“There’s always some reason to feel not good enough.” Sarah McLachlan*
There was a time (not so long ago) when I naively believed that there wasn’t a problem in the world (at least in my world) that I was incapable of solving. I’m not entirely sure where that fanciful idea was born, but it was very real and before long it expanded to include not only my problems, but the problems of others (e.g., friends, family members, colleagues at work and later my children). From my perspective, no problem was too big or too small for my white hat and white horse. Or so I thought. And then, one day, our daughter stopped eating.
I will never forget the day I came face-to-face with our daughter’s eating disorder for the first time. I will never forget the frail and frightened look on the face of a young woman who I barely recognized as my daughter sitting wrapped in a woolen blanket in a nearly fetal position in the corner of the over-sized couch that dominated the small living room in her apartment or the battle that ensued as my wife and I tried to convince her to allow the contents of a small can of protein drink to pass over parched and quivering lips that were desperate for even a brief reminder of how food or liquid tasted. I hardly knew what to say, let alone do. It all seemed so surreal, so incredibly irrational. Two things were, however, painfully obvious: (1) if our daughter didn’t eat or drink something soon, she was going to die; and (2) she and her eating disorder, which by then was firmly in control of the situation, couldn’t possibly care any less. Indeed, both were openly, almost combatively, defiant.
Miraculously, after 2 hours of encouraging, cajoling, imploring, insisting and finally dictating in anger, the task was complete – the small can empty – just in time to start the gut-wrenching process all over again. I’d seen enough. Like Pavlov’s dog, I leapt into action. I threw my entire arsenal of problem-solving skills at her eating disorder. I contacted some of the leading experts in the field in search of understanding and then used what I learned to put together a game plan – a course of treatment that I was certain would dispel this insidious enemy just as quickly as he had moved in and taken as his hostage the most beautiful soul I’ve ever known.
Before long, however, I was forced to confront a very sobering and heartbreaking truth: There I was, faced with the biggest and most important problem I had ever faced, with my daughter’s life, a life for which I would gladly and unhesitatingly sacrifice my own, literally hanging in the balance, and I was powerless to fix it. In fact, I couldn’t even understand it. Over time (lots of it), my super-hero persona surrendered and my heart opened wide to the realization that:
We can hold the light for our loved one (and we should – steadfastly), but, at the end of the day, only they can choose to step into it.
We can show them the truth about themselves (and we should – unhesitatingly), but, at the end of the day, their eyes are the ones that have to see it.
We can shower them with words of affirmation and encouragement (and we should – enthusiastically), but, at the end of the day, only they can allow those words to take up residence in and nourish their soul.
We can point them to the pathway that leads to recovery (and we should – lovingly), but, at the end of the day, only they can take the first step (and the next).
We can rush to their side when they slip and fall, as they likely will, along that sometimes treacherous path and offer a hand to help them up (and we should – empathetically), but, at the end of the day, only they can reach out and take it.
We can implore them to live fully and unabashedly (and we should – whole-heartedly), but, at the end of the day, only they can choose life and do what is necessary to sustain it.
I was reminded of these difficult truths (and my humanity) again at 5:47 a.m., on Monday, January 4, 2016, when The Bully reared his ugly head again, this time in the form of word that a young woman named Emily, who I’d been supporting and encouraging for nearly 3 years in her ongoing efforts to recover from a long and difficult battle with an eating disorder, had died suddenly the day before. Seconds later, as I lay in the darkness rereading and trying to process that news on my phone, warm tears began to pour down the sides of my face. “This is not possible,” I thought – “not Emily. Wasn’t it just a few days ago we’d corresponded in anticipation of the holidays? I hurriedly pulled myself together and went to the computer searching for anything in our most recent exchange of texts and Facebook messages that would bring some semblance of sense to this otherwise senseless and heart-breaking news.
What I found instead stopped me in my tracks.
Emily had been telling me that she still had not found any relief from bouts of vertigo and that the accompanying nausea was making it difficult for her to eat. I, in turn, had been growing increasingly concerned and urging her to use her voice to insist that her doctors find an answer:
Me: “Emily, Emily, Emily: I think I’m gonna have to fly up there and personally see to it that you see a SPECIALIST who can get to the root of this problem and resolve it. I hate the fact that you are suffering with this – and that it’s impacting all aspects of your life and your health.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she replied – punctuated by a smiley face. “And, anyway, why would you do that for me?”
“Because I’ve always liked white hats and white horses and helping to rescue damsels in distress!” I said.
To which Emily responded, “LOL” followed by an even BIGGER smiley face and a LARGE thumbs up! It was the last contact I had with her.
12 days later, she was dead.
As I pushed my chair back from the computer, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should’ve added ‘and because I value you, because you’re worthy of good health, deserving of happiness and of a full life, because the world is a better place with you in it, and because I love your smile, your spirit and your Southern accent!” Then I realized I’d told her all of those things and more – at least 100 times in the preceding three years – and I gladly would have told her 1,000 more if only she’d given me the chance . . . if only she had lived.
My heart was broken – and it breaks again today two years later remembering her.
But I refuse to allow The Bully to claim Emily’s death as a victory. Instead, I am committed to honoring her life by continuing to encourage others to honor theirs and I would ask that you join me. If you are suffering from an eating disorder (or other addictions) and considering treatment, honor Emily by seeking it. If you are in treatment, honor her by taking full advantage of it. If you are in recovery, honor her by taking the next step, eating the next meal, refraining/abstaining from substance use, and/or treating yourself a little more gently – a little more kindly – a lot more compassionately. And, if you love an “Emily”, honor my friend by continuing to love open and whole-heartedly and unconditionally.
Then Emily wins, then we win – then Love Wins.
*April Koehler’s impossibly and hauntingly beautiful photograph entitled “Mourning Angel” is copyright protected and used with permission. April’s other work can be found at: www.aprilkoehlerphotography.com