At the age of 14 our daughter was hospitalized with an Eating Disorder at Overlook. She was an inpatient for 10 days and transferred to the Partial Hospitalization Program for six weeks. We participated in Family Based Treatment or FBT for 14 months. Our family is now discharged from the program; healthy and educated. In order for you to understand the impact this program had on us I need to describe our life before the diagnosis.
In the spring of 2013 I noticed behaviors in my daughter that were a bit unnerving, but didn’t know why. My daughter, a perfectionist since birth, began demanding even more of herself, the highest grades at school, flawless piano performances and relentless soccer training. She announced that she would like to improve her diet since it lacked certain balance, like fruit and vegetables. I watched all of this, unsure because at face value, these activities seemed positive, mature even, yet her intensity made me uncomfortable. Mistakes weren’t tolerated, less than perfect test scores brought on hysterical tears and praise from her parents was hotly rejected. I was sure she wasn’t herself, but I was told by friends and family that it was a phase.
I know now that the eating disorder had taken over her thinking, and she was being run by an inner tyrant, worse than any wicked step mother you could imagine. This tyrant was telling her she wasn’t “good enough,” and she never would be.
It took only a few months for my daughter’s eating habits to reveal her illness, and my husband and I came to the painful realization that she needed help. Adding to our pain was a total lack of information or understanding of eating disorders. Fortunately, my daughter’s pediatrician, who heard Dr. Sanders speak on the subject, sent us to Overlook. In spite of our recognizing the disease relatively early, by the time she was seen by Dr. Sanders, our daughter’s heart rate was dangerously low. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we waited for “the phase to end.”
As I share my family’s struggles, I hope to impress upon you three things: First, an eating disorder is the entire family’s problem, not just the child’s. Second, supplying the parents with education and support is a large part of the patient’s treatment. And third – misunderstandings about Eating Disorders abound, creating shame and fear, forcing patients and families into silence when dialogue is most needed. One of the greatest strengths of Overlook’s program is how effectively they combat these misunderstandings with education. This, combined with their medical expertise, convinced me that the extreme hold Eating Disorders have had over its victims is finally coming to an end.
Initially my daughter’s treatment focused entirely on addressing her physical needs through nutrition. This was so painful for her that she asked me several times to take her home and simply let her starve to death; assuring me that her research showed it would only take about a week. You see before the disease she was a reliable kid who never did anything half way. This disease took that admirable quality, twisted it and turned it against her.
In our early meetings it was pointed out that being a stay-at-home mom would help provide the consistency FBT requires. We read that having both parents at home was even better, so my husband arranged to work part-time for six months. Overlook provided excellent nutritional education, yet, we found we needed to support each other through menu planning, grocery shopping, providing distractions during the non-meal times as well as caring for our other daughter. It may sound strange to need emotional support while grocery shopping, but, because of the disease, simple everyday tasks like food shopping and meal preparation became confusing, stressful and exhausting.
This illness takes the most basic of instincts, to nourish oneself, and turns it into an enemy for the patient, creating a very strong fear of food.
Gradual exposure is commonly accepted as a valid method of helping someone overcome a phobia, with Eating Disorders, we learned, however, that we did not have time to gradually re-introduce our daughter to food. Her level of malnutrition was so great, that had we taken a gentler, slower approach, she may not have lived to see recovery. So we had to insist on her eating large amounts of food consistently every day, forcing her to face her fear in abundance. Her reactions to this demand were understandably extreme. For us it seemed counter intuitive to willingly cause our daughter so much pain. We were coaxing her (and ourselves) to endure suffering in the short term for a promised outcome of health in the long run. But the pain of this suffering at times made us blind to its wisdom. This is where Overlook’s presentation, education and support were invaluable and even life-saving. I know we could not have persisted with treatment without their calm, compassionate and intelligent backup.
Almost imperceptibly her thoughts began to relent. And when this happens with a patient, the parents, who up to this point are in complete control of her food, need to begin the slow process of giving control back to the child. This was much harder to do than one may think because it requires trust in the patient’s recovery. After witnessing the devastation of this disease, trusting in its slow recession wasn’t even on our radar. It took our FBT therapist patiently yet firmly pointing out tiny successes before we could begin to trust in our daughter’s progress. Each occasion of trust felt like a huge leap of faith that Overlook took with us. And after many months of hard work and faith leaping we saw that our daughter was well.
While this is a thumbnail sketch of our experience and it was rife with difficulties, please know that ours is the happiest of stories. We are the success that Overlook offers. Unfortunately, however, there remain many children who are being silently tortured from the inside out. Overlook is uniquely equipped to help these children and their families. They fight this awful disease with calm, confident perseverance every day. Their program is vital and necessary, as this disease is pervasive. It is my strong hope that you consider helping Overlook Foundation fund an eating disorders program for 8-12 year olds.
– Parent of an Eating Disorder Survivor, Springfield, NJ