The Eating Disorder that Dropped like a Bomb: A Mother’s 20-Year Journey of Caregiving

(originally posted via National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED))

I started the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED) back in 2012. At the time, our daughter had been suffering from anorexia and bulimia for two decades – it still feels impossible to reconcile the amount of time it’s had a grasp on her life. 

The life of a caregiver supporting someone living with a mental illness is a series of never-ending harsh realities. Here is mine: 

Twenty years ago, the word “caregiver” was not in my vocabulary. When you hear “caregiver,” most people think of seniors being looked after and cared for by their adult children – who may even be seniors themselves. I come from an entirely different caregiver population – (though I’m a senior myself!)

My caregiving journey began in 1999. Little did I know that our youngest daughter, [who was] almost 16 at the time, was struggling with self-esteem and anxiety issues. An eating disorder was about to become a devastating bomb dropped on her and the rest of our family.

When she first got sick in high school, her friend came to tell me that she was throwing away her school lunch. Around the same time, she became a vegetarian, started making and requesting ‘funny foods,’ and began exhibiting strange kitchen behaviours. Her overall attitude also started to change. 

“Where do we go from here?” I remember asking myself.

Our first thought was to speak with her pediatrician. At the time, we were so naïve and didn’t know we were about to get caught in the whirlwind of an unknown illness. We had no idea where we were heading.

I still remember my husband frantically charging through downtown Toronto to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) to gather names of therapists, doctors, dieticians, nutritionists – anyone we could call or reach out to for help. There was no Google at that time, and the internet was in its infancy.

At the beginning of our daughter’s illness, I waited anxiously to attend a weekly peer support group for mothers – a life-saving program. 

I vividly remember sitting in this group and watching the facilitator ask those in the room to share how sick their daughters were and for how long. Some said three years, others said five years, and some even said ten years.

“Yeah, right, we will be done with this in a year,” I remember thinking. Unfortunately, this was not my reality, and I became one of those mothers. 

We tried everything to help her, from tough love to unconditional love, from having her living at home to refusing her living at home. From a publically televised intervention, to her residence in safe houses, renting basements, incarceration, inpatient and outpatient programs – the list goes on. Being an Eating Disorder caregiver is no easy feat.

Never in our wildest dreams (or nightmares) did we think we would be taken down these dark roads with our daughter who had everything a kid could want. We were loving parents doing everything we possibly could within reason for her and her older siblings. We even uprooted our lives and moved houses in the hopes of making our lives’ better’ and giving her privacy in our basement.

In 2016, I took her to the E.R. to be rehydrated – over 20 times. I would drop her outside and let her call me when she was done. I was getting to the end of my rope.

During that time, my only respite was that I knew she was safe in the hospital. She was too sick to run out with people watching over her. I was ‘free’ for a few hours – imagine having to think like this.

To this day, our hearts sink whenever we receive texts or telephone messages from her and have had to create an alert system so our own stress levels are lessened.

One significant lifestyle change we have made, with her agreement, is placing locks on the fridge and freezer. The only groceries in the kitchen are spices and seasonings. The rest are locked away. My grandkids are accustomed to asking “for the key to get a snack.” These adaptations are still realities in our lives.

Having an Eating Disorder is not a choice. Some people believe Eating Disorders are just a rich, vain teenage girl’s sickness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Eating Disorders affect all genders, racial, ethnic, and religious identities, sexual orientations, and socio-economic backgrounds.

No one can condense twenty years of a living nightmare into a short blog post. But it is enough to paint a dark picture of the life my family and I have had to live with, affecting us all both emotionally and financially.

There is good news, though. After 19 years, our daughter has finally started her ascent up the mountain of recovery. She is driving again after 12 years of not being allowed to; she’s gained weight and is content. It feels like we have our daughter back.

We are finally starting to feel that all of her strength, love, and will to lead a quality life suppresses the voices stemming from her mental illness.

Although the stress and worries of being a caregiver will never leave us alone, we have remade our lives as a couple and continue living and are committed to enjoying our lives (which we do!) I count my blessings every day.

About the Guest Blogger: Wendy Preskow is the President and Founder of the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED).  NIED is a not-for-profit coalition of health care professionals, counsellors and parents with children suffering from Eating Disorders. NIED’s team aims to help bring about positive change in both the availability and quality of treatment of Eating Disorders in Canada.

