By Hannah White
Anorexia is innately personal. It’s between you and your flesh, you and your bones. It’s a body count of one. It causes you to withdraw within yourself, to turn from our food-laden world and burrow into a space of so-called control. Your “safe foods” go into your mouth, and no one else’s. It’s not a plea for attention, but rather a plea for invisibility—an effort to disappear. Meanwhile, few people (if any) make comments about your weight or your erratic behaviors. In fact, no one’s noticed at all. Right?
Well, no. Eating disorders are not that self-contained. As I’m learning, slowly and painfully, disordered thoughts and behavior can affect everyone close to you: relatives, colleagues, friends. For me, this drama has enacted itself most poignantly with my parents. Over the years, my mom and dad have been hurt in ways that go far beyond the cost of medical bills and the hassle of insurance reimbursements.
My mother, like many mothers, is an empathizer; she wants to feel what I’m feeling, to understand what I’m going through. But my disordered brain instinctively flinches from these attempts at connection. I roll my eyes when she refers to “Ed” personified, and I shut her down when she tries to articulate my feelings. My father, meanwhile, aspires to be a fixer, and the stubbornness of my disordered thoughts baffles and frustrates him. He can give the best advice in the world, but he still can’t disprove deep-seated misbeliefs about my body.
I can’t put words into my parents’ mouths, but I can imagine the impossibility of their situation. They can’t connect with me, they can’t make me better, and all three of us are forced to watch helplessly as the wall comes down between us. Mentally and emotionally, this is a wall all too familiar to families affected by eating disorders. It’s a blockage that interrupts interpersonal relationships of all kinds and cements the alienation of the patient. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, eating disorders not otherwise specified—none of them leave space or patience for honest, healthy relationships.
In my own experience, ED’s imposed isolation has been stark and painful. I’m a people-pleaser—I always have been—but caught up in my disorder, everything changes. I still remember vividly my first real fight with my parents. It was the summer of the Maudsley Approach, a form of family-based therapy in which my parents controlled my meal plan and sat with me until I’d finished every bite. I was nineteen and, needless to say, felt disrespected and babied. On a trip to the beach, something finally snapped.
We were driving back from the shore when my family decided to stop for ice cream. Feeling overstuffed and bloated, I tossed half of my milkshake in the trash. Back at the house, my parents confronted me about my behavior. And suddenly we all just cracked. They couldn’t understand my resistance to recovery. I couldn’t understand their oppression of my adult agency.
“I’m not a child,” I insisted, crying. I sat on one couch, they on the other.
“Well, my father said, “you’re acting like one.”
And that’s what eating disorders do. They transform calories and fat into ghosts and gremlins that propel you into childish acts of self-preservation. And that kind of regression is seemingly impossible to deal with—for you, for me, for my parents and for yours.
About six months after the Maudsley experiment ended, my mother and I boarded a plane to Oklahoma, to check me into an intensive treatment center for eating disorders. I know how I felt—angry, scared, helpless, lost—but I can only imagine what must have been running through my mom’s head. Our DIY summer had ostensibly failed, and she was now forced to relinquish responsibility and hand me over to professionals. I needed more help than my family could give.
I’m not a parent, and I can’t pretend to have any particular insight into how parents relate to their children. What I do know is that eating disorders twist the neck of the parent-child relationship: trust is lost, growth is halted and reversed. The buck is passed.
But that brokenness is not irreparable. With true recovery comes the acceptance—often unenthusiastic, but nonetheless real—that even those closest to you will never fully understand your experience. I am incredibly lucky to have parents who acknowledge my illness at all. I have many friends whose families turn a blind eye to their struggles. And so I’ve learned to appreciate my parents for their efforts—sometimes helpful, sometimes not. When dealing with mental illness, families are full of fumbles and missteps, of feet in the mouth and feelings lost in translation. But it’s possible, and necessary, to fight for these relationships and to embrace their imperfections.
In one of my favorite cover songs, Elvis Costello sings about peace, love, and understanding. As a recovering anorexic, I’ll set my standards a little lower. Recovery is messy and illogical and infuriating. There will not always be peace, and there will not always be understanding. But if parents and patients can continually remind themselves of the love that drives their actions and ties them together, maybe that’s enough.
I can’t undo the hurt I’ve caused my own family, and I can’t promise that I won’t cause any more. But we can live through that hurt together, and together we can move forward.
In the midst of recovery, maybe that’s all we really need. Not peace. Not understanding. Just love.