Tuesday, February 9, 2016

An Open Letter to Parents of Teens with Eating Disorders

I've been recovered from my eating disorder for almost 15 years now.

One of the hardest parts of recovery was dealing with judgement. People have a lot more sympathy and praise for those who are overweight and lose a lot of weight. But there's something intrinsically judgmental going on when you tell people you are struggling with NOT eating. Anorexia is perceived as selfish, vain, or narcissistic. Even my therapist (at the time of my recovery) would make occasionally snide comments like, "It's not like you're sitting all day like me" or "It's not like donuts are going to kill you."

Recently, my aunt had a friend whose daughter is going through eating disorder recovery. My aunt asked me if I would write her some advice. Below is the letter I sent to the mother.

I have utmost sympathy for people struggling with any eating disorder (over or under eating). And it breaks my hearts a millions extra ways when it's a young person.

That's me--age 16, right before I began recovery. I look sickly.

Hi (Insert Name),

I'm sorry to hear that your daughter is going through this :( It's a long, rough road but it's good that the issue was identified and is being treated.

I had my eating disorder from ages 15-17. Like alcoholism, it never really goes away, you just learn how to cope and think healthier. When I went through my divorce two years ago, I almost relapsed, but I caught myself and stopped it before it became a problem.

You can read about my journey on my blog here.

Working in fitness, I've sadly encountered people with eating disorders of various types over the years. A few insights I can share (from someone who's been there and helped others):

1. Understand that your daughter's issue is a complex control issue.
The eating disorder (ED) is a way to control some aspect of your life that you feel you have no control over. And it could be a result of a variety of things--anxiety, depression, a type A personality, controlling parents, peer pressure, traumatic events, low self-esteem, poor body image, etc. Personally, with my ED, it was caused by a combination of things that I felt little control over. Once I realized that I COULD control some things (like going to college) and that other things were completely out of my control (breakups), then I didn't have to use food as a way to control my surroundings.

2. Your daughter has to WANT to get better.
Forcing someone with an ED to get help will be unsuccessful. They have to realize that they have a problem and want to be healthy for themselves. I was in total denial of my problem until my little sister confronted me about it. Then it really hit home that I needed help. Some people with EDs are in/out of treatment, but it's not until they have liver, kidney, organ failure, or other health issues that they finally commit to recovery. Your daughter will have a wake-up moment (if she hasn't already).

3. You are not a bad parent.
I think my mom can speak more about this, but usually parents assume that they did something wrong and that's why their child has an ED. Parenting isn't 100% to blame for ED. You can have a wonderful childhood but still develop an ED. It also doesn't help that ED kids are usually angry and ashamed and lash out at their parents during the recovery process. I said a lot of "I hate you" to my parents during the process of my recovery, but they continued to show me love and support and I'm so grateful for that.

4. Help your daughter find an outlet to focus her attention on.
For me, instead of obsessing over my relationship break up and food, I refocused on going to college. I put a lot of energy into finding a good school and looking forward to college. I wanted to get better so that I could go to college and be successful.

Therapy has helped me so so so much in my life (with my ED and later, with my divorce). A good therapist that your daughter trusts can make a difference. I also suggest that parents go to talk with the therapist alone so they can understand and cope. Therapy helped me begin to rationalize my behavior and thoughts. It helped me see that they were irrational thoughts.

6. Refocus what it means to be "healthy."
For a long time, I though being "healthy" meant being skinny. I refocused on being "strong." I got into group fitness and set strength goals. Previously, I thought food was just to keep the body running, but through recovery I began to realize that food is necessary to being strong and your body needs it to improve.

7. Your daughter has been praised on her thin looks. 
Many of her peers (and strangers) may have complemented her on her thinness. Refocus compliments that are not based on her looks. Something like, "You're so smart" or "I'm really proud of your (achievement)" or "You have a beautiful soul."

8. Eat dinner together. 
You can't force her to eat (that would do the opposite of what you want), but you can create a happy family dinner environment. I helped prepare the meals and our whole family would sit together at the table for 30 minutes after dinner talking so that I couldn't get up and go throw up my food.

9. Look for signs of other eating disorder behaviors developing. 
It isn't uncommon for someone with and ED to develop a different disorder as they start to recover. I started with bulimia, picked up anorexia, and developed exercise bulimia. Watch for signs that the person is hiding other disorders. People with EDs will LIE LIE LIE because they are ashamed and embarrassed. Do not let them lie to you. Be persistent about making them tell you the truth.

It's a long, rough road to recovery and it breaks my heart to hear about a girl as young as your daughter going through it. However, it does get better! If you have any questions, feel free to ask! Continue to show your daughter love and support and she will get better in time.

Laura Bruns

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