My Daughter Had Anorexia: How Overcoming It Brought Us Closer Together

sad girlWhat is it really like to have a child with an eating disorder? An estimated half million teens suffering from eating disorders in America, and in honor of the National Eating Disorder Association's 29th Annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we spoke to Christine Byrd, the mother of a daughter who fought a long, hard battle with anorexia nervosa -- and won.

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Byrd's daughter, Pepper Snider, is proof that recovery from eating disorders really can happen: Ten years after her initial diagnosis (and six years since her recovery), Snider is a counselor at the Eating Recovery Centers of Washington (where she was once a patient) and is on the junior board of the NEDA.

Byrd is likewise dedicated to the cause of raising awareness of eating disorders, coordinating NEDA Walks in Seattle and even teaming up with her daughter to speak to families affected by EDs. Here's what she had to say about how Snider's illness affected her family, and what she's learned over the years about helping eating disordered kids to heal.

CafeMom: How old was your daughter when she developed an eating disorder, and what were the symptoms?

CB: It's an interesting thing. She was actually writing in journals about it at 12 years old; around that age she also had mono and remembers liking the restriction of the food and the water, and she struggled through junior high with body image and social anxiety and isolation, but she was also a volleyball player and didn't fully engage in her eating disorder until she was 17 years old and stopped playing volleyball. But from her journal entries you can see the progression starting in her brain when she was much younger, which is interesting because anorexia is a genetic disease and runs in the family on her dad's side.

It's like they say, genetics load the gun and society pulls the trigger. Anyway, when she was 17 she was seeing a cardiologist at Seattle Children's Hospital for a different issue and they ended up referring her to an ED doctor after seeing the signs of restricting and how it was progressing. 

CafeMom: What was your initial reaction to finding out your daughter was suffering from anorexia?

CB: I was in shock, and quite fearful. I didn't have a clue. She was an only child and I was a very attentive parent. I was blindsided. She went in to see her cardiologist and then they called me in and told me she had written an eating disorder doctor a letter [about her issues] and that she was suffering from anorexia nervosa.

More from CafeMom: Why I'm Telling My Daughter About My Eating Disorder

It was hard because I didn't know -- she hid it really well. A lot of what I saw I thought was normal teenage behavior. She grew a lot in the span of time in junior high and she had a slight build anyway, so it was really hard to tell -- there was no apparent dieting or any talk about it. I delved into educating myself and slowly realized it was way bigger than I could handle. And as soon as I became aware of her eating disorder, she showed it to me in full. As part of her treatment I would sit with her while she ate, and a cup of macaroni would take two hours. It was tough navigating that power struggle and understanding the ED, but over time you become better equipped and able to read into what's going on.

CafeMom: What was your daughter's treatment and recovery journey like? 

CB: Her first course of treatment was a small treatment team [a nutritionist, therapist and eating disorder specialist] and it was either going to be inpatient treatment if that didn't work or college in the fall. So she met her criteria and went off to college. But that summer before she went to college her father was diagnosed with colon cancer and was in the hospital for two months -- he was very malnourished himself. I was so focused on her I didn't realize how sick he really was. He got out of the hospital three days before she went off to college and was still very ill and on IV nutrition. She went on to freshman year hanging on with her eating disorder, but they actually had an ED specialist on campus and I would take her there every three weeks and together we'd keep tabs on her.

More from CafeMom: 7 Truths About Eating Disorders Every Parent Needs to Know

Eventually she got pulled from school because she started binge drinking as well and started intensive outpatient treatment. She didn't drink in high school but discovered it was a great numbing tool. So she did 12 weeks of intensive outpatient treatment, then all of a sudden she got worse and passed out driving because her blood pressure was so low. She hit a fire hydrant and luckily didn't get hurt.

Finally I found inpatient treatment for her at Rosewood in Arizona, the closest facility that would take her, but insurance would only cover a short stay. She went back to school for a measure of time but I had to pull her back home because she wasn't doing well. Every time her father would take a nose dive, she would take a nose dive. His cancer spread to his liver. I didn't tell her at first, it was too much for her too handle.

She went back to school, had a lot of slips and slides and full relapses .. after a year in school, I took her home for good. I was out of treatment dollars, so she would help me look for options; even at her sickest, she wanted help. Then she found a study to participate in at the Columbia Eating Disorders Research Unit. In 2010, we took her there. She was given treatment in exchange for participation. She made a decision then that she was either going to die with this or live her life in full. So she committed to that program and stayed there for six or seven weeks, and she came home and has been fully recovered since. It was a double lockdown psychiatric hospital, she decided she never wanted to be in a place like that again. 

CafeMom: How did the ED affect your relationship with your daughter? 

CB: It affected us in a great way, actually. At first it was extremely challenging, but once Pepper read the book Life Without Ed, she realized it was her eating disorder that was running the show, so when she would lash out irrationally she would say, "I'm sorry, that was my ED voice."

We bonded over the time we spent traveling to facilities and through her father's illness, and our bond grew even stronger as we teamed up to fight the eating disorder and then as we teamed up as advocates.

CafeMom: What would you tell other parents of kids with eating disorders?

CB: It's way bigger than you can handle alone. Put a treatment team in place and find a support group for yourself, too. Don't blame yourself, it's a disease, not a choice. Take time for yourself and get all the rest you need.

Life may not work out like you planned. We had to pull her from college several times. Treating the eating disorder is more important. They can always go back. It's not important how long it takes. It's more important that they get the treatment they need.

Don't dwell on why, but, what can I do.

A testament to my daughter's recovery is that her father passed away in 2012 and she was able to stay in full recovery even with that big of a life stressor. We are both grateful he was able to see her fully recovered for several years before his passing. We did have open discussions during that period that if it were going to rear its ugly head it would be then, but luckily her recovery was strong enough that it didn't!

Now, I watch my daughter blossom as the weight her suffering has transformed her into a gentle, kind spirit who is more aware of the true meaning and value of life than a lot of the adults I know. It is such a privilege to be able, as a mother, watch this beautiful evolution of my daughter.

 
 

Image via iStock.com/Martin Dimitrov 

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