When your child has a mental illness and goes off to college you are not really sure whether you are an empty nester or not. You might be. Or perhaps your child goes to their dream university with a generous scholarship. Your beloved amazing child, who has always had friends and interests and is beautiful and a little too perfect but who you always believed had only the most unquestionably bright future in front of her. That child becomes critically ill the first semester of freshman year. You find yourself in emergency mode driving to pick her up after frantically throwing some hefty bags and boxes in your car and bringing her home on a medical leave because she is suicidal and self harming and has been diagnosed with anorexia binge purge subtype. You pack her cute dorm room and size 24 jeans up, and sadly remember the optimistic shopping trip you took together to Bed, Bath and Beyond to buy her her first living-away-from-home items for her-new-grown-up-life. You drive home at night digging your fingernails into your palms to keep awake at 3 am while your emaciated, vanishing daughter who suddenly seems like a stranger sleeps an uneasy sleep next to you and you drive 65 miles an hour down the Garden State Parkway into an uncertain and frightening and heartbreaking future. But you don't really know how heartbreaking or how difficult it will be, yet. It is still the beginning and you are still a little innocent.
A year ago you were buying her a nice outfit to wear for her ivy league interviews. You watched her get academic awards at her high school, get her braces off and go to prom looking like a princess. Now you drive her to a psychiatric institute, and she will stay there behind locked doors for 3 months while she learns how to eat again and tries to quiet the demons in her head screaming at her that she is fat although she weighs only 90 something lbs when you leave her there in the flourescant lit hospital corridor with the doctors and therapists, nurses, dietitians and psychiatrists. You wonder whether they can put the pieces of your broken daughter together again and back to some semblance of herself. You read that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illnesses and that only about a third of people who suffer from anorexia nervosa make a full and lasting recovery. You learn that these serious and life threatening diseases receive the smallest dollar amount of research funding of any mental health condition.
Your daughter is in a world of indescribable pain and so is the rest of your family. You soon learn of her secret life and the lies and the symptoms that she had been hiding from you during high school while pretending to be that perfect daughter who you thought you knew, until things spun so far out of control when she left home and stopped eating so that she could no longer manage. You learn that these are biological brain disorders with metabolic and genetic underpinnings, and that families are not to blame even though you still look for reasons to blame yourself. You continue to get up every day and go to work and visit her and play bananagrams while her brain starts to come back online again after the period of starvation, and you attend family therapy where you try to envision a life after the hospital and what it will be like and what you need to learn in order to help her get well again. You go on a self inflicted crash course to learn about eating disorders and read every book you can get your hands on. You watch a video about what to do and say during mealtimes. You reach out to other parents experiencing the same thing on a message board and feel supported and comforted. You feel relieved that your daughter is safe behind the walls of the hospital and that the staff are very structured and serious about refeeding her. You feel calmed that she is cooperating with the doctors and eating her meals and going for walks on the hospital grounds and making friends with some of the other women there and that there are a lot of visiting hours. But you also feel that you have blundered into some sort of nightmare you can never fully wake up from and you are numb and you cry a lot and isolate from your friends and family because, really, who could ever understand this?
A year later, after a long recovery with lots of ups and downs and steps forwards and backwards, she tries college again. And you wish you could be like the other empty nester moms who worry about what bus their child will take home for break, or whether their kid has enough storage in their dorm room, or whether they will meet lasting friends and where they can order a cake in the neighborhood for their daughter's birthday, and if they will do well in their classes and did they fill out the Fafsa correctly and when is it due. Instead you visit your daughter frequently and try to encourage her to be motivated to be recovery minded. You eat meals with her and take her food shopping and watch for any signs of the anorexia creeping back in and when your stomach clenches because you see that it is still there lurking, you do everything you can to keep encouraging her to eat and weigh enough. And you applaud all of her successes, small and large, because she worked so unbelievably hard to be able to be where she is right now. Because those SAT's, ACT, and AP classes she took and those grades she earned in high school were easy compared to the real work she had to do in order to be able to be this college student and to move ahead with her life. And you forgive anorexia, and you forgive your daughter for her outbursts and food refusals and emotional disregulation, and you forgive yourself for what you didn't do to cause this and most of all, you forgive the universe for sending this terrible terrible thing into your lives.