Holiday Reflections from an Eating Disorder Carer

When the eldest of our three children was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, it felt like all joy and pleasure suddenly exited our lives. The eating disorder changed our world to a game of opposites; all the things we once enjoyed felt stolen from our child, from our whole family. 

Everyday pleasures like a cosy sleep-in on a rainy day, a picnic in the park on a sunny day, or a movie night with popcorn and ice cream, suddenly seemed impossible. Instead, each day was an early rise (so no nutrition would be missed), a nap before and after lunch (due to digestive and mental agony), and a lowered concentration level. Our daughter’s ability to sit still became very reduced, meaning the only way she could ‘allow’ herself to stop was if she was doing something with her hands like crochet or drawing.

It’s not about the food

Like many families who receive this grim diagnosis, it felt like life as we knew it changed with one fell sweep of the ED sword. Life became unpredictable and filled with daily challenges; what was good was now bad; what was fun was now fearful; what was food was now medicine.

One of the big adjustments was realising celebrations were not something my daughter suffering with an eating disorder looked forward to anymore. In fact, not only did she not look forward to these special days, she dreaded them and became increasingly anxious as they approached. It’s like the world as we knew it had completely changed and we were now living in some parallel universe.

Caring for a child with a debilitating eating disorder meant no days off. For her, there was little break from the relentless and intrusive instruction to restrict and exercise; and for us, there was no break from attempting to overcome the ED’s rigid routine that threatened to derail our daughter’s mental and physical stability.

The initial approach we took quickly found the whole family miserable and myself on the brink of a mental breakdown! Our drive to see her well overrode every other life goal or objective. What I didn’t see was that my own unrelenting fixation actually became the very thing that drove my daughter closer to her eating disorder.

Our relentless approach empowered the ED, instead of our daughter. As we attempted to extract, eliminate and over-power the ED, we forgot to look around it, and see our daughter there, needing love, needing hope, needing us to see her, not the ED and all it was taking.

I longed for things to return to the way they were. I wept inside as our younger children witnessed their sister beg and plead and even lie to avoid eating food, especially during celebrations, where calories and ingredients were less measurable, and the most delicious offerings were like poison in the eyes of the eating disorder. 

The bitterness threatened to overtake me. I could feel the tendrils of the eating disorder spreading and reaching into every corner of our lives. Not only were Easter and Birthdays and Christmas no longer a happy time, so many of the moments in between were tainted too! Evening meals as a family, a trip to the movies or shopping, going on holiday; even sad news was tainted by the fact that our daughter found eating sadder than anything else.

This is when I realised I needed to change my approach. This is when I knew I had to drop expectations around celebrations and family events; this is when I started to empathise with my daughter about how hard the eating disorder was making life for her; this is when I reinvented how I loved my child.

I made a choice – to let go of the past, where celebrating these special times was done with food and eating. Instead, I directed my energy toward what I could do. 

For us, this looked like beginning the day with a breakfast planned together the night before Easter morning, and including pyjamas, soft toys or craft activities as Easter gifts instead of just chocolate.

It also looked like letting our daughter hunt for eggs, without insisting she eat any of them, and instead adding them in as a snack or dessert at the appropriate place in her meal plan. 

It also looked like keeping family events small and intimate, or staying physically close to our daughter if we did decide to attend a gathering, and either bringing some appropriate pre-planned meals and snacks, or having something together on the way there, staying a short time, then having something else in the car on the way home.

Most of all, it involved actively searching for fun and joy on these special days not associated and not revolving around eating and food. This may have looked like asking my daughter to create cards or special ‘Easter Bunny’ surprises for her younger sibling; or staying up late and helping me hide not just eggs but small gifts too.

This past Christmas, our now adult and recovered daughter came home on December 1 to help us decorate the Christmas tree. We followed our family traditions, playing silly Christmas music and finding funny decorations from past years to put on the tree. And the final tradition was to see whose turn it was to put the star on the tree. It was with delight that we discovered it was our recovered daughter’s turn, and as she placed the star on the tree, I was filled with gratitude that by leaning in towards the healthy parts of my daughter, she was able to see that person too, and eventually was able to not only celebrate with us in full joy and happiness, but to celebrate even more to make up for the times where the eating disorder took that away.

By Kim McAlister

About Eating Disorders Families Australia

Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) is the only national organisation solely for carers and families of those with an eating disorder. EDFA provides supportEDucation, advocacy, and counselling services. EDFA has a private forum, providing a safe place for eating disorder carers and family members to share experiences, seek advice and assistance, and find hope. 

For more information about any of our services, please don’t hesitate to contact us