Today, from across the country, my mom helped me make an important decision about how to deal with some anxiety I've been experiencing. A couple years ago, she helped me figure out how to fold a fitted sheet (she made a YouTube-esque tutorial that is straight-up adorable). She helped decide on waxing versus threading my eyebrows; she helped me pick out my wedding dress.
In fact, over the past 10 years — the entirety of my adult life — I would be hard pressed to count the number of ways that she's helped me. We talk almost daily: while one of us is driving to work or running errands. But during my teenage years — every last one of them, my eating disorder was raging, and, to be honest, she didn't really help.
In Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life with a Daughter's Anorexia , Clare B. Dunkle tells the story of parenting a child with an eating disorder. Dunkle, who begins her story recounting the ways she encouraged and nourished her two daughters, comes to a realization in the final quarter of the book: "I hadn't been a great mom. I had tried — God knows, I had tried. I had gone into this with the intention to be extraordinary. And I had been a good mom, I felt sure of that — a good mom. But a great mom ... Had I been a good mom — really?"
In some ways, my mom was good at dealing with my eating disorder: I'm forever grateful for the hours she spent on the phone with insurance agents (Dunkle portrays this tedious reality well in Hope), the time she made to take me to appointment after appointment. And, hey: it's been nine years since I had to spend time in in-patient treatment; maybe the worst is behind me. But reading Dunkle's story has me reflecting on both how my mom did handle my ED — and how I wish she would've handled it.
Six ways I wish she'd helped?
With Encouragement... Not Punishments
In the months before I turned 16, when other kids were logging practice hours behind the wheel of their family car, my mom was declaring that I was too sick to drive. (Looking back, objectively, I still agree with my 16-year-old self: I wasn't). Instead of taking away privileges, I wish my mom had trusted me enough to practice parallel parking and merging onto the interstate, a reward that would've shown me she believed in me.
With the Understanding that Progress Takes Many Forms
Whether your mantra is "one day at a time" or "baby steps," if you've tried to accomplish something you know that progress doesn't happen overnight. And that progress includes recovery from an eating disorder. My mom was often frustrated by me: I remember one night, when I was 13, when she was infuriated that I wouldn't drink a glass of whole milk (my nutritionist's novel solution to get me to regain weight.) At the time, I wouldn't think of consuming liquid calories, let alone including them with a meal. I wish my mom would have understood that eating family dinner was hard enough.
By Giving Me Some Privacy...
...and that means not snooping. I get how hard this must be for a parent, especially the parent of a young writer (that was me). How tempting is it to just pull open the drawer, push aside the clothes (tsk at how unfolded they are!), peel open the diary, and have a read? Absolutely tempting! So tempting, my mom read my journals — and then couldn't keep from letting on, in sly offhand references, that she was "in the know." Instead of going through my stuff, I wish my mom would have tried to talk to me — and respected my silence if I didn't want to converse...
By Trusting My Choice in Friends
All right. So my best friend was a Ford model. And my other best friend liked to subsist on a tablespoon of cottage cheese a day. And my other best friend had gauze-wrapped wrists one Homecoming. Still! My friends may have been self-destructive, but they were also respectful to adults, multi-sport athletes, and Honor Roll students. And though I've seen Thirteen and totally understand how a parent might harbor some concerns, I wish my mom would've believed me when I assured her that my friends cared about me, that they were good people.
By Keeping Calm
That means no screaming matches, no silent treatments, no snippy remarks. As a teenager with an eating disorder, I was bringing enough volatility for the entire family; I wish my mom would have tried to back off and keep her cool, so all screaming matches and crying jags could've been avoided, so my feelings about her didn't sour.
By Understanding That Sick Doesn't Have to Be SO Serious
In no way am I downplaying the gravity of eating disorders: they have the highest mortality rate of all psychological illnesses. (And, from the vantage of my current diagnosis — ED-NOS — I'm more than a little freaked out to learn that apparently I have a greater risk of dying now than when I was strictly anorexic or bulimic.) But replacing some of the anger with levity would've probably gone a long way to remind me that my mom wasn't trying to just "handle" me: she was trying to love me. She was trying to help.