Saving My Daughter
I would like to share the journey that eventually prompted me to start the Elephant in the Room Foundation.
My family could conform to some people’s ideas of what could be ‘expected’ of anorexic family. We could be described as of ‘pushy and over-achieving parents’ who have a ‘perfectionist’ daughter going to ‘pressurizing’ academic school. My husband and I had our graduate degrees from top tier universities and both of our children (my daughter and son) go to one of the top academic schools in the country.
However, contrary to what many may assume, my daughter made it to one of the most prestigious schools fully on her own merit. She has always been a conscientious and self-motivated student; meanhwile, anyone who knows me can attest that I am the opposite of a ‘tiger mum’. In fact my daughter often teases me about my comparative lack of involvement in her academic life compared to that of her peers’ parents. I ideally emphasize the ‘love of learning’ rather than the actual academic achievement.
Our family lives an active life and we consider ourselves to be a sporty family. My husband is an expert diver, avid snowboarder and regularly challenged himself to various triathlon events. Our children swim, climb, horseride, ski/snowboard and scuba dive among other things.
Because of this enthusiasm for sports, by the spring of 2010, our kids had been swim club members for a couple years. It was normal for them to be training 1-2 hours per day, 3-6 times per week. My daughter never allowed herself to miss a swim practice, she had always been that self-disciplined.
Everything was normal until she began to skip dinner after swim practice because ‘I’m too tired, I want to go straight to bed.’ The next morning I expected she would be hungry, but she barely touched her breakfast. So slowly I began to notice a compounding of seemingly legitimate excuses to skip meals. At the same time, she started to take interest in baking. She would look at recipe books for hours, contemplating which cake to bake for the family.
For weeks we enjoyed homemade patisserie, baked to perfection, still believing that she was enjoying eating the cakes too. In reality she became the master of serving food. She always made sure her brother got the biggest portion and everyone else was also served generous portions. When she served herself, presentation was immaculate but the meal decorated across her plate was equivalent to half of the amount she served others. Food rituals I began to observe included eating slowly, cutting up her food and leaving ‘dirty’ plates of purposely uneaten food. Her attitude towards food became one of constant disgust. She no longer had any favorite foods that she would indulge in.
In the meantime, her collar bones and her shoulder blades began to noticeably protrude like typical runway models that our society adores. My husband remarked ‘She’s taking charge of her life, it’s a good thing. Look how much energy she has, if she didn’t have enough nutrition, there would be no way she could last that long (doing sports)’. Counter-intuitively my daughter seemed to get the ‘high’ from starvation and stayed healthy while the rest of us battled with common colds. Her complexion cleared up and she looked picture perfect.
By summer 2010, my daughter was no longer full of smiles. She began to lose interest in playing with friends, always wanting to do rigorous activities while refusing any relaxation. She never had the desire to eat- panicking when asked to do so. She would refuse to eat snacks (or any food) in-between regular meals. She completed weeks of horse riding camp, followed by a sailing competition and full-day canyoning. Though I ensured she ate main meals, she was able to steadily lose weight by keeping herself extremely active. Some new behaviours she would exhibit included: skipping instead of walking and find excuses to go up and down stairs.
I used to cry myself asleep after I gave her goodnight hugs. I could feel her body getting thinner by the day.
By autumn 2010, she had lost 25% of her body weight. She started to isolate herself by reading constantly on her own and acted aggressively vicious to her brother when she did not used to be. She barely ate at school but would lie blatantly about it when asked. She never used to lie.
At this point I knew I was losing her, not only physically but also mentally. I saw anorexia engulfing her and I took the drastic measure of stopping all of her physical activities, including swimming, which she adored. By doing so, I was ‘buying time’ for her. I ensured she did not lose any more weight by making sure she ate adequately at mealtimes. To help her, the whole family began to eat the same large portions. Not finishing her plate was not an option.
Sometimes meals took hours, tears and shouting. But she soon understood that there were severe consequences, such as not be allowed to go to school (which she loved), for not eating/minimizing food intake. On days she had to stay home, I took the time to eat together and to explain that what, at the time, felt like a punishment was being enforced to help her reclaim ‘the real her. ’
The family almost never had peaceful mealtimes anymore. I insisted that all of us admit that our daughter’s attitude towards eating was unhealthy and that we should not deny it by acting as if it was normal. The whole family had to help her by not accepting ‘the anorexic alter state’. However, most importantly, we made sure she actually ate and did not succumb to her seemingly reasonable excuses not to eat (or eat minimally). This was very hard to do as she was in every other way (except for eating) still highly functional, performed well in school and remained the same intelligent and caring person.
