The healing power of children in adult eating disorder recovery
My five grandchildren are aged 10 to 15. At their age, I was in the grips of anorexia nervosa (AN). Today I am eagle-eyed and constantly alert, ready to pounce on any sign of an eating disorder symptom covertly infiltrating their young lives. I am determined that the illness that stole so much from me, will not ravage the homes, hopes and dreams of the new generation in my family.
Help was not available in the early 1960s when I developed AN. The illness embedded itself in my brain and proceeded to dominate, manipulate, shape, and influence my life.
Multiple new starts were tried in my bid to escape the AN. For more than 20 years, every attempt was doomed. No matter where I went, or what I did, AN came too. Its influence permeated through not only me but also my family. It accompanied me the day I walked down the aisle to be married and, as the years rolled on, set about causing increased suffering and havoc for not only me but also my husband and our four children.
Born before I could access professional help, the children had to grow up with a mother absorbed in struggling to survive. They were on the verge of adolescence when, for the first time, a psychiatrist ‘saw’ me beyond my illness, and the long process to ‘recover’ myself began. The children were in their 30s, when (miraculously, after 44 years) I was able to eat three meals and three snacks daily without guilt swooping in.
Family life was never easy; the AN voice continued its torment in my brain long after my physical self looked ‘well’. I did not understand myself, and neither could close others. I became estranged from my parents and sister. My marriage fell apart shortly after I began receiving psychiatrist treatment in my 30s (my loving husband was no match for the devilish AN). I became known as ‘the problem’ in the family. If not for my four children, I would have ended it all.
‘All I want, is a mum,’ my daughter would say
My children saved me. My love for them gave me the strength to persevere in finding a way out of the dark, scary, dense, forest that AN had grown in my mind. I clung to a desire to heal sufficiently to write my story. I wanted my children to know that it was AN, not me, that was ‘the problem’. I wanted my children to know that beneath the layers of AN, there was a frightened and lonely little girl who had been lost since age 11, and that this little girl loved them very much.
The struggle to rescue the little girl called ‘June’, (called ‘Tim’ and ‘Toby’ by my mother), took 25 years of treatment. By this time my children were young adults themselves and in many ways, were far more mature, wise, and capable than me.
At age 55, when I regained 51 per cent of my healthy self, I had a lot of life-learning and catching up to do. Filling the space, formerly filled by AN for decades in one’s identity, takes time.
‘All I want, is a mum,’ my daughter would say, every time I began to try and explain myself to her. Even as I write this today, my heart breaks afresh and the tears flow.
I wanted to be ‘a mum’, just ‘a mum’, but after 44 years in AN’s prison, I first had to disengage and untangle myself from the eating disorder’s influences that had dominated every thought and action. I needed to crawl and walk before I could run, let alone fly. I needed to grant myself permission to make mistakes, to experience and explore childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and adulthood again – this time without AN. I needed to do this, to re-connect with true-me. Most of all, I needed, and wanted, to be ‘there’ for my children, as their mother.
The eating disorder robbed my children of a mum, it robbed my marriage and it denied me freedom to be a wife and a mother. The losses are many. But oh, the rewards and benefits in recovery are great!
Grandchildren make great life coaches
My first grandchild, Lachlan, was born the same year that I became more ‘me’ than my eating disorder. Lachlan immediately became a priceless member of my treatment team. As a toddler he would call, ‘C’mon Grandma!’. He insisted on participation. I became a child with him, crawling through tunnels and climbing nets at the playground, swimming at the pool, reading stories, and chasing golf balls. Lachlan will celebrate his 16th birthday this year. A fine young man, Lachlan is my benchmark for freedom-to-be-me. I look at him and think how glad I am that I never gave up. How glad I am that I persevered and eventually found the path out of my illness. How grateful I am that I met health professionals who believed in me and offered guidance at crucial times. How grateful I am to continue to have the support of my children’s dad, George, the support of my children and their partners, and the joy of watching my five grandchildren grow and blossom.
Goodness, the years pass so fast! Now my eldest granddaughter, Olivia, is 12. She is no longer ‘little Olivia’. She is as tall as me and soon I will be looking up at her. I look at her, and my other grandchildren (Ashton, 12, Kayla 10 and Amelia, 10) and my heart purrs to see them fully engaging confidently in family, school and community life. All have friends and all know that they are much loved in their family circle.
At 71, my greatest enjoyment is watching my grandchildren growing up. They fill my heart with joy as I witness them enjoying childhood and entering adolescence, with healthy self-esteem, no eating disorder in sight. I’m ever grateful that I persisted in my efforts to recover from the anorexia nervosa that invaded my mind and body at their age. The five children continually inspire and motivate me to take care of myself – to eat nourishing meals, and to get enough sleep, do enough exercise and nurture my relationships with family, friends and community.
Redirecting the energy drained by anorexia into living a full life
Right now is the best time in my life. This is because I am the most ‘me’. For years, AN dominated my thinking and behaviours. Today that influence is negligible. When someone with AN turns their life around, and reclaims their healthy-self identity, the energy, dedication and attention-to-detail skills required to ‘manage’ the illness can be channeled into positive causes.
Since Lachlan was born, I’ve written 10 books, I’ve completed my Phd and am officially a ‘Doctor’ — not of medicine, but of philosophy. My creative work is a book, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer. I feel honoured to be a steering committee member, representing ‘the voice of lived experience’, on the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC). I continue to advocate for improved access to health services for people with eating disorders through this blog, and am a writing mentor for people who are recovering and rediscovering their healthy self. These roles are important but none is as precious as that of being Grandma.
Thank you, my grandchildren, for demonstrating, through the way you embrace opportunities in each new day with enthusiasm and confidence, how grand life can be.
My cup of wellbeing and contentment is full.
Love always, Grandma June
PS: I thank my children, and the eating disorder field, too, and will reflect on their roles in recovery in another story
PPS: If you are experiencing eating disorder symptoms, no matter what your age, reach out for help today.