Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, p. 20
The toughest challenge of being a parent faced me in 1997. My daughter — my only child — was dying of anorexia nervosa. I wanted her hospitalized to get the care she so desperately needed if she was to survive. After months, we finally got a response to my many pleas with numerous health care workers at the hospital, and to the rapid decline of my daughter’s health.
I felt relieved thinking that the three-week program would now enable her to get her life back. She, too, had a small amount of faith that it could help her deal with this ‘monster’ (anorexia) controlling her; but as the doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, dieticians and other health care workers began their work, my hope began to wane.
The illness was treated as if it were the person, not as a separate entity intending to devour what little remained of my daughter. Patients with heart disease or cancer are treated as a people invaded by illness, and they are offered support and nurturing. Why was the same not offered to those who are seriously ill with an eating disorder?
During this most trying situation, I was faced with examining all facets of my past, present, and future parenting roles. I was willing however, to do whatever it took to save my daughter’s life. Regular visits to the family therapist were prescribed with the understanding that both my daughter and I would receive the support we needed to combat this monster.
Yet, many visits focused on my marriage and my relationship with my husband, one of the few supports I had at the time. On other visits, the therapist’s criticism targeted my relationship with my daughter. After an hour of reprimand and condemnation, we were told to “do something together that we both enjoyed,” not an easy task considering we left the therapist’s office being too angry to even look at each other.
The attack on fundamental relationships did not enhance the health and wellness of the child I loved so dearly; instead, it drove her further into the grips of death. Life was not the least bit enjoyable — many hours, days, weeks, months, and years were spent searching for the elusive reason for all this.
An eating disorder is very complex, and as unique as the person suffering with it. I liken the treatment of an eating disorder to that of someone with a terminal illness — eating disorders can be terminal. There are many types of medical treatment available, and it is up to the patient and loved ones to find it and decide which is best at the time. The difficulty is that a type of treatment works at one point for the individual, may become less effective as the illness progresses.
To find the best possible treatment in the maze of our health care system is challenging, if not impossible. For example, in our situation, we were fortunate enough to find a therapist that truly understood my daughter and the illness; the downside, however, is that the Medical Services Plan (MSP) of BC wouldn’t pay for therapy unless it was delivered by a registered psychiatrist or psychologist, even though the fees of our chosen therapist were one-third of those covered by MSP. This further complicated an already volatile situation: eating disorder sufferers don’t feel they deserve any help, thus don’t see the need to pay for a therapist which would place a further hardship on the family. Where will the money come from?
Looking back, I can say I have learned much from my experience with anorexia. Parents, if you suspect your child has an eating disorder, you are probably right. Find a doctor who has experience dealing with eating disorders, as well as a therapist who understands the disease and how to treat it. Do not delay in getting help. Also, be sure to find supports for yourself, such as support groups, friends, and health care professionals. The battle with the monster can play havoc on your health as well as your child’s.
I strongly encourage parents to show unconditional love, and be positive in their dealings with their sick child, even though this is not an easy task. Remember too, it is the disease, not your child that is causing her to act or talk the way she does. This is hard to remember at times, but if you are able let the child know the illness is making them behave this way, it will help them realize they themselves are not the monster.
In closing, do not give up! My daughter graduated with Honours in the Bachelor of Science Program from UVIC a year ago and leads a happy, healthy life. She plans to use her experience to help others fight this horrific illness.