I used to flip through The Reader’s Digest every once in a while in an idle moment at my grandparents’ house. The articles I often found most digestible were the collections of ten things some type of professional or other wouldn’t tell you (“Ten Things Your Knee Surgeon Won’t Tell You;” Ten Things Your Canoe Insurance Agent Won’t Tell You,” etcetera.) Basically, these lists would consist of a number of alleged facts about the industry or service in question that anonymous professionals disclosed to the article writer, but that they don’t typically let their clients know: secrets that may change the way the public views knee surgery or interprets clauses of a canoe insurance policy. Supposedly, knowing these insider secrets could help consumers save money and get the better of the bureaucratic institutions that run their lives.
In this post, I have compiled a list of the most important things your daughter who is recovering from an eating disorder may not have the courage or willingness to tell you. Rather than taking advantage of this information for personal gain, its intended use is to spark awareness, compassion, maybe some communication within families.
The ten confessions are based on my own experience throughout my recovery and observations of peers in similar situations, as well as discussions with professionals. They may apply in varying degrees depending on how long an individual has been on the path to wellness. Of course, individual cases and the personality of a particular person vary a great deal as well, and I can’t pretend to know the inner workings of every brain wracked by an eating disorder. (I’m not even beginning to guess how eating-disordered guys think, though that is also a serious issue.) Loved ones and professionals should take the uniqueness of every individual girl into account when establishing care tactics and family boundaries.
Keeping these considerations in mind, here is my list of ten things I can reasonably assert, based on personal experience as well as interactions with peers and professionals, that many teenage eating disorder patients would like their parents to know.
1. Please be patient. I may appear “all cured,” I may be eating and socializing and laughing like everyone else, but the truth is that this is an ongoing process. There will still be roadblocks, and I may even take a few steps back as I press forward in the direction of health. Keep a close eye on me (without being a “helicopter parent,” of course) and recognize that recovery takes time.
2. With that said, sometimes I need to be allowed the independence to make the decision to eat or not. There might be one night a year when I’m at a stressful family celebration and there’s no food I feel comfortable eating and I just kind of opt out of dinner that night. Rather than being on my case all night until I break down and force a few bites of pasta into my mouth, just let go and let me choose either health or hunger, whatever it may be. Over time, with professional support and your encouragement, I will decide that choosing health is more comfortable, and there will be fewer and fewer nights when I choose the old, outdated comfort of starvation instead.
3. There are many faces of the eating disorder. Once one has been all but abolished from my behavior, another is likely to sneak up and rear its head. For instance, once I have been convinced to stop starving myself, I may develop an unhealthy obsession for control over my food. Yes, I’m eating now, but it also takes me twenty minutes to make a perfectly portioned lunch for school, and I sit in math class calculating my daily calories instead of the square root of a polynomial. Both are unhealthy and need to be addressed.
4. I want to be “normal” as much as you want me to be “normal” – I want to fit in with the other girls, have a social life and go to parties, and be able to think about other things than food, body image, exercise… the problem is, as much as I want to fit in, I also want to be “special” and stand out from the crowd, and currently my self-esteem is such that I feel the only achievable way for me to be special is to be skinnier than everyone else, even if it means going to extreme lengths and relinquishing some of my chances to be special in other ways, such as excelling in school or pursuing hobbies, since I have so little energy or mental space for anything else in my life. It’s an obsession, and once I can get involved in other engaging activities it’s likely I’ll start to open my mind to the possibility of being special in a non-numerical manner. The fight between my desire to be normal and to be special is why I am struggling through this recovery process. Once “special’s” definition expands, my eating is likely to expand (though it may take longer for my jeans size to expand.)
5. Please don’t make detailed, emotional remarks about my body (i.e.: “You look so healthy! Not too fat, not too skinny, just right. Such a beautiful girl.”) Even though these words sound like a compliment to your ears, my ears may not be at that point yet, and to me words like “healthy,” or even just bringing up my figure at all, are triggers. The best compliment may be one that avoids anything from the chest to the ankles (i.e.: “I love the way you did your toenails” or “you have such lovely long eyelashes.” That way, you can help me as I build up esteem for my physical appearance without broaching the extra-sensitive areas until I have indicated that I’m ready to deal with them.
6. Don’t point out other ultra-skinny girls you see in the street, or on t.v. or magazine covers. I’m already hyper-aware of these ghostly figures: they swirl around in my brain as I go about my day, enticing me like sirens to plunge back into the waves of starvation so I can compete with them. Please just be happy that I am strong enough to ignore them, and let’s have a conversation about something else.
7. It’s already likely very hard for me to follow the directions of my doctors and dieticians telling me what to eat and when. I have a lot of internal deliberation at each mealtime: do I eat? Or not? Recognizing this, it would help me a lot if you would be supportive or in the least not create unnecessary obstacles between me and my prescribed food. For instance, take me to the grocery store if I need to replenish. Ask me if I need to eat lunch before whisking me off to spend the hours between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM on errands with you. You don’t need to bug me to eat constantly, but sometimes a little reminder that you are watching, and/or a little logistical assistance in getting what I need, is a big help.
8. I can’t expect you to understand what I’m going through. Some of the conversations in my head that rule my body’s actions must sound to you like an alien tongue; to you the intense emotion that may be triggered in me from some event as mundane as walking through the frozen aisle at the grocery store or sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal with relatives may seem uncalled-for. But even if you can’t comprehend every aspect of my world, when I want to talk to you about it, please listen attentively. If you listen with your eyes, your ears, and your compassion, chances are you’ll understand more than you give yourself credit for. And even if you don’t get it, sometimes just verbalizing the taunts and arguments ringing in my head, getting them out in the open air, can show me how ridiculous and nonsensical they are.
9. Just like you can’t understand everything I tell you about my relationship with my body, I can’t always relate to things you might tell me regarding eating/food/exercise/body image. I might laugh at jokes about food cravings or the difficulty of rousing oneself from bed on the weekend to go to the gym, but to me they aren’t really funny. I wonder what it must be like to lose control over one’s willpower and eat an extra treat, or not to be overtaken by a burning urge to hop out of bed at 7 AM Saturday morning and go for a jog. Though I used to live in this world, some of its commonalities are now alien to me. I will gradually learn to re-assimilate, but who knows whether I really remembered how to crave pretzels or if I just pretended so well I began to believe my own façade?
10. I’m working very hard, even if you can’t see it. Just the fact that I’ve chosen to follow this path with my support group, nourishing meal plans and therapy rather than continue on the path to hospitalization or worse, that decision took some nerve, and sticking to it can be a battle, especially at the beginning. Achievements that some people take for granted, like my eating lunch without having to be coaxed to do so, or adding bananas back into my diet, for me take work. While I don’t need you to cheer for me every time I eat a banana, I also don’t appreciate your yearning for me to “be normal” or to “just eat like everyone else.” I know you want me to fit in, to be successful, to be happy, and I want those things too, but in my own time, in my own way. In the meantime, please take the time to recognize my efforts in this and other areas of my life: not only am I working hard to recover healthy behaviors, I’m also a brilliant student/a talented flute player/a committed gymnast. No one’s perfect – that’s what this whole disease is about, isn’t it?
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