Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, p. 21
Sometimes it’s a chore being the baby of the family. Everyone walking before you has “done that.” How in the world will you ever do “it”?
We consider ourselves to be a normal family, whatever that is. My husband and I have been married forty years and have four married children. Our daughter Dawnelle was an average girl and above average in her studies, and was always on the honour roll. She was helpful, kind, loving, strong, ambitious, full of fun, wanting to please, and seemingly never needy.
In the late 80s, our family made two moves after living 25 years in one place. We found out later these moves really affected Dawnelle. It was at this time, at age twelve, a strange, mysterious monster entered her young world and remained until she was 20 years old.
She began to do weird things: exercising incessantly, avoiding food, always saying she was fat, developing bizarre eating rituals, and always counting calories. An irritable, depressed mood began to creep in. Sleeplessness and hopelessness were a regular part of her daily routine. She became anxious and extremely fearful of food and eating. Anorexia nervosa was the diagnosis with hospitalization the only alternative available.
For seven years, Dawnelle lived in hospitals, being transferred from one hospital to another hoping to get help. They would get her weight up five pounds, send her home and within days she would have to be re-admitted. In her hometown where she was first hospitalized, her weight plummeted from 72 pounds to 47 pounds. That was scary: very scary!
It seemed the medical profession did not understand anorexia nervosa. Psychiatrists and psychologists tried to change her mind, but her body was so thin, fragile and undernourished, her mind was dysfunctional due to starvation.
Somewhere, somehow, Dawnelle had developed a low self-esteem. She lost her voice! She withdrew from her peers and it seemed she was afraid to grow up. Afraid she would have to suddenly be on her own, she became anxious about life. In her mind, if she avoided food at all cost she would not grow and therefore would not grow up. It backfired on her. Anorexia became such a trap! Life became so small. It consisted of routines, calorie calculations and numbers. That is what her life was. The eating disorder took over and preoccupied her life intensely.
As time progressed, we began to understand a little more about this eating disorder. We realized that curing anorexia was not simply a matter of feeding the body but feeding self-esteem back into her life and helping her find better ways to cope.
However, at different intervals during the years of treatment in hospital, the reality of death was ever-present because of her prolonged starvation. Osteoporosis, liver, kidney and heart failure were already present, as the body had begun to eat its own organs. Treatment included various procedures for feeding her, such as nasal gastrostomy, percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy and TPN tubes; but none of these were too helpful, as she manipulated them, causing great distress to the treatment team as well as the family. Doctors began to inform us the anorexia was at the serious, chronic, irreversible stage. It was not clamorous then, but black and frightening, stalking us like a big, black bear.
During this time, the family had to travel five hundred miles, often twice each month, to visit her and meet with the care people. We were definitely stressed, worried and sad, but we had hope, hope of Dawnelle wanting to recover, and hope she would recover. We expressed this constantly to our daughter, trying to be positive. Although this went in one ear and out the other, we did not give up. To us, love is a verb, meaning it is something you do, the sacrifice you make, and the giving of self. Love is showing loving actions, and it’s not simply a feeling. We showered her with hope and unconditional love. We believed in her and told her so. We supported her without supporting the anorexia. We had a host of friends who had no understanding of the problem, but they stuck with us, heard us out, and showed us love. This kept up our strength.
Finally, after many years and much treatment and caring, Dawnelle made a decision to recover. She finally realized that starvation was not the price of success. She worked very hard at re-feeding herself and getting back into society. Her voice was back. She could have her own feelings and voice them. We were very proud of her! She graduated from grade twelve, completed college and became a pharmacy technician. In 1996, she was married. She indeed has a life and is living it to the fullest.
Dawnelle has so much insight into her years of anorexia which she often shares with us. In anorexia there is:
an underlying need to ‘numb out’
value in getting emotions out of the body and into words
difficulty getting rid of your original self and anorexia because both are in your head
a necessity to avoid labeling the person as ‘anorexic’ — they don’t own anorexia.
Our faith in God bolstered our lives and our family. We prayed fervently, and we continue to thank God for His work of love on behalf of our daughter. We thank the doctors who helped re-build herself, and those who cared for her during that time. One can completely recover from anorexia nervosa. You have to believe that!
Often when going through a crisis in life, one finds value in helping others walking the same road. We now hold a support group for parents who are struggling with a child who has an eating disorder. We have no pat answers, and no way of ‘fixing’ another child but we can offer hope, and understanding of what the parents are feeling and going through. We’ve been there. Done that.