My daughter developed anorexia in the middle of Year 9.

She was hospitalised three times in an eating disorder ward. Following this she remained a day patient at the hospital for the remainder of the year. My wife and I were supported in a Family Based Treatment (FBT) approach to the disease, which involved my daughter’s younger siblings, and we were supported by a close-knit community, including my mother-in-law, our neighbours and friends. 

Two years later, my daughter finished years 11 and 12 with confidence and composure. Her recovery has provided a foundation that has allowed her to deal with anxiety, compulsion and fear.

An unwelcome, unfamiliar stranger

The eating disorder was an unwelcome, unfamiliar stranger in our family. We were fortunate in recognising and naming the illness relatively quickly, and supported in taking an FBT approach. We were committed to getting her to a physical recovery. 

As we were utterly committed to her recovery, we didn’t allow her to return to the things she loved – running and school – until she was medically safe.  We believed that there was no chance of a disease offramp until a healthy weight was restored.

For our daughter our greatest leverage was running. She was not allowed to return to running until she was safe. Our road for many months was extraordinarily hard. 

An unwelcome, unfamiliar stranger

A greater determination to fight

My wife and I always externalised the anorexia as separate from our daughter. On the days when we needed to physically keep her safe from her own mind, it seemed like we were living a real life version of the ‘The Exorcist’. A particularly bad day for me was when the eating disorder – I could never imagine this being my daughter – accused me of abusing her, hoping that someone would take her away and not re-feed her.  The realisation that her eating disorder mindset had taken over in such a big way gave me greater determination to fight harder for her. 

Fighting anorexia meant: being calm and strong, giving up comfort and plans, asking for help, achieving less, and most importantly for FBT, working with utter solidarity with the family to achieve recovery. 

Bright, perfectionistic, anxious, competitive

My daughter demonstrates traits typical of others experiencing an eating disorder  – she is athletic, bright, perfectionistic, anxious and competitive. Part of her recovery involved medication to help her manage her mental health. Along the way we discovered we should have moved more quickly towards medication as part of the management of her mind – there were clear signs of challenges in the preceding years as she was seeing a psychologist for a range of issues, mainly OCD.

My relationship with my daughter changed forever. I had to change to help my daughter become healthy—both physically and mentally. We shared a love of competitive running, and during her recovery I had to become a different person, and project messages about positive recovery, listening to the body, and understanding competitive urges. Winning is measurable in many different ways, and is deeply personal. Winning is not everything. 

I also had to model a form of eating that was inconsistent with where my body was for my age – however, early on in the recovery this was essential. 

Changed – healing, and reflection

I am different as a result of my daughter’s illness and her recovery. My wife and I, and the other kids, will have clearer memories of the events than my daughter, as the mind heals itself. These memories make me cry – probably always will, not just in reflection of the hardest weeks, but in gratitude because my daughter is statistically likely to recover and put all of this in her rear vision mirror. 

I suspect I will be unpacking this for years to come, which is ok, because the first priority is the recovery of my daughter. Our careers were disrupted, especially my wife’s—these are other impacts of anorexia to be acknowledged.

People who were willing to work with us

How did we cope?  We had help from the professionals at the hospital; and we found a mix of doctors, nutritionists, psychologists, and coaches who understood Eating Disorders and were willing to work with us to support our daughter’s staged recovery. 

A friend worked in the field of eating disorders in Denmark and she let us know that our commitment to recovery first, and everything else second, was our best shot. I met with another Dad whose daughter was on a pathway to recovery – I reached out to him several times and he would always meet me at the beach where we watched our recovering daughters swim in the ocean ..and we traded stories. I will always be grateful to that chance encounter as it provided real direction to my personal strategy with my daughter.