Battling an ED is counter-intuitive. She lost another 10 lbs. Miraculously, the ED doctor cleared her for the residential program and she didn’t need to be hospitalized.
And I began my education in Eating Disorders. I found this forum. I read. I devoured Carrie Arnold’s book – “Decoding Anorexia” and the bible – “How to Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder”. I learned to separate my daughter from the Eating Disorder. I named the Eating Disorder, Voldemort. I was determined to kill him in all his various horcruxes. I found solace and strength which helped me cope with all the crap ED threw at my husband and me during those lovely family sessions. After one particularly brutal session, my husband and I went out to dinner and ordered a bottle of wine. I kept that empty bottle. It’s our badge of courage.
In residential Natalie was always compliant. At first she was compliant only because she figured it was the quickest way to get out of there and back to her life. Then as the weight increased there were little bits of understanding – that she was indeed ill, that she didn’t want to live like that, that Natalie was worth fighting for. Voldemort still raged but at least one horcrux was destroyed. After 61 days in residential treatment, having broken through the 100 lb mark, she came home complete with a meal plan of exchanges and authority to prep her own meals. Sigh.
She stepped down into a PHP program that was Maudsley based. I had had time to do my research by then. That meal plan with exchanges went out the window though she still prepped much of her daily meals/snacks. Two weeks in PHP and she stepped down to the IOP program and returned to school. That’s when my fun really began. She gained and lost the same two lbs multiple times. Ok kid, we tried it your way and you’re not making progress; now Mom is in charge. Oh there was kick-back – bags of pretzels tossed in the garbage (I pulled them out and put them back on her plate) – a plate of pasta thrown across the table (I caught it without dropping any. Pasta reappeared at nighttime snack and then for breakfast. It was eaten.) – an episode with a grilled cheese sandwich (I’ll never look at a grilled cheese sandwich the same.) – but food went in and she gained. She was put on olanzapine and that helped too. DBT classes for both of us were very beneficial. By the end of the summer she was weight restored but I suspected we would need to add more.
By October her pediatrician was strongly encouraging us to have Natalie checked out by a gynecologist as menses had not returned and she was 18 months without menstruation and had never really been regular. I allowed the gynecologist to talk me into starting her on hormone therapy to jump start her system. It is my biggest regret. Imagine going from an estrogen level of a menopausal woman to high levels of estrogen coursing through you. Talk about mood dysregulation! She was having suicidal ideation. Her appetite went into overdrive. She started binging which further decreased mood. We stopped the hormones and her psychiatrist changed her medications to counter the depression. By then, having gone through a few not so good therapists, we had a wonderful therapist who really helped her through. We worked on the binging behaviors aiming for steadily spaced meals/snacks with a balance of nutrients and I spent more than a few nights on the couch in front of the kitchen. We weren’t always successful but we kept going. On the plus side her menses returned and have remained regular and she added more weight. That added weight (15 lbs above her previous high) was really the tipping point to recovery. That was when her mental state really showed improvement.
In February, one year after entering treatment and 6 months post WR, she chose to go public and posted on Instagram before and after pictures along with her story:
February 10, 2014 was the day everything changed. On that day I started a 2 month residential treatment, followed by 4 months of intensive outpatient treatment for an eating disorder that I didn’t even know I had. I remember how angry I was that I was being sent away to “get fat” because “all my hard work was being thrown away.” Little did I know how disgustingly emaciated I looked to everyone else, because all I saw was fat. Even at 80 pounds, I thought I needed to lose more. It was never enough. And that’s the thing about eating disorders. You don’t know how serious they are until you experience them. You can’t understand the fear that you might lose your best friend or your son or daughter because they’re so malnourished that their heart is about to give out. I can’t believe how far I’ve come in just one year, and while I hate my body the way it is now, it’s a hell of a lot better than never having energy, being cold, my hair falling out, not concentrating, fainting just from walking up stairs, and all the other awful side effects of anorexia. I’ll always have an eating disorder, it’s just now I have the power to choose whether or not I act on the behaviors I know to be so dangerous. Eating disorders are not a joke. I’m proof of that. Had I not been forced into treatment, I know for a fact that I would not be living today. As for that middle picture, yes I have fat, and I’m supposed to, no matter what my mind, society or the media may tell me. I’m trying to accept that. So here’s to the worst and best year of my life in so many crazy ways. I’ve met some amazing people, and I’ve faced countless incredibly difficult challenges along the way, but I finally feel like I know who I am because of all this. Not only did I gain the weight back, but I gained back my life, and then some. You can see it in my eyes, in my smile, and your can hear it in my laugh. I’m Natalie again. And so here’s my #transformationtuesday exactly one year from the date I went into treatment. It would mean the world to me if everyone could just keep in mind that National Eating disorder Awareness week is February 22nd-28th!! #NEDA
And just one more thing, I am definitely NOT ashamed of having an eating disorder since more people suffer from them than your realize, but please honor how difficult this is for me to post. I have never exposed this but I feel like something good should come out of all my pain and bad experiences and I finally feel brave enough to do this and I am proud of myself. And if anyone EVER needs someone to talk to about ANYTHING, always know I’m here.
After posting her story the documentary movie making class at her high school asked her if they could do a documentary about Eating Disorders and would she be willing to be part of it. Their challenge theme for the year was to produce a documentary about finding balance in life. She readily agreed. And while the documentary also included an interview with an adult recovered anorexic and advocate it was Natalie who carried the film. She and I accompanied the documentary class when they presented the film at their completion. They won first place.
Oh, and that new body she was hating in February? She’s growing more and more comfortable with it. She has held her weight steady for 4 months now. She eats freely in a variety of settings, helping herself. I chuckled to myself last week as we were debating what to have for dinner one night. My husband said “I really feel like pizza.” Natalie piped up “Oh yes! Let’s get a big cheese pizza, and can we get French fries? They make the best French fries.” Now that is a conversation that would not have occurred last year! She’s beginning to love those curves. Her senior prom was the beginning of the month. She was gorgeous. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so. She was voted Prom Queen.
Does this mark the end or our story? I can’t say. She will always have the propensity for an eating disorder but that doesn’t have to rule her life. We are moving on with life, remaining vigilant and setting up safety plans as we prepare to send her off to college. Yes, she is going to college. Yes it is out of state. Maybe I’m being naive but I had to let her pursue her dream. And if she stumbles, well, at least now I know what to do. My faith remains. Natalie was interviewed recently. She ended the interview by stating that “It’s really important to have a sense of faith, not necessarily in God, but that you are unique – that there’s no one else like you on this Earth, there never will be and you were made for a purpose.”
So for all of you deep in the trenches, I want to say keep on fighting. Recovery really is possible. I hope and pray your journey is short. I know everyone is different and on their own time schedule. I ache for those of you who deal with self- harm, purging and violence. Those are issues we didn’t have to deal with, thus in my eyes you truly are hero parents.
Natalie and I are planning on climbing that mountain again this summer…….only this time we are packing a picnic lunch to enjoy at the summit. Keep on feeding.