Eating Disorders Turn a Parent's World Upside Down

Does My Daughter Have and Eating Disorder?Credit:

The following story is a true account of what happened to my  family.  I am now able to share it with the world because my daughter has already shared it on her own blog. It  is no longer a secret.

The words I write are our experiences and not a replacement for professional help.  If you suspect that your son or daughter has an eating disorder, run to the pediatrician and have him or her evaluated.  It could save your child's life.

There are more than five warning signs that your child may have this illness-these are just five that are easily recognizable if you have an awareness of them.

Names and a few minor details have been changed to protect the identity of others.

It was a beautiful May afternoon.  My daughter, Jessica, was away for the weekend on a youth group retreat and my husband and our two younger children were enjoying a fun day in the backyard swimming in our Intex pool they had finished setting up.

Then the phone rang.

It was Michelle, Jessica’s youth group advisor.

“Hannah, you need to come out to camp right away.  We have to talk about Jessica.”

“What is this about?”  I replied, barely catching my breath.

“I can’t tell you over the phone,” was all Michelle said.

“I’ll be right over.”

I told my husband that something was up with Jessica and I had to go to the campgrounds and find out what it was.

On the twenty minute car ride, my mind was racing.  What could it be?  All of the worst things came to my mind, but none made any sense.  Jess was a good kid. I knew all of her friends and their parents and we were all on the same page about many things.

She had her first boyfriend, but the relationship was new and they both went to different high schools and could not see each other unless one set of parents drove.  They were never alone.

What could it be?

Uncovering the Truth

The nightmare begins

Jess was waiting for me at the camp office.  I  asked her what this was about, but she refused to answer or even look me in the eye.

I felt nauseous.

Michelle appeared and the three of us sat down to talk at a nearby picnic bench.  She began to tell me what no parent wants to hear. 

“Samantha and Brittany (two of Jessica’s friends) talked to me earlier today about Jess. They are very worried about her, as she has not been eating.”

I turned to my daughter.

“What is this about?”

Jess started crying.  “I don’t know.”

Michelle continued.   “For the last few months, Jess has not eaten with her friends when they are out and she told them that she is not eating at school.”

“Why?”  I asked her.

“I have not liked what I have seen in the mirror like since I was in the eighth grade.”

I started to cry.  My daughter, who is so beautiful and so smart-a born leader-did not see in the mirror what everyone else could.

Another girl in the youth group also had an eating disorder, and Michelle was going to ask her parents for information about doctors and email them to me.

I could barely move from the picnic bench at the end of our conversation.  My stomach felt like a 2 by 4 had hit it.  My mind raced with all kinds of questions, especially ones about how I did not see all of this happening.

Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder, First Edition
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It would be several months before my daughter was dismissed from her intensive outpatient program. When she was released, she had to have a team of doctors in place to support her recovery. Her psychiatrist gave me this book and it literally saved my life.

I was not to blame for my daughter's behavior-this is a mental illness.

This guide shows parents how they can be a positive force to help their child heal and begin healing. There may be two steps back for every step forward, but beating this disease is possible.

Warning Signs That Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

After getting Jessica the help she needed, I learned a great deal about eating disorders-more than I ever wanted to know. Hindsight is 20/20, and when all of the pieces were put together, the red flags had been there...I just did not see them.

First and Second Warning Signs

Changes in Food Choices and Food Habits

Are These Foods Healthy?Credit:

Once upon a time, Jessica could eat anything and not gain an ounce.  She was the envy of her peers. Four pieces of pizza?  No problem. Two pints of ice cream? Give her a third!  Her tummy remained as flat as a board.

She was a late bloomer, getting her period in the eighth grade.  Slowly, her ability to wolf down food and not gain an ounce changed as her body did.

At her 16 year old checkup, Jess was aghast at the fourteen pounds she had put on. She cried at the number the nurse reported back to her. While she was still a skinny size 3, her size “0” and “1” pants no longer fit.  

This was the moment the seed of her eating disorder was planted.

The changes in food choices came slowly.  Jess often questioned whether or not something she was putting in her mouth was “healthy” or not.  Since we eat a healthy diet and I cook and bake from scratch, I assured her it was.

Always a breakfast eater, she now barely ate anything except a piece of fruit, saying she was too tired to eat. Because of her heavy course load in high school, she stayed up way too late, and that excuse seemed valid.

Lunch changed.  Instead of a turkey sandwich, she packed Wasa Crisp Breads, an apple and a bottle of water.

When she came home, she binged.  My daughter was starving, and when she got off the bus, she shoveled food into her mouth as fast as she could.  

