It is hard not to love that little Easter Bunny. He is cute, cuddly, and so full of goodies. He makes you think of Spring, and he makes you think chocolate. It really makes one feel a bit anti-social not to love him. When you are the parent of a child with an eating disorder the Easter Bunny seems a bit sinister though. His eyes seem just a little bit beady; that smile looks less innocent, those white, pudgy, open hands look more like they are drawing you in rather than inviting you to have a treat, and that basket of goodies might look delicious enough, but I am well aware of the suffering they may bring. I kind of understand how Little Red Riding Hood must have felt. I found myself annoyed at his constant presence on my TV, radio, and computer. The unchanging reality is, though, that I will encounter that rabbit every year at approximately this time and so will my son.
I remember that first year when Easter became something that I feared rather than anticipated. Our son had just come out of the hospital several weeks before we were getting ready to go into Lent. It was then that I realized it wasn’t just Easter that frightened me. It was suddenly a fear of an entire season that was traditionally very beautiful to me. The season of Lent, for us, is a time of preparation for the Easter season; a time of rebirth and joy. Now, suddenly, I looked at both with anxiety and uncertainty. What would all that chocolate and candy talk do to my son? How would we handle the issue of Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts? We have several other children. Would they have to give up their Easter celebration because their brother had an eating disorder? Even before we get to the Easter celebration, what would we do about Lent?
Lent is a time of preparation and penance. It is typically a time when you hear people “giving up” something that is either very pleasurable or a temptation to them. This usually involves sweets and food of some sort or some activity such as watching TV. For many religions it involves fasting. As Catholics, this was the case for us. Fasting meant cutting back on the portion sizes at meals and not eating between meals. It did not necessarily mean that dessert could not be included in the main meal, but it is common to cut desserts out altogether. Obviously, most, if not all, of the Lenten practices involved food in some way. So now what were we going to do?
This post is not intended to spark a debate about religious customs as no one’s mind is very likely to be changed one way or the other. Having said that; how was our family going to incorporate our religious beliefs within the framework of our son’s eating disorder? Did this mean that we stopped the practice of Lent and Easter altogether? Did it mean that we ignored the needs of our son and risk a major decompensation? The answer to both was no.
The first thing that was necessary was to take my own fear and panic and instead of allowing it to paralyze me, turn it into something more productive like a plan of action. This wasn’t easy! Panic very quickly paralyzes me and it takes a lot of my energy to turn it around.
The next step was honesty. We had a family meeting and we all talked openly about our feelings related to Lent and Easter. Our son had a chance to tell us what would be a trigger to him. He was able to discuss his feelings of guilt surrounding the impact of his eating disorder on the rest of the family and his brothers and sisters were able to express their feelings about its impact on this holiday. Everyone had a chance to speak and then we started brainstorming about what to do. This holiday would be different because of the eating disorder, but it didn’t mean it had to be unpleasant or adversarial.
The first big hurdle for us was Lent. Obviously, the idea of fasting was a huge problem. Our faith does not teach us that we cause harm to our bodies. It does not teach us that we make ourselves sick or that the only form of penance is food. Making food the focus of our Lent would not have been in the best interest of our son. The idea is that we prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming Easter season. We could find things that were not food related that would be meaningful for Lent. Our son wanted to participate in Lent and during this family meeting came up with a rather creative strategy. Giving up food would be a bit like giving up homework. Our son was to be eating three meals per day (including desserts) and three snacks which was very difficult for him at times. He was also restricted from exercise, something even more difficult for him to observe. He would, at times, exercise even though he was not supposed to and his weight was not moving very much during this period. He proposed that since giving up food was not only easy, but life threatening, he would choose to add a supplement to his diet and refrain from all forms of exercise during this Lenten period. This, of course, was in addition to following the meal plan. He felt that he would be participating in a meaningful way which was very important to him. This was done with the caveat of no guilt if there was a setback or hiccup along the way. An inability to carry out the plan at any given time was not a failure.
The discussion of Easter baskets also was creative. Our children decided that there would be candy in the baskets, but reduced some from previous years. Other items like small toys for younger children, gloves, hair ribbons and such could be substituted for the additional chocolate and candy. Since our son was older, his basket could easily be filled with non-food items which is what he requested. The Easter eggs for the Easter egg hunt would not be filled with only jelly beans and M & M’s that year. Instead they were also filled with pieces of paper containing “prizes” that included things such as a trip to the store alone with mom or dad. Some eggs could be redeemed for such things as a coloring book, a pack of colored pencils or crayons, etc. Everyone got to suggest something they would like to see as a prize.
Our family continued observing the changes that we made that first Easter season after recovery began. We have modified them over the years to reflect the ages and different needs of the family. We still begin every year with a family meeting just before Ash Wednesday to discuss what our plan will be for that year. In subsequent years when our son was not living at home during Lent, we still checked in and assisted him with his plan.
I would not have a complete post if I didn’t include the importance of including your child’s treatment team in the plan. All of our ideas were run by our treatment team so that any problems or concerns could be addressed and our plan modified. My son’s desire to do something healthy for himself was encouraged with the hope that in seeing some measure of success, even if not perfect, he could carry this forward.
I will always remember that first year because I was proud of my son and of our family. We worked together. It wasn’t idyllic; it wasn’t a fairytale, and it certainly wasn’t without some bumps in the road. All of those things were expected and it was OK because we continued to move forward. We will never escape the commercialism of Easter. The bunny, the chocolate, and the emphasis on food will always be there. Before our son got sick we loved those things too, but it didn’t define the meaning of Easter for us. It was a part of the Easter celebration, but Easter was so much more. Now, we put less emphasis on the food and candy. We don’t eliminate them, but we don’t run them up the flagpole either. There have been changes with time and I am sure that over the coming years we will continue to adjust and change with the needs of our son and the needs of the rest of the family. What I hope never changes, though, is the collaboration. Those family meetings are important. They contain their share of griping, complaining, and even finger pointing at times. In the end though, they have brought forth a great deal of creativity and have helped us all to work hard at not being defined by this wretched illness.