Confessions of a Father
I was introduced to eating disorders (ED) about midway through my daughter Jena's ninth grade year. Prior to this introduction, my wife and I were unaware of the extent of the eating disorder epidemic. Compounding the initial feelings of helplessness was the fact that Jena was attending a boarding school in northern Maine. We went from a family structure of continual contact to one that consisted of phone conversations, e-mails, and letters. I was completely unprepared for the prolonged grip the ED would have on us.
Initial cues that prompted concern on our part were physical in nature. While visiting Jena during a fall family weekend, we expressed a concern to each other that Jena had lost an appreciable amount of weight. Later on, a staff person informed us that she had an increased appetite for running. Jena was running, by herself, at least twice a day upwards to eight miles per run. This routine continued even though she reported increased foot pain (plantar fasciitis).
The Emotional Side
Eventually we began to receive a barrage of phone calls of "panic" from our daughter. The emotional side of the ED was gathering momentum. We began to ask questions and summon input from professionals, and realized the severity and the downward spiraling that was taking place with our daughter's health.
We decided to intervene and withdraw Jena from the school, returning her to home. With the help of medical professionals and caring support of school officials, Jena returned to a healthy routine. She completed a productive three-and-a-half years of high school and was college bound. However, we were still unaware that feelings inside our daughter were spinning out of control, as life events appeared frightening and despairing. Her loneliness and insecurity were not apparent to us. The script she chose to act out was one of happiness and denial of her true feelings. We were convinced that she was a confident young woman. After all, Jena demonstrated leadership qualities throughout high school. Furthermore, we thought we had established a strong and faithful support system.
In the middle of her freshman year at college, when the ED returned for a repeat visit and began to dominate our family again, I reacted with despair and anger. I was of the mind-set that this intrusion would not be tolerated. From all physical indications, we thought we had successfully helped Jena overcome her ED. However, we had not sufficiently addressed the central issues of our daughter's illness: how she feels about life, the pressures she feels to prove her self-worth to her family and others, the prospects of unattainable perfection, and the destructive behaviors and attitude she employs to try and feel and be seen as valuable.1 Apparently, the cycle of the ED was not complete.
Initially, my anger toward the ED drove a wedge in our ability to communicate with each other. A defensive posture may prove beneficial in athletic contests, but quite detrimental as a tactic in human relations. From my daughter's perspective it appeared as though I was projecting my anger and frustration onto her. As we now understand, such interpretations by Jena only increased her feelings of guilt and self-blame and strengthened her sense of inadequacy as she relentlessly moved toward her goal of achieving perfection.
One of the downsides of anger is that it creates a big load to carry. I initially failed to recognize the dilemma I created. Emotions like anger, jealously, and vengefulness are like huge waves during a storm. Their turbulence interferes with hearing voices crying out for help.2 They prevent us from hearing our inner voice of guidance. Answers to problems can only be heard during times when we are not agitated. Letting go of anger allowed me to open up and hear my daughter's voice of helplessness. There's an old Tai Chi proverb that says, "Unless you come with emptiness and openness, I can give you nothing."3
I'm also aware that an ED is sustained by dependence on painful emotions. However, when we relinquish this dependence, we begin to weaken the ED's grip upon us. By loosening the emotional blinders, we take back our power to listen, reason, and heal. As long as we view ourselves cast in the role of victim, we diminish our changes of empowerment. We may not have deliberately chosen or intentionally invited the ED for a visit, but we can decide as a family how we want this movie to play out in subsequent scenes.
Strength in Family
For whatever reason, our family was given a challenge and a conflict to face and resolve by a greater source then ourselves. We have the choice to work it out or let it continue to fester. Subsequently, we have been given an opportunity to uncover resources and strengthen our family relationship or retreat from this growth experience. We can continue to sabotage our growth with self-limiting thoughts and emotions, such as fear or resentment, or choose a course of self-fulfillment, forgiveness, and love.
Our family chose the latter course. With the help of others and our most competent teacher, our daughter, we are navigating a course of possibilities and greater respect for the value each of us contributes toward strengthening our family. Recovering from an ED has empowered our daughter with confidence to express her needs and ask to be recognized as an authentic person. Her experience has provided tools and a voice to enlighten us to create a climate where she is addressed as an equal family member.
According to Gary Zukav, the author of Soul Stories:
"Each day brings gifts we have ordered, and each day we place more orders. We do this by setting our intentions and then acting on them. Everyone gets what she or he ordered. If we order fear and anger, we get it. If we order love and forgiveness, we receive it. We continue to walk in the dark or bask in the sunshine."2
As a family participating in our daughter's recovery, we are making a concerted effort to point our compass toward rays of hope and sunshine. When we believe that the experiences and events in our lives are guided by underlying forces that help us to grow and prosper emotionally and personally, we optimize our chances of overcome hardships. The Universe wants us to learn from the happy occurrences that happen to us. Balance is achieved, however, by learning from painful experiences as well. Our responsibility is to develop awareness, set intentions and continue to walk toward the sunshine.2
Maine, Margo and Kelley, Joe. The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Zukav, Gary. Soul Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Huang, Chungliang Al. Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain: The Essence of Tai Ji. Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts, 1997.