The following eating disorder post is a personal account that was shared with the author, Tessa Paget-Brown, who is a graduate student at Boston University. At Walden, we are proud to support the next generation of eating disorder recovery professionals by including occasional student blog submissions.
Carol’s daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder at the end of her first year of college. Her daughter returned home for outpatient treatment before ultimately being admitted to a treatment program. After completing the program, her daughter returned to live at home while completing a partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient eating disorder program.
After completing treatment, her daughter was able to return to school and has maintained her recovery. In the following interview, Carol shares her family’s story to give a window into the unique experiences and challenges of being a parent of an adult child with an eating disorder and the need for prompt intervention when symptoms present themselves.
Can you tell me about your experience as a parent of an adult child with an eating disorder?
It certainly was an experience I never expected to be in. It seemed surreal that it was actually happening to our family. You spend a lot of time in denial, because you don’t want it to be something that anybody goes through. When I would ask her about what was going on, she would always respond with, “No, nothing’s wrong” or “I’m okay, it’ll be okay.”
And that’s what I wanted to believe, so initially, it was easy to look on the positive side and trust that everything really was fine. And even as the disorder progressed, I thought that since we were a strong, supportive family it was going to be enough to get through everything. I wanted to believe that the power of love and common sense would just prevent this from escalating the way it did. So, when it became obvious that was not what was going to happen, that was very difficult. I just felt constantly anxious. As a parent, you feel like you’re always walking a tightrope of wanting to say something but not saying too much. You want to help and guide but not be too pushy. There was also a big feeling of guilt and wondering, ‘When did I lose that connection with my child?’ When she was growing up, we had a good relationship where we could talk about things, so I just kept asking myself where did that trust break down, and why was my influence not enough to stop this from happening. I wondered how we could have noticed it sooner to stop this from progressing or how we could have stopped this from happening in the first place.
Were there any aspects that were particularly challenging?
Once you’re a parent, you’re always a parent, so, there’s always that desire to control things to protect your child. You think you have a better idea, so you want to push that idea, but having to step back to let your child find their own motivation is tough. Eating disorders are a mental health condition, so you can’t control the whole process and make every decision for your child, because true healing takes internal motivation. It was difficult to know how much to intervene or when to step back, and the not knowing was horrible.
The impact on our day-to-day lives was also challenging. She was living at home, so there was the challenge of figuring out how to schedule everything so that we could be there at meals and be supportive especially as the disorder progressed.
What was it like to balance your concerns and fears as a parent with your child’s autonomy?
It was very difficult to deal with concerns around her being without supervision. The eating disorder had so much control over her that I really couldn’t trust what she was telling me. There were times when she would say she was going to see friends for the day and I wanted to say no, because then I couldn’t watch what she was doing or know if she was eating. As a parent, I wanted to control where she went and who she saw, but you know you have an adult person who has to make their own decisions.
As the parent of an adult, there’s also the aspect of not knowing what’s too much and what’s not enough when it comes to encouraging therapy and treatment. Do you as a parent make the phone calls to providers for an adult, or does that have to come from them? When someone is in a situation like this, they are consumed by the disorder and you can’t help but wonder how competent they are to make all the decisions.
Was there anything you found particularly helpful?
Educating myself as much as I could and having a support network was very helpful. I decided early on that we weren’t going to keep what was happening a secret within the family. I let close friends and extended family know and educated them as much as possible. That allowed me to keep a network of support, so that when things were particularly difficult, it was okay to let other people know.
I also joined a Facebook group for parents of people with eating disorders and that was very helpful because then I could truly see I wasn’t the only one out there. There are times when you don’t want to burden family and friends with everything, and it really helps to hear from other people who have been through a similar experience. The group was incredibly supportive, because it was a place where you could just say anything, and people understood what you were talking about because they were going through it, too.
Is there anything you wish you had known about eating disorders before?
I wish I had been more aware that eating disorders are something that must be tackled head-on and that psychological needs must be addressed, too. I also wish I’d had a better understanding in the beginning that family support isn’t enough, and it takes skilled professionals to bring about recovery.
What advice do you have for parents in similar positions?
My advice to other families is to not let it go on too long and address the problem right away. It can be difficult to understand an eating disorder because logically you would think that the body is programmed to eat to survive. Understanding that there’s something that can override this very basic need is difficult to wrap your mind around. Don’t think that being supportive and loving and giving it time will be enough. It takes professional help, because there are too many aspects of an eating disorder. And even though it is a complex issue and can be a lengthy process, remember that recovery is possible.
Tessa Paget-Brown (she/her) is a graduate student at Boston University pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. She is passionate about raising awareness of eating disorders and advocating for mental health and body liberation. After completing her studies, Tessa hopes to become a registered dietitian specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.
*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden Behavioral Care and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment.