As I settled in to one of the few remaining empty seats smack dab in the middle of the room hosting the introductory session of this year’s NEDA Annual Conference (i.e., “Eating Disorders 101”), I wasn’t at all sure “why” I was there, let alone why I had selected a seat that made an inconspicuous early exit impossible, as if any seat in a room packed with 150 woman would allow one of only 4 men to leave without being noticed! After all, I had long since “graduated” from the “freshman year curriculum” on eating disorder awareness. And then, a middle-aged woman sitting at the table behind me raised her hand and opened her heart – and I realized my presence was no accident. It seems that her 25 year-old son was struggling mightily with an eating disorder (yes, men too (by the hundreds of thousands) are afflicted with these insidious diseases!). In the early stages, he readily acknowledged his illness and welcomed offers of help. Of late, however, the disease had begun to wield his “adulthood” as a sword to fend off all who dared to suggest he was sick or in need of treatment, even his own mother who, like most moms (and dads), wanted only for “her little boy” to live and, one day, be happy. He was “old enough now to make his own decisions,” he told her, “including if or when I need help and what that help should look like.” She, on the other hand, was overcome with fear for his life and obviously desperate for guidance. In fact, she readily admitted that her profound sense of helplessness was quickly giving way to one of hopelessness.
The two presenters were swift to acknowledge and offer a clinical perspective on the unique challenges faced by parents of adult children suffering from eating disorders, but I could tell from the tears that had begun to silently stream down mom’s face that, though well-intended, their words had done little to comfort her or give her hope. Before I could reign it back in, my hand was in the air. My heart just can’t seem to shut-up in moments like that anymore! I turned to the woman and told her that I knew intimately the place from which her tears flowed. I told her that I too have an adult child (a daughter her son’s age) who, on more than one occasion, nearly died at the hands of an eating disorder and who, at times, often when her life could least tolerate it, asserted her “adulthood” as a shield to block well-intended offers of help. I told her that through the same tears she was now shedding I had come to learn that, while my daughter may not have expressed the point as clearly or compassionately as she could have (or I would have liked her to!), she, like the woman’s son, had actually arrived at a difficult-for-a-parent-to-accept, but inescapable truth, namely that the eating disorder battle is the sufferer’s alone to fight; that, when all is said and done, only they can choose life and commit to doing the hard work required to not only sustain it biologically, but to embrace it fully; and that, as much as our instincts cry out to be more involved, our role, as loved ones of adult sufferers, is to give them the freedom they need to do that work.
“However,” I hastened to add, “I believe there are at least 3 things you can do that may make a meaningful difference in your son’s journey.” With that, the room grew silent. I’m not sure “where” the words that followed came from or exactly what I said, but it was something along these paraphrased lines. “First, you need to do what you can to help your son stay connected (or re-connect) with his pre-eating disorder self, because the reality is, while they currently may be buried beneath a mountain of lies and distortions, his true heart and self did not suddenly disappear. One way to do that is to provide him with photographs of simpler, healthier times in his life, times of joy, of togetherness, of endless possibilities – pictures of what life once ‘looked like’ and will look like again when his truth regains it foothold (http://tinyurl.com/ktd8uhv). Another is to enlist the help of others whose lives your son has touched through the years and urge them to share their love for him, either in person or in heartfelt notes (http://tinyurl.com/n47vo96). Second, because eating disorders are shame-based and depend on your son feeling unworthy and unloved for their sustenance, it is imperative that you shower him with empathy, unconditional love and support at all times. Believe me, that won’t be easy. To the contrary, in both his words and by his actions, your son will do everything he can to drive you and your love away. Under no circumstances can you allow that to happen, because whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, your son needs to know that there is someone in the world he can trust, someone who will not abandon him in his darkest hour. Finally, it’s very important that you never lose hope. That you remain fully committed to the belief that, one day, healing will come and your son will discover what you have always known to be true about him – that he is loved and worthy of fully receiving the love you (and others) have to give.
No sooner had I finished than a young woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said: “Thank you. I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out how I ever survived my eating disorder and now I know. It’s because someone stood by me every step of the way. They refused to leave me. They just wouldn’t give up on me. They believed in me when no one else did. Eventually, their presence convinced me that I was worthy of life and of love.” Come to think of it, all of us would benefit greatly from having those three things in our life: (1) a picture kept in the forefront of our minds at all times that reminds us of what we aspire to; (2) hope; and (3) the knowledge and assurances that there is someone in our life, who loves us so much that, on a moment’s notice, they would gladly drop everything they’re doing to rush to our side, pick us up, dust us off and stand by us, offering their unconditional support until we regain the strength necessary to resume our journey. I suspect there’s someone in all of our lives who needs to know we are (or are willing to be) that person! This holiday season might be a perfect time to give them that gift.