It takes something that looks familiar and turns it into something you don’t recognize. It is the perfect actor, convincing you of whatever it must in order to keep its claws firmly locked in place. It is something darker and meaner than words can describe. It makes it impossible to trust. It makes it impossible to sleep. It sucks the life out of its captor and all those who love her.
Why What You Think You Know About Anorexia Is Hurting You
Warning: This is my brain on anorexia, and it isn’t pretty. Here is my rant:
This has to be the cruelest illness possible. It ruins lives. It takes trusting and compassionate people, and rips their hearts into shreds. It stomps out their dignity. It is ugly. It is loud. It disrupts. It manipulates. It lies. It does whatever it can to prove itself the victor.
It takes you to the edge of the cliff and convinces you it is about to jump, and then laughs in your face when you try everything you can to talk it off the edge. It threatens you. It bullies you. It forces you onto a roller coaster from hell even though you beg to stop riding.
It holds your head under water until you are sure you will die. Then it lets you breathe, and acts like it’s another ordinary day. It hides things, exaggerates things, and makes chaos out of order. It demolishes what is carefully and lovingly constructed. It tests every limit. It tells you what you want to hear and makes you hope. It makes sure you know that you are doing nothing right and that you never will.
It takes talent and intelligence and uses it against its victim. It makes perfect not good enough. It makes achievement a mediocre attempt, and makes it clear that she is not and never will be good enough. It attacks her from the inside until her outside is only a shell. It leaves us scrambling to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams and shattered hearts.
It causes you to question everything you do, and it makes you doubt what you used to believe. It taunts you, playing with your soul, batting around the most sacred elements of who you are, like a cat with a ball of yarn. It leaves you feeling like you’ve been chewed up, spit out, and left to rot.
It exhausts you. It gives you just enough hope to devastate you when it points out your mistake. It puts up walls. It isolates. It steals dreams and ruins the best times. It keeps dark clouds over the days that are sunny to everyone else. It changes how things could have been to something no one could have imagined.
It hurts. It is pervasive, and it creates hatred. It tricks me into thinking that she is doing all of this even though I know she has no choice in what it is making her do.
It is anorexia.
If your daughter has anorexia, my description probably sounded like the truth. I know it felt true to me.
The hardest work I’ve ever done is to accept that none of my observations about anorexia are facts. Every single judgment I have made about it is a thought, not a circumstance. The only real circumstance is that my daughter has anorexia. As impossible as it may seem to believe, anorexia is a neutral circumstance. The anorexia itself is not causing me any pain. But, my thoughts about anorexia are causing me tremendous pain.
Of course, I don’t want to jump for joy right now. I also don’t want to dwell on how devastatingly awful everything is either. I can choose what I want to think, not because I am in denial about how serious my daughter’s illness is, but because I want to create feelings that allow me to be the best possible mom I can be regardless of the circumstances.
I’m sharing my thoughts about anorexia because even with a tremendous amount of self-coaching, I still have days when I let my thoughts get me down. My rant about anorexia is a thought download I had after my daughter had a setback. By writing down what I was thinking, it was easy to figure out that those thoughts were causing me to feel extremely discouraged and powerless. I know that I can have those thoughts, observe that I am thinking those thoughts, and I can compassionately remind myself that my brain is doing its job.
Our brains are beautifully designed to protect us when we are threatened. If a rabid wolf were about to attack us or our daughter, we would need to believe we were threatened in order to feel scared enough to fight or to run. Our brains enable us to automatically respond to danger, and to act accordingly. This automatic response serves us very well when there is an acute threat, but it isn’t very useful when we stay in a chronic state of fear.
In other words, our conscious brain, the prefrontal cortex, needs to step in to allow us to distinguish between the rabid wolves and the other circumstances in our lives. As much as anorexia feels like a rabid wolf, it is up to us to learn how to not respond as though it is. Staying in fight or flight for extended periods of time will not help us, and it will not help our daughters.
My thoughts about anorexia are sometimes gloom and doom, and if I allow myself to stay in those thoughts, I will be completely miserable and utterly ineffective as a parent. The results I want do not include allowing my daughter’s anorexia to completely destroy me and my daughter, but if I let my brain stay on autopilot, that is exactly what would happen. The very best news I can give you is that you can decide what you want to think and feel about the circumstance of your daughter’s anorexia.
Here is what I want to think, and I have been thinking these thoughts long enough that I believe them:
My daughter’s anorexia is part of her journey, and she will become the best version of herself because of it.
Nothing has gone wrong.
She will fully recover.
I love her unconditionally.
This is temporary.
My relationship with her is stronger than it has ever been.
I can endure hard things, and so can my kids.
This isn’t her fault, and it isn’t my fault either.
It is possible that this is the best thing that could have happened.
My drama is optional.
The worst thing that can happen is a feeling.
Her life is going exactly as it is supposed to go.
My life is going exactly as it is supposed to go.
I am capable of figuring out what she needs.
I am okay with there being no clear answers because I will know what to do to get her the help she needs.
As much as our brains like to point out all of the negatives in our lives, we can get in the habit of countering the negative with positive. By consciously observing our thoughts, and compassionately acknowledging them, we can learn to appreciate them without reacting to them, and then we will be able to choose thoughts that will create the feelings that will allow us to take the actions that will get us our desired results.
Anorexia will make your brain think things that are absolutely not true. Question your automatic thoughts that are spinning uncontrollably. We think we can’t help it, but we can when we know it is possible.
So, if you think this is the end of the world, it will feel like the end of the world.
If you think this is a bump in the road of life, and you can come through it as a better version of yourself, it will feel like a worthwhile obstacle to overcome.
Download your thoughts so you can question them. Separate the fact from the fiction, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. One bite at a time, you and your daughter can do this.
If you are feeling stuck, I would love to help you. I offer a limited number of free 20-minute coaching calls each week. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your free coaching session.