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5 Things My Daughter’s Struggle Taught Me About Eating Disorder Recovery

Bonnie Fetch

Every eating disorder story is unique. My story starts with having the baby girl of my dreams after having four boys in the family. She was nurtured, loved, smart, beautiful, athletic, more privileged than my other children and the product of a loving home environment.  

Nevertheless, at 15 years old, my daughter developed an eating disorder that took us all by surprise and changed our lives in ways we weren’t prepared for. When my daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder and admitted for treatment, I spent a lot of time blaming myself and feeling like I had somehow failed as a parent. 

As I learned more about the illness, I realized that I could continue to blame myself to no avail or I could put my energy into helping my daughter recover. I believed that eating disorders were quite uncommon, but the more I opened up with friends and colleagues about my daughter’s treatment and recovery, the more I learned that so many people have been touched by an eating disorder, whether personally or through a loved one.

Eating disorders are undeniably complex. As a mother of a child suffering from an eating disorder, it has been quite a journey. The most important lessons I learned were through making mistakes along the way—mistakes I’d like to help those supporting a loved one avoid. 

Here are the five biggest things I wish I had known about the recovery process:

1. A recovered body does not equal a recovered mind. There were so many times when my daughter’s moods, behaviors and reactions to situations surprised us because she had achieved a healthy body weight and completed treatment. But her mind was still working to recover.

How you can help: Be a healthy example. Be mindful of triggers like counting calories, talking about your own body negatively or “fat shaming” others. The best thing I have done is learn to love my body a little more each day and to be mindful about complaining about parts of my body that I don’t like. I eat without counting calories and I moderate my exercise, and I think that has helped my daughter. 

2. It is OK for those suffering with an eating disorder to take care of themselves first. My daughter did not believe that she was worthy of taking care of herself or slowing down, so she kept too much on her plate until she would finally deteriorate emotionally.

How you can help: Be a source of encouragement in dark times. Be available to listen and offer nonjudgmental support. This can be a stressful process for carers, so remember to make time for your own self-care. 

3. Body comments are more harmful than helpful. I learned this one the hard way (and if I am honest, I still make mistakes here). If I told my daughter she looked healthy, she interpreted that as me telling her she gained too much weight. If I told her she looked too thin, that seemed to feed her eating disorder and she’d lose more weight. It is best not to make body comments at all. In fact, I think for most people (even those without eating disorders), this is dangerous. 

How you can help: Don’t comment on anyone’s body. Focus on character, not physical appearance. Don’t play food police. I unknowingly used to make every conversation about food. Not only did that create a lot of tension, but I also learned that I couldn’t want her recovery more than she did. She needed to be responsible for following her plan.

4. It is OK for those in recovery to be vulnerable. My daughter didn’t ask for help when she was struggling until things got out of control. Many of those struggling with eating disorders feel this way, and carers should encourage them to seek the help and support they deserve. 

How you can help: Offer to attend a support group with them. My daughter told me more than once how much she appreciated me, my husband and her then-boyfriend for attending support groups with her.  

5. Recovery takes a lot of work, but it is worth it. Recovery is not a linear process. Sometimes, it is two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes, just when I thought things were really going well, things would get really bad. But in the end, sticking with treatment and commitment to recovery is worth it.

My daughter is now a mom herself and she wants to be a good role model for her own daughter. She is also a dietetics major, and she plans to dedicate her career to helping those struggling with eating disorders. As family members and friends of those struggling, we play a vital role in this fight against a very serious illness. Through support, recovery is possible and very rewarding to experience.  

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