My name is Maddie, and I’m about to start my last semester of college. If you had asked me in June if I would be here, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was even capable of returning to school for my final year, In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of walking out the door and facing the day, let alone going back to school, or as I called it the “scene of my crime.”
You see, in April of that year, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and depression. I had been battling this for longer than I realized and it was starting to control my life; food and exercise dictated my everyday life.
Today, I want to share with you my personal journey with a mental illness and how my relationship with my parents and their support were interlaced throughout my battle. Before I continue, I feel the need to point out that every child has a different story. The way an eating disorder manifests can differ and your relationship with your child could be different than that of the one I have with my parents, and that is okay! This is merely my story, and my hope is that by sharing, parents might have a better understanding of this illness and learn from the things that helped me. My parents have been rock stars! They are special individuals and an incredible team. My journey through this illness has made me even more aware of those statements.
I Tried to Hide It
My mom first started to voice concern over my weight during the summer of 2016. She would say if I reached a certain weight that she would intervene. I reached that weight and hid it from her for as long as I could. I told her to trust me that I had it all under control and was working on it. Looking back, that was the furthest thing from the truth. I was drowning and didn’t know how to call out for help. Again in November, she visited me at school and sat me down. It was over a meal, where, ironically, I had a plate of only vegetables in front of me, that again she offered her help, voiced her concern and said if it got to a certain point she would intervene. And again, I told her I had it under control and would talk to my friend who was a registered dietician. I made some very minor changes in what I ate, but the mental battle and the time I spent exercising continued. The point to take away here is that in my case I tried to deny or hide my illness. From what I’ve learned, that is not abnormal.
Starting in late February, I started calling my mom regularly, often in complete meltdown mode. I felt out of control. I believed that eating two rice cakes was overindulging, that I had to work out and had to keep drinking an all-natural laxative to help my body regulate “all the food I was eating” (which wasn’t even close to enough but in my mind it was enormous and embarrassing).
Be Present and Listen
My parents made it clear they were aware of my unhealthy habits but didn’t push anything more. They didn’t self-diagnose me; their awareness helped me realize the consequences of what I was doing to myself. My parents didn’t say I told you so, they didn’t blame me for anything, and they didn’t push a solution on me. They loved me in the messiest part of my life thus far.
It is Not Your Fault
One of my biggest concerns was that my parents would blame themselves. I hated the thought of them thinking it was something they did or didn’t do right. We had a conversation early on and would continue this conversation over the course of my recovery, that my illness was not reflective of their parenting at any point. This was MY battle. Knowing that they came to believe this helped me to move forward in my recovery. So parents, repeat after me: “It is not my fault!” Repeat it as much as you need because it will help your child.
I Needed Space
Recognize that children may also need the space to come to their own realization. My parents let me cry but also gave me the space when I needed it. This was a crucial point for me because if they had forced me to get help, I don’t think I would’ve been ready. I needed to be ready to ask for help. I was going through my grieving and acceptance phase. Sure they would say things about maybe going to see a therapist at school but never forced it. They would just listen.
Remain Strong and Positive
Aside from being my shoulder to cry on, my parents were also my reassurance. They were continually positive in the process and reassured me that if I wanted to seek help that it was normal and didn’t mean I was weak or that it was a sign of giving up. Slowly, I came to accept and realize I couldn’t do it on my own. I had to get to this point at my own pace because I truly doubt therapy would be as helpful as it is without my willingness to want to change and heal.
Make Room for Success
Show you believe in your child by creating an environment for success. For me, this was the creation of what we call “Team Maddie,” with the founding members being my mom and dad. The next members were my therapist and then my nutritionist. I kid you not, ask my therapist today and she will know exactly what “Team Maddie” is. My parents even met with my therapist alone to see how they could support me in this! How amazing is that?! They told me over and over to not worry about any cost of therapy and that they would figure it out so that their Maddie could be whole again. I am beyond grateful for that and am fully aware that this isn’t always the case for some families.
As I started to come to terms with my diagnosis (which by the way, I hate that word … another story for another time) of anorexia nervosa and depression, I was more and more willing to talk openly about it. My parents never pried but allowed me to tell what I wanted from my therapy sessions. What was a game changer for me too was also having tough but honest conversations with my parents.
They wanted to know what things they said that I took the wrong way. They wanted me to point out when they may have pushed too much to try new food or exercise less. They let me decide if I wanted them at my nutritionist appointments, let me choose what to eat and how much to eat. Bottom line is they let me be the pilot of my own journey through it all. Yes, I failed to pilot well many times. But that is just it – they let me fail throughout the journey. They also let me get back up on my own two feet. They were always there with open arms if I needed help or to give a proud hug when I did get back up on my own. They were my safe place and my cheerleaders. They were a place of trust. Importantly, they let me join “Team Maddie” at my own pace because it did take me so long to believe in myself the way they did.
(Disclaimer: This is just one story if you think your child is in extreme danger due to their eating disorder you may need to take more drastic steps of intervention.)
My parents would ask permission before sharing my battle with family or friends. I truly appreciated this and thought they did a great job here. They were protective of my journey and respected that it was just that, my own personal journey and battle. I let my dad tell my aunt about my journey and to this day she calls herself a proud member of “Team Maddie.” I came to realize through allowing them to share my story how common these struggles are and also the power in numbers. The more encouragers I had, the more I believed in myself.
You Will Make Mistakes
There are many more things my parents did well throughout my journey. However, they did make mistakes and you will too. If you don’t take away anything else from this letter, then just take this, my final point…you will make mistakes in the journey of helping your child heal and your child will make mistakes too. Have mercy on yourselves and your child. Your child will learn to be merciful to him or herself through your example. Be a mirror of Christ’s mercy for your child. Encourage faith through this all.
The biggest gift my parents gave me was faith. This gift wasn’t just given at my diagnosis, but was given to me at birth and formed so that I would be steadfast enough in my faith for it to carry me through life’s hurdles such as this. So parents, remember mercy and faith. This is a marathon, a very long marathon at times. There are beautiful lessons and blessings that come with this battle. It is a battle that should not be taken lightly and is different for every single person.
There are many who have gone through this journey before you. I’ve realized my parents and I have become members of a bigger team, the team for eating disorder recovery. My parents and I are willing to talk and answer any questions. We are praying for you and your children! This was our journey and it was my honor to share a bit of it with you.
God Bless, Maddie