Nicole is a 16-year-old from Philadelphia, PA. She loves music and can often be found singing or
playing the piano or guitar, but largely focuses on academics as well with aspirations to one day be
an editor or journalist.
Arguments, emotions, and worries about the future can all break down the bonds of what may be even the strongest of relationships. Deceit, shame, and anger may further widen the gap between people who may think they know everything about each other. Unfortunately, all of these things are common feelings, battles, or results of an eating disorder. And even more unfortunately, they consistently lead to the downfall of even the most precious of relationships- parent and child. How does a child that is a victim of an eating disorder cope with this? Isolation. It is often forgotten that there are many symptoms to an eating disorder that have little to no relation to food. Isolationism is one of them.
When I fell into my eating disorder, I didn’t realize that I was isolating myself until one of my doctors told me that it was a very common symptom of my disease. All of a sudden I started noticing myself becoming more and more distant from others, specifically my family. I spoke less and less around my mother and father. Family game night became a thing of the past. Even the littlest of things, such as sitting together on the same couch to watch TV, no longer occurred. I was on auto-pilot every time I entered my house– I would make a beeline straight to my room. I couldn’t bear to be around people whom I felt I no longer had any sort of connection with.
To put into words the suffering one goes through when fighting an eating disorder is nearly impossible. As a mother or a father, this experience may be somewhat relatable to trying to explain to a child how much you love them. In the end, the explanation often comes down to “you’ll understand when you’re a parent”, for no words can truly convey to your child exactly how you feel for they have not yet shared your experience of having a child of their own. However, when attempting to convey the brutal misery of a disease such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating, a sufferer cannot simply state “you’ll understand when you have an eating disorder.” More often than not, they cannot convey their despair at all. This failure to have someone understand, this inability of others to relate to them, causes the victims to feel further alienated from everyone around them. Thus, the isolation beings and will continue to be fueled as the disorder digs deeper and deeper into the mind of the victim.
In my personal experience, what drove my need to isolate myself at home was my unexplained anger (later explained during family therapy sessions while I was in treatment) towards my parents. I learned that the only way to temporarily ease my frustration directed at them was to completely avoid them altogether. Thus, my malicious anger created even more distance between me and my family, subtly fueling my need for isolation.
One day, on the way home from a doctor’s appointment distended with bad news, my mom and I got into a severely heated argument. It reached the point where I was almost sure that passengers in the cars next to us on the highway could hear word for word my mother’s frantic attempts at reasoning with me and my hopeless retaliation of why I felt I could not change. After I had tried in so many ways but repeatedly failed to have my mother comprehend my struggle, I could do nothing more than desperately cry, “You won’t ever understand.” My mother’s reply was something I’ll never forget: “You’re right, I won’t, and I don’t know what to do.” These few words, this honest truth, restored threads of our relationship that had been long lost. For so long she had felt that as a mother it was her duty to stay strong, to appear as if she knew what the right thing to do was. But her tearful and helpless honesty had exposed a vulnerability that I could so easily relate to. We were now both completely open with each other, and through this we realized that we were just as lost as the other, not knowing how to cope with this disease that was slowly but surely plaguing our entire family. Although our relationship had long been shattered by continuous fights and tears, the fragments were still there, waiting to be picked up and put back in place.
It was after this bout of honesty that I realized that although my parents could not understand exactly what I was going through, this didn’t mean that we could no longer connect. Although the struggle of a child with an eating disorder is very different from the struggle the parent of the suffering child faces, both the child and the parents are fighting against the same thing. As a parent, it is important to remind your child that you are fighting this disease together. Be honest and open about how you feel, and through this prevent isolation by maintaining threads of your relationship with your child. What they need most is to know that you are just as vulnerable as they are. It’s okay if you do not know what to do next, or how to “fix” the problem, what matters is that you still find ways to connect with your son or daughter.