Making Our Way Back to Mother and Daughter, in Recovery

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Tennie McCarthy Headshot

Tennie McCarty

I came from a dysfunctional family. My mom was a prescription drug addict, an alcoholic, and sick all of the time. She was also a compulsive overeater. My father was a very violent man. When I was just a little five-year-old, I witnessed his violence in a really traumatic incident. After this event, I can consciously remember the start of my eating disorder when I was a child. Throughout my early life and into adulthood, I had issues with food. I coped with the trauma from my past and my husband’s alcoholism by fanatically keeping the house together and making sure my children were looking perfect at all times. 

Even after I started attending Al-Anon meetings in 1968, I developed enormous issues with rage. I was abusive to my children, particularly to my daughter Kim. Kim was the third child of my four natural children, one of seven in our blended family. It seemed like all of the abuse went primarily to Kim, and I’ve spent the rest of my life making amends to her and my other children.

Kim always felt the tension in the house. She had a lot of anxiety as we all dealt with her father’s alcoholism and she compared herself to other seemingly “perfect” siblings. She began acting out, restricting her food, and attempting suicide several times. I never imagined that both myself and my daughter would have eating disorders, but at the time, we did not know that there was the term for the problem. We knew we had issues with food, but we never knew it was a disease or an addiction. We never knew that it was called “anorexia” or “bulimia.”

Kim and I first sought recovery when she was very young. I would find therapists for her and for me. In 1972, I found an Overeaters Anonymous group, which was great, but later on I decided to have intestinal bypass surgery and suffered some serious complications. I became very ill, began acting on my previous eating disorder behaviors again, and eventually went to treatment in September 1985, at the urging of a co-worker. Since Sept. 19, 1985, I have been in good recovery. I am one of those fortunate few that never relapsed once I found recovery. It is by the grace of God, and work and effort on my part, that I have stayed healthy. I’m coming up on 32 years and I am very grateful for that time.

Through a series of events, including another suicide attempt, Kim’s therapist ended up sending her to California to be in treatment with me back in 1985. It was only then that Kim was formally diagnosed with anorexia. Being in treatment together was unique and difficult. Kim refused help and would not accept her diagnosis. She was living at home with us in Abilene, Texas at the time, so her father and I decided that we would have to ask her to move out when she returned from California. That was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. My husband had found his own recovery from alcoholism, and I was working on my recovery, and we knew that we had to stop enabling her behaviors and help her find real recovery, too. Sadly, Kim continued to have severe problems with drugs and alcohol all the way into the early 2000s. 

We fought and I worried for Kim, and even at one point committed her to a state hospital for her own protection. In 2011, I discovered that Kim was planning another suicide attempt. Our family came together for an intervention, and it’s hard to explain, but something clicked for her. I witnessed something in my daughter that I had hoped for for decades, but feared was impossible. She told me that she’d been running from everyone and everything for her whole life, and in 2011, she decided to face it. She went to treatment one last time, and has been clean of everything – drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, gambling, abusive relationships – ever since. When that happened, I believe that our true relationship as mother and daughter began. 

As a particularly special part of our journey as mother and daughter, we both became therapists along the way. I went back to school and at the time, you were only able to become licensed as a chemical dependency counselor, and one of the colleges in town was just starting a program. I earned my license and started working in the alcoholism field. Back in those days there were very few drug and alcohol units within a 200-mile radius, let alone eating disorder treatment centers. I eventually established an all-addiction treatment center with a primary focus on eating disorders. Kim works with me on some of the intensive programs, but I don’t believe that she’ll ever work full time in a treatment setting – it’s not good for her. 

These last six years, Kim is not the same person as she was in the past. I have never known the woman I know today as my daughter. She is entirely different. I’m closer to her, and we’ve gone through a lot. She’s a wonderful spirit, and she helps a lot of people. I believe that God kept her alive in order to do the work that she’s done these last few years, being able to help so many people. She’s one of the best therapists I’ve ever worked with. I love working with her, and I thank God every single day for her life and my own, and for God saving both of us.

You may wonder how we forgave each other for the abuse and for all the hurt in our past, and how we’re able to work together and maintain our individual recoveries. The only way I can explain it is that we practice what we preach. We have our firm boundaries, and we spend a lot of time together, but we know when to have time apart. There was really nothing for me to forgive Kim for. I carried so much guilt about Kim. I took on the responsibility for her disease and her actions because of how I had treated her as a child.

I never really had a mother. My mother was so ill, so I became a caretaker and a caregiver. I knew how to take care of people, but I’ve never been mothered. With Kim, she was my responsibility. I loved and adored her. When I got pregnant with Kim, I had two babies and three stepchildren, and it was just hard to think, “How can I have another child?” Kim was born under a guilty conscience. I felt guilty for getting pregnant, guilty for taking my anger out on her. Treatment allowed me to process these feelings, as they related to both of our diseases. We have worked extremely hard, and I’m so proud of the two of us for finding recovery.

I’ve never really felt loved by Kim until these last six years. I always knew that she worshipped her father. Plus, she’s the spitting image of him. I was never jealous of that relationship, and I knew that she was capable of showing love. But we had such a wall between us through all of those years. She’s finally let the wall down. I knew very little about my daughter until now. To really know her personally, it’s been a wonderful time. Today, my daughter treats me with such dignity, love and respect. I’m so grateful for recovery today and every day. Recovery works if we work at it, and I am soaking up this newfound time with my healthy daughter who has a healthy mother.

Tennie McCarty is the founder, CEO, and co-owner of Shades of Hope, a Texas-based all-addiction treatment center, specializing in the intensive treatment of eating disorders. In recovery herself and as the mother of a daughter recovered from anorexia, she has a unique insight into the nature of disordered eating. Tennie is the author of the best-selling book Shades of Hope: How to Treat Your Addiction to Food