You Have to See the Eating Disorder Beast to Slay the Beast

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JD Ouellette, Director of Family Mentorship, Equip

This blog post is sponsored by Equip.

Note from JD: This is my experience as the mother of someone with restrictive anorexia who is in solid, long-lasting recovery after an early diagnosis; we had access to excellent treatment. I use the term eating disorders in places as much of this translates to other eating disorders. I also note in the accompanying video, that there are no guarantees that doing everything “right” will work; these are devastating illnesses. My daughters have both written on this battle as well here; I appreciate their strong, clear voices in support of Food First & Family Empowered treatment.

The Beast

Metaphor and visualization are powerful weapons in our psychological armory when fighting an eating disorder* in a loved one. In the early stages of anorexia, before I knew it was what we were dealing with, my daughter eating anything with minimal fuss was a relief; I was counting both literal and figurative crumbs as successful if there was no drama and limited cajoling. 

Our treatment in a multi-family program with a Food First & Family Empowered approach prepared me from day one for the probability that mealtimes might be a battle zone, though there really is no way to “prepare” someone to see their child’s head spin around three times before a stream of vitriol and profanity containing words heretofore only seen in print spews forth because the plate you’ve presented has both fats and carbohydrates on it. To the extent clinicians and other families are able to prepare you for it, it still sounds a bit extreme and unlikely that your own child would do and say some of the horrific things you’ve heard about. And in the beginning you may still be wondering if this isn’t just a really long and very realistic nightmare you are surely just about to wake from. The Beast is a formidable foe.

The Camouflage

It is one of the many cruelties of an eating disorder that the brain it inhabits, in a parasitic relationship, is inside a skull that wears the face of, speaks with the voice of, and is carried around on the body of, your dear loved one. It is almost impossible to believe that the refusal and the stubbornness and the meanness are not intentional acts malevolently undertaken to hurt you and make your life and the rest of the family’s lives miserable. 

Then there is the camouflage of presenting a fully functioning brain in terms of intellect and reasoning on just about anything that isn’t eating disordered behavior like restriction, purging, exercise compulsion, etc. 

As painful as the direct conflict, are the times when deceit and manipulation lull you into thinking things are different or better than they are, and making you question who your loved one truly is and confront the fear they might not ever get fully well.

The Warrior 

Fighting an eating disorder in your child doesn’t have an option for you to be a conscientious objector; you have been conscripted into this battle. I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who felt prepared for this fight, and many of us have worked hard to parent in a way that is quite the opposite of what fighting an eating disorder requires. My experience with anorexia is that it took my reasonable, collaborative, positive reinforcement approach and used it to steal food from my child’s mouth and in the process nourish its evil self and take her further away from all she was and all she loved. 

I now tell everyone I discuss this with that I don’t believe there is a non-confrontational way to fight anorexia. Your goals are polar opposites; anorexia wants to starve your loved one to death and you want to feed them to full life; it is a battle to the death.

You Have To See The Beast To Slay The Beast

The passage of time from the early days when I held hope that there were some magic words I just hadn’t yet learned that would accomplish both nutritional rehabilitation of my malnourished child and some semblance of a normal life to the time to discovering I had to see The Beast to slay The Beast was relatively short because I had the power of clinicians and peers who taught me what the true measure of success was not peace, but progress, and I was fighting for a child who was not yet able to fight on her own.

When I fully accepted and embraced the idea that conflict was good and peace was bad and that a shocking and terrifying battle over Fettuccine Alfredo advanced my cause (saving her life with food as medicine) exponentially more than a marginally less fierce battle over egg whites and spinach which advanced anorexia’s cause (keep her sick and dying), is when we began to see progress. 

When I realized that my daughter might be 5’10 to my 5’4, but my lack of height was nothing when compared to the my fierce mother love and I realized she inherited that steel will (that The Beast manipulated to its advantage) from ME, is when we began to see progress.

When I realized that it was up to me to no longer be fooled by the camouflage but see the true nature and will of The Beast in its behaviors and not its costume is when we began to see progress.

When I began to treat each and every battle as the one on which the war would turn, is when we began to see progress.

When I coped ahead for the possibility that I would need to call 911 and request the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team over the inclusion of heavy whipping cream in enchilada sauce and had a plan as to what to say and do to get help, is when we began to see progress. 

When I began to see The Beast multiple times a day, and beat The Beast at each encounter, is when we began to see progress.

When I began to draw strength from the battle, because seeing The Beast meant I was slaying The Beast, is when we began to win the war.  

The Art

Lilac Vylette MaldonadoThe artist who created this image, Lilac Vylette Maldonado, is also in recovery from an eating disorder; our process on these pieces is that we chat by phone and I tell them about my vision for what I want to convey and explain, clumsily, what I pictured in my mind in the heat of the moment, years ago. In this case, I also shared a poem (below) that I wrote when this was all fresh. The art that results is never a direct illustration of what I described, and it is something so much more – it is exactly what I MEANT. 

JD Ouellette is the mother of a 26-year old in full, lasting recovery from the anorexia that blindsided her daughter and their family at 17. JD is passionate about empowering families by sharing the most up-to-date research and giving them skills to help their loved one fight the eating disorder to extinction. One of her guiding principles in her advocacy and activism is that while families do not cause eating disorders, they must change to fight them and clinical care is most effective when it recognizes and supports familial change from a place of non-judgment and non-shame.