I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I had the wisdom and experience I have now about 20 years ago! I so often realize what a blessing hindsight would have been if it had been foresight. No where does that statement ring truer than it does in relation to our son’s eating disorder.
Eating disorders affect the entire family. They put stress on the person suffering with the symptoms, on siblings, close friends, and certainly on parents. Marriages are often put to the test as the parents struggle to determine the best
way of helping their child. Whether or not to force treatment can be a very tough decision and one that often causes disagreement between the parents. Eating disorders are often insidious and by the time everyone recognizes them for what they are, things are often fairly far advanced. There can be many reasons for this. In my family it was because there was not a “typical” presentation. The symptoms of the actual eating disorder started several years before the serious weight loss began. The roots had a chance to get in very deep before we all recognized the seriousness of it. Denial sometimes plays a role as well. Our son was very good at hiding what he was doing and we were equally good at trying not to see it.
When the disease gets a very firm grip, its victim often expresses that he/she doesn’t want to give up their symptoms. They can’t imagine a world without their eating disorder. Many times they are resistant to your pleas to get professional help. Having a child that is technically an adult, but in reality is very dependent on you only complicates that picture. Mom and dad can often agree that help is needed, but when to force intervention and what to do can be a source of conflict.
Eating disorders are very isolating. The sufferer often becomes very isolated and the family does as well. Many times (I know this was the case for my family) eating meals anywhere outside of the privacy of your own home stops and invitations to others to come to your home may stop as well. Siblings may not want to bring friends home. Holiday meals with extended family may cease. Talking about it outside of the home can be difficult and support dwindles. You might feel misunderstood or worry what others will think when they see your son or daughter. It can seem like you are all locked inside the same very small cell and sometimes things can look hopeless.
Deciding when to override the decision to say no to treatment is difficult. I know that because our son was considered an adult and it wasn’t as easy as scheduling an appointment and telling him to get into the car. He had to be willing to sign the paperwork if we went to the doctor. The only other alternative was to get a “petition for emergency evaluation” and have him taken for an evaluation against his will. This would involve the police who would not arrest him, but simply transport him. It would still be against his will though. There was much disagreement between myself and my husband as to whether we would take that step.
For many people this is the only choice. Things have gotten so far along that their child’s health is in danger, but they still resist treatment. When your child falls into that category of being an adult, but still relies on his/her parents for the necessities of life, it is a helpless feeling to know you cannot force healthcare on them without some sort of threat or legal action. This can cause great disagreement among the parents and put great stress on the marital relationship. Many times one parent sees the situation for the health crisis that it is and the other parent is in a bit more denial. This is easy to understand. It can be that one parent views taking the step of forcing treatment as having the potential to lose their child altogether because they will lose trust. Sometimes there is worry about having other siblings witness their brother/sister being taken away by the police and the effect that would have on them. Fears about anger, resentment, overreaction, guilt, and many other reasons can cause this decision to be contentious.
Eating Disorders present many opportunities for disagreement whether the sufferer is an adult or a minor. They stir up a hurricane and leave everyone reeling from the chaos. That chaos can be hard to see through. Eating Disorders fight hard to maintain their position of authority. They do that by creating confusion, blurring boundaries, and splitting those around them. A rudderless ship is their preferred environment. They have tremendous power when they manage to split mom and dad and pit them against each other.
We didn’t have to go down the road of forcing an evaluation through the petition, but I did make it clear to our son that I would be seeking the petition if he didn’t voluntarily go with me to an appointment. That appointment led to his hospitalization. I knew that I had to be prepared to carry out my threat if he refused to go with me. I also knew that it would be much easier if I could get his dad to agree and back me up and he came through.
The benefit of hindsight would have made things go much more smoothly, but isn’t that always the case? I have learned that things didn’t have to be as contentious as they were. It didn’t have to end up with his dad and I feeling that we were alone and even alienated from each other. The good news was that we did turn things around and worked together for the benefit of our son and all of our children, but not nearly soon enough. Below are some tips and suggestions that I would like to share hoping that another family doesn’t have to struggle with this alone and can be partners instead of adversaries in such a difficult situation:
If you suspect an eating disorder, gather information together: Start working together from the very beginning. Go to www.eatingdisorderassociation.com and other reputable websites together. Gather information.
Call your child’s doctor together: Your child’s doctor cannot give you health information without your son/daughter’s permission if they are 18, but they can listen. You can present your concerns and get advice. Ideally, your adult child will go with you. If under 18, you can all three go to the pediatrician together.
Contact an eating disorder provider and make an appointment for you and your spouse: There is no reason you cannot make an appointment with someone who specializes in eating disorders to talk about your child. Many providers are willing to meet with concerned parents. You will receive information and ideas about how to proceed and will also be able to obtain valuable resources should you need them in the future.
Join a support group together: Joining a support group allows you access to other parents, family, and friends of those suffering with eating disorders. They share your experience and can educate and support you. They are often a wealth of information and the group facilitator likely has access to referrals for you. This also helps decrease the isolation.
Call your local health department to find out your options regarding treatment: Your local health department can be a wealth of referrals and information with regard to both the illness and the laws surrounding voluntary/involuntary evaluation.
Don’t disagree in front of your son/daughter: If you have a disagreement on how to proceed, talk about it calmly in a private place. You want to present as united in your concern and in your decisions. You don’t want to set up an opportunity where your disagreement can be exploited and hinder getting the best result for your child.
Try to have your decision be one of solidarity and not adversity: By that I mean find some trusted professionals and support groups that you can both agree on. You don’t want treatment decisions to be one person’s will winning out over the other. This will lead to resentment. If you really cannot agree, see if you can find someone whose opinion you both respect (and who has knowledge of eating disorders) and agree to abide by their recommendations.
Remember to give each other support: Even if you disagree on what needs to be done, both of you want the best for your child. Eating Disorders thrive in a stressful, chaotic, and divided world. They love an environment with loose or no boundaries. They crave confusion and do their best to make everyone chase their tails while they work in the background doing their damage. They want to be the leader. Do the best you can to take that power away from it. Remember that by supporting each other and being united in your fight against the eating disorder (not your child) you set a positive example and good, strong boundaries.