How to Talk to Children about COVID-19

Children are often more perceptive than most adults may give them credit for; they may be wondering why their mom and/or dad are home more, why they aren’t in school or why their routine has changed, or why they can’t go see their friends or even leave the house. It’s essential to tackle these questions head-on and in a manner that satisfies their curiosity and helps to put their mind at ease. 

Self-Reflect

Talking to your children may require that you self-reflect about your concerns and feelings. Be aware that you also may be projecting your insecurities or anxieties on to your children and recognize that you may also need additional support or guidance during this time. Also, make sure that you do your research first so that you can adequately answer any questions that may come up. 

Listen and Teach

Ask your child what they already know or have heard about the virus. Be sure to dispel any myths and elaborate on critical pieces of information like the importance of handwashing. It’s also important to talk to your children in a manner that is appropriate for their age/ level of development. Also, try putting things in terms that they can relate to or understand. It’s important to teach but not to overwhelm. 

Validate Their Feelings

Your child may be confused, scared, or anxious about the changes they are experiencing. It’s important not to dismiss their feelings and to reassure them during this time that what they are feeling is very reasonable. Don’t overcommit or overpromise on things that you may not have control over to solely help them feel better – it’s important to be reassuring but also realistic. 

Create a New Routine, and then keep it Consistent 

Children thrive on stability and knowing what to expect. Help give them that consistency by developing a new routine for them. For example, create a daily schedule that outlines their activities for the day. Setting up a plan in case things suddenly change or take longer than expected can also help provide them with further assurance moving forward. Have your child get involved in the planning process so they can feel empowered and confident moving forward. 

Many people are feeling stress and anxiety during this uncertain time, and children are no exception. The mental health experts at CFIR can help you navigate how to have these meaningful discussions with your children. Clinicians at CFIR are offering secure video and teletherapy sessions during this time to ensure continuity of care. Please reach out if you would like to have a safe, confidential session from the comfort of your own home.

Dr. Brianna Jaris, C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist at CFIR. She has extensive experience in psychological assessment and diagnosis and the treatment of a wide range of psychological issues, including trauma, depression, anxiety. She is currently the head of CFIR’s Trauma and PTSD service. 

Talking To Your Child About Tragedy

by: Ali Goldfield, M.A., via Therapy Stew (www.therapystew.com), on Sept. 21st, 2013   

It’s always difficult as a parent to know how much to share with your child and how much to shield them from the tragedies that happen in the world around them. While it may seem like a good idea, at times, to try and protect them from all the bad things, depending on their age, it’s not always possible. Children pick up information from other kids at school, from the television and from social media. Talking to your child about a tragedy can help her understand what’s happened and actually help them begin to process the events and feel a bit safer.

It’s a personal decision whether or not to talk to your kids or not. It also depends on their age, their level of maturity and how closely they are affected by the tragedy. Every parent knows best for their own child. If you’re struggling with how to start, here are some ways to help:

Let Your Child Be The Guide

Find out what questions or concerns your child might have. Let your child’s answers guide your discussion. Let your child know that you will always be there to listen and to answer them. Try to make your child feel comfortable asking questions and discussing what happened but don’t force your child to talk if they aren’t ready.

Tell The Truth – In Moderation

When talking to your child about a tragedy, tell the truth. You can focus on the basics but it’s not necessary to share all the unnecessary and gory details. Try no to exaggerate or speculate about what happened and avoid dwelling on the magnitude of the tragedy. Listen closely to your child for any misinformation, misconceptions or underlying fears. Take time to provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you’re there for him. Your child’s age will play a major role in how he or she processes information about a tragedy.

Talk to Them at Their Level

Talk in a way that’s appropriate to their age and level of understanding. But don’t overload the child with too much information. Elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.  They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. High school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools, community and society.  They may share concrete suggestions about how to prevent tragedies in society. They will also be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected communities.

Be Ready to Have More Than One Conversation

Some information can be very confusing and hard to accept so asking the same question over and over may be a way for your child to find reassurance. Try to be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises that nothing bad could ever happen.

Acknowledge and support your child’s concerns

Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs.  Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective.  Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately. Let your child know that all his feelings, reactions and questions relating to the tragedy are important.

Limit Media Exposure

Don’t allow young children to repeatedly see or hear coverage of a tragedy. Even if your young child appears to be engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you’re watching or listening to — and might become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a particular tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety.

Monitor your own stress level

Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members or mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Kids learn from watching the grown-ups in their lives and want to know how you respond to events.

