You Have to See The Beast to Slay The Beast
Note: This is my experience as the mother of someone with restrictive anorexia who is in solid, long-lasting recovery after an early diagnosis; we had access to excellent treatment at the University of California San Diego Center for Eating Disorders Treatment and Research. I use the term eating disorders in places as much of this translates to other eating disorders. I also note in the accompanying video, that there are no guarantees that doing everything "right" will work; these are devastating illnesses. My daughters have both written on this battle as well, here and here; I appreciate their strong, clear voices in support of Food First & Family Empowered treatment.
Metaphor and visualization are powerful weapons in our psychological armory when fighting an eating disorder* in a loved one. In the early stages of anorexia, before I knew it was what we were dealing with, my daughter eating anything with minimal fuss was a relief; I was counting both literal and figurative crumbs as successful if there was no drama and limited cajoling.
Our treatment in a multi-family program with a Food First & Family Empowered approach prepared me from day one for the probability that mealtimes might be a battle zone, though there really is no way to “prepare” someone to see their child’s head spin around three times before a stream of vitriol and profanity containing words heretofore only seen in print spews forth because the plate you’ve presented has both fats and carbohydrates on it. To the extent clinicians and other families are able to prepare you for it, it still sounds a bit extreme and unlikely that your own child would do and say some of the horrific things you’ve heard about. And in the beginning you may still be wondering if this isn’t just a really long and very realistic nightmare you are surely just about to wake from. The Beast is a formidable foe.
It is one of the many cruelties of an eating disorder that the brain it inhabits, in a parasitic relationship, is inside a skull that wears the face of, speaks with the voice of, and is carried around on the body of, your dear loved one. It is almost impossible to believe that the refusal and the stubbornness and the meanness are not intentional acts malevolently undertaken to hurt you and make your life and the rest of the family’s lives miserable.
Then there is the camouflage of presenting a fully functioning brain in terms of intellect and reasoning on just about anything that isn’t eating disordered behavior like restriction, purging, exercise compulsion, etc.
As painful as the direct conflict, are the times when deceit and manipulation lull you into thinking things are different or better than they are, and making you question who your loved one truly is and confront the fear they might not ever get fully well.
Fighting an eating disorder in your child doesn’t have an option for you to be a conscientious objector; you have been conscripted into this battle. I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who felt prepared for this fight, and many of us have worked hard to parent in a way that is quite the opposite of what fighting an eating disorder requires. My experience with anorexia is that it took my reasonable, collaborative, positive reinforcement approach and used it to steal food from my child’s mouth and in the process nourish its evil self and take her further away from all she was and all she loved.
I now tell everyone I discuss this with that I don’t believe there is a non-confrontational way to fight anorexia. Your goals are polar opposites; anorexia wants to starve your loved one to death and you want to feed them to full life; it is a battle to the death.
You Have To See The Beast To Slay The Beast
The passage of time from the early days when I held hope that there were some magic words I just hadn’t yet learned that would accomplish both nutritional rehabilitation of my malnourished child and some semblance of a normal life to the time to discovering I had to see The Beast to slay The Beast was relatively short because I had the power of clinicians and peers who taught me what the true measure of success was not peace, but progress, and I was fighting for a child who was not yet able to fight on her own.
When I fully accepted and embraced the idea that conflict was good and peace was bad and that a shocking and terrifying battle over Fettuccine Alfredo advanced my cause (saving her life with food as medicine) exponentially more than a marginally less fierce battle over egg whites and spinach which advanced anorexia’s cause (keep her sick and dying), is when we began to see progress.
When I realized that my daughter might be 5’10 to my 5’4, but my lack of height was nothing when compared to the my fierce mother love and I realized she inherited that steel will (that The Beast manipulated to its advantage) from ME, is when we began to see progress.
When I realized that it was up to me to no longer be fooled by the camouflage but see the true nature and will of The Beast in its behaviors and not its costume is when we began to see progress.
When I began to treat each and every battle as the one on which the war would turn, is when we began to see progress.
When I coped ahead for the possibility that I would need to call 911 and request the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team over the inclusion of heavy whipping cream in enchilada sauce and had a plan as to what to say and do to get help, is when we began to see progress.
When I began to see The Beast multiple times a day, and beat The Beast at each encounter, is when we began to see progress.
When I began to draw strength from the battle, because seeing The Beast meant I was slaying The Beast, is when we began to win the war.
The artist who created this image, Lilac Vylette Maldonado, is also in recovery from an eating disorder; our process on these pieces is that we chat by phone and I tell them about my vision for what I want to convey and explain, clumsily, what I pictured in my mind in the heat of the moment, years ago. In this case, I also shared a poem (below) that I wrote when this was all fresh. The art that results is never a direct illustration of what I described, and it is something so much more - it is exactly what I MEANT.
Forged from Fear and Fury; One Mother’s Fight
The grocery store is my armory;
I must choose my weapons wisely,
for my enemy is mythical in her strength and tenacity
and defeat is not an option for either of us
Cream and butter, of course.
swept off the shelf by the armful,
price tag be damned.
Nutrition facts are closely perused
(turning convention inside out,
I am looking for maximum calories and fat)
This is my life now:
I am steadfast
I wage war on my mortal enemy,
That Bitch Anorexia
Food is my weapon
The toughest love and DBT skills my armor
My enemy is a wily one;
a master of disguise.
Her mask the face
of a girl I have been devoted to for 17 years
with the intensity and fervor
that marks a mother love
Her body though
belongs to my enemy,
That Bitch Anorexia
jutting collar and hip bones
The eyes are
still the window to the soul;
except it is not
the soul I know,
rather it's a soul
that has no hope
This dark and twisted soul
to be ever thinner,
to eat ever less.
To consume my daughter’s body
through the act of restriction
My daughter and the interloper
share a bizarre
where not eating is what feeds the beast
(That Bitch Anorexia)
and destroys my girl’s true self
In the kitchen
I marshal my resources
and deploy my weaponry.
I gird myself for the counterattack
and remind myself I am not
fighting my daughter,
but rather fighting for her
because she is too weak,
to fight for herself
Yet it is still a shock
when this dull-eyed,
shell of her former self
roars to life
(or a rather a gross misrepresentation of life);
It is almost shocking
when her head does not actually
as venom spews
and cutlery flies
I tighten my breastplate
(woven tightly with strands of wisdom
I’ve collected from the finest professionals
and warriors that fought before me).
I catch missiles midair
And so it goes, until the meal is consumed.
Until, at least for this moment,
That Bitch Anorexia knows who is in charge
and understands her opposition is
a Warrior Mama
who will die in battle
before she gives even one inch
Because failure is an option
too grotesque to even contemplate
--JD Ouellette, 2013