Of course, because she binged, she was not hungry for dinner two hours later.  

Around 9:00 at night she had a small snack, but that was it.

The cycle of restricting behavior had started.

Eating Disorders Affect Both Boys and Girls

While we typically think of only girls having eating disorders, it affects both boys and girls.  The number of boys diagnosed with this condition is on the rise.

The Third and Fourth Warning Signs

Little Miss Moody Disappears

Warning Signs of an Eating DisorderCredit:

Jessica was always an honors student, and she took Advanced Placement and Honors level classes.  Teachers were always giving hours of homework each night in each class.  Combine that with her youth group involvement and the fact that she was running to be it’s president, Jess was one busy teen.

After her binging, she would disappear into her room and not come out for hours.  She was “using symptoms”, a term for being lost inside her illness.  She couldn’t use symptoms when she was with us, so she stayed in her room so she could stay away from food.

All of us are familiar with how we act when we are starving. You get edgy, moody and can bite someone’s head off if they look at you the wrong way.

While teenagers are moody creatures by nature, Jess was beyond moody.  She was vile, and we all started avoiding her, as she was just so unpleasant to be around.  It was actually a relief to have her stay inside her room and not talk to us.

I blamed the homework her teachers gave, tests, the stress of her junior year and SAT’s, hormones and her over-involvement in her youth group on her change in behavior.

It wasn’t any of those things.  She was STARVING!

Different Kinds of Eating Disorders

In addition to anorexia nervosa, bulimia, orthorexia, bigorexia, and binge eating are also part of this insidious disease.  My daughter had EDNOS-eating disorder not otherwise specified.  In other words, she did not have enough boxes checked off on the anorexia checklist, but there was certainly a problem.

The Fifth Eating Disorder Warning Sign

Weight loss becomes apparent

It is inevitable that after restricting food, weight loss will occur.  In time, her stomach became flat again and I was washing clothes that she had not worn in a while.  She was not overly or dangerously thin, she just looked like she used to.  

More Warning Signs for Parents

Restricting is Another Eating Disorder Warning SignCredit:

Jessica was a restrictor, which means she restricted her calorie intake.

Bulimia is an eating disorder that has it’s victims eating food and then self-inducing vomiting (purging).  If your daughter heads to the bathroom right after a meal and you hear noises, that is a sign, a BIG one.

There will be evidence in the bathroom of a purging episode, as there are dirty spots that get missed when cleaning up and washcloths or dirty towels that are not hidden well enough. There is also an unmistakable odor.

If exercise is taking over your daughter’s life, that is also a warning sign that she may have an eating disorder.  Jessica was too busy to exercise, but some girls will get up and exercise for a few hours before school, and then again after school.  It becomes an obsession.

If your daughter has always had a regular period, severe weight loss will make her stop menstruating.  My daughter had never had a regular cycle, so this sign was lost on me.  She was still going two months or more without a period, and that was normal.

Beating Anorexia is One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

There is hope for the future

There is Light at the End of the TunnelCredit:

Jessica went to an intensive outpatient program for as long as our insurance would permit, which was three months. She now has a support team of medical professionals that she sees regularly to maintain her progress.  Like any addictive disease, we take it one day at a time.

That’s all we can do.  

There have been steps backward, but she has our love and support, and that of her friends and her family.  We all have her back every step of the way.

When Jessica left for college, she was warned that if she lost weight, she would have to come home. She actually gained weight, like most freshman do, and was beside herself during the Winter Break.  She got through it, but I was a train wreck because of the incident.  It was a painful reminder that even after all of her treatment, the issue is still there underneath.

This summer, she had two episodes where the illness reared it's ugly head again.  The first one I was able to catch, but the second one was caught by a friend. I was blessed that Samantha, her best friend who first reported what she was seeing two years earlier, called to tell me about Jess's eating habits (and lack thereof).  Once again, I confronted my daughter and set down rules and guidelines or else she would be readmitted for treatment and not return to school.  She complied, and all is calm once again...for now.  Relapse is part of recovery, and one can only hope that it can be worked through before it spirals out of control once again.

If you suspect that your daughter or son has an eating disorder-if anything written here is ringing a bell, seek help immediately.

Update June 2015

It has been a bit of a wild ride since Jess came home from her sophmore year of  college. She can keep it together at school, but at home, her safe place to fall, she can (and has) gone to pieces. My mother actually witnessed one of her eating disorder outbursts, and she could not believe that this was her granddaughter.

It was not. It was ED coming for an unwanted visit.

Once she gets back into a routine of eating better and exercising in a healthy way, I know that she will be back on track. I just have to help her get there.

One day at a time.