Because of this duality, inside her was in constant turmoil; she was very aware of the undue stress she caused the family, she felt extremely guilty for not being able to stop herself and ashamed, after all society branded anorexics as controlling perfectionists who only worry about their images. I remember vividly the incident when my daughter was feeling low after she had to finish her meal. She decided to go outside, to take photos of birds. I saw first hand how arts was effective in helping her express and deal with her emotion. She came back home in a much calmer mental state.
I exposed her to many inspiring success stories, the reality of anorexia nervosa multi-disciplinary institutions and the latest findings and understanding of what anorexia nervosa is about. Most websites say, “Early intervention is key” but actually describe the later stage of Anorexia and associated helps once one is deemed to be anorexic, including 15% underweight, which left me frustrated and feeling helpless. My daughter loves reading and having her read the book ‘Eating With Anorexic’ by Laura Collins was a very helpful first step. Not only her, but the whole family became aware that we are not alone and every symptoms we suspected seem to be pointing at early signs of anorexia. From understanding the compelling arguments of Dr. Shan Guisinger, other psychiatric experts, genetic studies and brain researches, I tried to instill the sense of this ‘genetic gift’ as I call it for both the high achieving traits and the inherent condition of anorexia that she has to overcome, learn and live with, much like what people has to learn to cope with anxiety before giving a speech. We watched the movie ‘For the Love of Nancy’ as a family to spark a constructive discussion together. We saw the grim reality of anorexics being ‘committed to’ institutions, how their mindset was not fully addressed, which led them back to relapse of extreme obsessiveness and some of them to deaths.
Furthermore, I noticed one common factor all survivors share, that is, ‘near death’ experience. That experience seemed to be the catalyst for them to make ‘the switch’ to recover, although unfortunately most suffered permanent physical damage resulting from prolonged condition of starvation. It was indeed extremely difficult for my daughter to make ‘the switch’ to want to get better without her experiencing this ‘near death’ ultimatum. The best I felt I could do was to to make sure her life did not go on pretending as it was normal (because it was not normal for her to never had ‘the want’ or ‘the need’ to eat); so on a daily basis, there were plenty of reminders: she hated that she had to be weighed, to be told to ‘just eat what is served by her mother’, not allowed to do sports, to wear old clothes she was supposed to have outgrown.
I was very careful in not setting a ‘target’ weight for her as she would have been able to achieve it due to her goal-oriented personality. In the beginning, knowing her own weight helped her to realize that she was losing weight, but after having gained 3 kilos, she ‘freaked out’. I insisted and thankfully she trusted me to monitor her weight and serve her meal portion; every additional gram became the baseline for her to continue gaining. She resisted, shouted and we could not plan anything as crisis erupted impetuously. Everyone’s schedule was interrupted, we cancelled holiday trips, stopped all social activities and concentrated in helping her to regain her true-self no matter what time of the day.
After a gruesome one year battle with anorexia, my daughter has been on a good path to recovery and self-discovery. Going into the second year, we were in a good ‘place’; my daughter had regained her weight and she was making good progress in self-acceptance. She realized that she needed to allow herself to grow without control or inhibition though eating still did not always feel natural. Mentally she was back to being herself, no longer exhibited deviousness to minimize consumption or not to eat anymore. She realised her tendency to fall back on not eating enough while experiencing life’s ups and downs. She had come to accept that on the flip side of having AN, she possesses the wonderful personality traits of having keen sensibility and sensitivity, being self-motivated and talented in many aspects in life including academics and sports.
Knowing what I know today and having gone through a lonely journey in intervening early, saving my own daughter was a life changing experience that I am compelled to share with the world. I hope such informed perspective will also help others in saving lives and helping thrive again promising youths and people with AN in dealing with widely misunderstood condition.
It is my hope that the work of Elephant in the Room foundation will help sufferers to find a way to be happy and thrive again.