We have all awoken to disasters before, whether natural, manmade, accidental and terrorist-induced and it’s inevitable that we will wake to them again in the future. What you say to your kids and how you say it will change as they get older but the one thing that shouldn’t change is your validation of your child’s feelings and the fact that you will always love them and do your best to keep them safe. 

Read more about CFIR’s Child, Adolescent & Family Psychology Service & the Trauma Psychology & PTSD Treatment Service.

Easing Your Child’s Back-to-School Worries

Originally posted by Ali Goldfield, M.A. on TherapyStew (www.therapystew.com) – August 2013

Lots of kids (and parents) have mixed feelings about the start of the school year. It can be really exciting getting ready for school: getting school supplies, new clothes and looking forward to seeing their friends. However, it can also cause a lot of anxiety for many kids, whether they’re starting a new school or not. Taking the time to talk through their anxieties and fears is the few weeks before school starts could make all the difference. Finding out what they’re nervous about – whether it’s meeting the new teacher, making new friends or finding the bathroom when needed, it’s all important to them.

Try the following tips to further ease back to school anxiety:

Make a Plan

If your child is starting a new school, a tour around the campus can be a simple way to ease the first-day jitters. Make sure they know where their classroom is, their locker and especially the bathroom. If you get a class list before school starts, arrange a get together with one of the kids in the class before school starts — first-day jitters are less jittery if there’s a familiar face in class. Teaching anxious middle-schoolers how to use their lock, talk about whether they will be buying lunches or brown bagging it, even sending your child’s teacher an email introducing yourself and your child can help.

Remind Your Child of the Fun They Had Last Year

Point out the positive aspects of starting school: It will be fun. They will see old friends and meet new ones. Try to refresh their memory about previous years, when they may have returned home after the first day with high spirits because they had a good time,

Address the Anxiety at Home

Talking about the different things that are causing them some worries and even role play out some of the potentially stressful scenarios your child may encounter at a new school — making friends, encountering older kids and encounters with strangers — may help ease their fears.

Get Back Into Routine

Anxious kids can feel soothed by a familiar routine. Prepare kids for a new routine by organizing your house in a back-to-school way. Get their school supplies ready, talk about what they want for lunch on the first day, help them decide what to wear on the first day. If possible, start the back-to-school routine a week or two before school starts. Make sure your back-to-school routine includes plenty of sleep and help your child get back on track with an earlier bedtime and wake-up time.

Read more about our Child, Adolescent & Family Psychology Service.

Childhood Anxiety: Early Warning Signs

Do you have an anxious child?

Childhood fears are a part of normal growing up. Fears of the dark, monsters under the bed, starting at a new daycare or school – all of these may be part of typical child development. Anxiety is also a signal to help all of us protect ourselves from situations that are dangerous- a warning signal about a lack of safety in your child’s world. Under normal circumstances, anxiety diminishes when a child’s sense of security and safety is restored—anxious thoughts and feelings subside.

When is your child’s anxiety something you should be concerned about?

Anxiety is considered a disorder not based on what a child is worrying about, but rather how that worry is impacting a child’s functioning. The content may be ‘normal’ but reach out for help for your child under the following circumstances:

  1. when your child is experiencing too much worry or suffering immensely over what may appear to be insignificant situations;
  2. when worry and avoidance become your child’s automatic response to many situations;
  3. when your child feels continuously keyed up, or,
  4. when coaxing or reassurance is ineffective in helping your child through his or her anxious thoughts and feelings.

Under these circumstances, anxiety is not a signal that tells them to protect themselves but instead prevents them from fully participating in typical activities of daily life-school, friendships, and academic performance.

What to look for:

If your child is showing any of the following it may be time to seek help from a qualified professional:

  • Anticipatory anxiety, worrying hours, days, weeks ahead
  • Asking repetitive reassurance questions, “what if” concerns, inconsolable, won’t respond to logical arguments
  • Headaches, stomachaches, regularly too sick to go to school
  • Disruptions of sleep with difficulty falling asleep, frequent nightmares, trouble sleeping alone
  • Perfectionism, self-critical, very high standards that make nothing good enough
  • Overly-responsible, people pleasing, an excessive concern that others are upset with him or her, unnecessary apologizing
  • Easily distressed, or agitated when in a stressful situation

child, adolescent and family psychologist at CFIR can help you and your child to diminish unhealthy anxiety. A thorough assessment of your child will provide you and your child with valuable information about the sources of your child’s anxiety, and evidence-based psychological treatment will be employed to help your child deal with his or her anxiety symptoms.

(This post was originally written by Dr. Rebecca Moore C.Psych.)