As a young mother in my twenties and thirties I encouraged my four children in many pursuits – swimming, ballet, brownies, cubs, tennis, horse riding lessons and more. But I never once jumped in the swimming pool and played with them. Or went to a dance rehearsal, or to a hockey match or gymkhana, or went camping with them. Not once. The rigidity of thought imposed by decades of eating disorders prevented me doing many things that I knew I would have enjoyed, and yearned to do, but could not allow myself to do. But today I am free to do all these things with my grandchildren. A constant joy of eating disorder recovery is the freedom to share time, real ‘in the moment’ time, with grandchildren, each of whom has a special knack of engaging attention.
Snapshots of life beyond an eating disorder:
This afternoon I surprised two of my grandchildren, aged five and two. For the first time, they saw me in a bathing costume. They laughed, and so did I. They laughed a lot more when we entered the indoor swimming pool. The five-year-old had a large water pistol and proceeded to shoot me. The only thing was, he was laughing so much he could not see straight and luckily missed his target much of the time. The two-year-old, resplendent in her pink ‘Tinkerbell’ bathers, took to the water like the plastic yellow duck and three baby ducks that her mum had given her to play with and I was busy keeping up. Her mum was expecting baby number three in three weeks and was looking on from the poolside – she was laughing too.
For an hour we frolicked in the indoor pool like seals in the sea. Happy. Happy. Happy. Why was this simple event so important to me? Because I let it happen!
My grandchildren are great life-coaches.
I took grandson Lachlan, aged five, on a train-ride to a children’s hands-on science show, as a birthday present, and on the way home he held my hand, skipped along the footpath and said: ‘Oh Grandma, this has been the best day ever.’ I am glad Lachlan was focusing on his skipping (avoiding the cracks, as he does, in the concrete path), as my eyes had become rather moist; warm fuzzy feelings had enveloped me. ‘This’, I said to Lachlan, ‘has been the “best day ever” for me, too.’ We squeezed hands a little tighter, kicked up our heels, and raced for the car.
How special it is, to simply ‘be’. To be a kid with my grandson, enjoy the outing, nothing more, nothing less. No guilt to contend with, no bossy, intrusive thoughts insisting calories be counted for lunch, that the distance and minutes spent walking be calculated to determine what, if anything, can be eaten for supper. Such intrusion plagued my mind when my children were young. One- on-one time with any child was impossible.
I had been working for 25 years towards recovery and had almost regained and rebuilt a sense of self, almost, when Lachlan was born five weeks prematurely. When the call came through, I had jumped in my car to drive two hours to the hospital.
On the way, unsettling thoughts crept in. If lucky enough to be photographed with this wee babe in my arms, would he think I looked fat and frumpish when he grew up? Perhaps I was not good enough to hold him anyway, perhaps I would not be good enough to play with him or mind him when his mummy, my daughter, went back to work or went out for dinner with his daddy.
As usual, thoughts raced ahead, grabbed uncertainty and amplified it. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my head was thumping. I hung back as the other grandparents excitedly went forward to peer into the crib containing the newest member of our family, and importantly the first member of the next generation.
But hey, my daughter was saying: ‘Mum, would you like to hold Lachlan?’ Me? Hold him? Oh joy on joy. Yes please! I glowed as I held the little bundle and looked down at the wee babe wrapped within. My heart wanted to burst. My sense of self surged.
Becoming a ‘Grandma’ introduced strong, secure and colourful threads of self into my psyche. The grandchildren weave the threads into a rich tapestry of connectedness, contentment and acceptance within. No room for the eating disorder.
Several months after Lachlan’s birth, my daughter said, ‘I want you to know, Mum, you are chief babysitter.’ I cried. My daughter was telling me I was OK, accepted, worthwhile. Things I was unable to feel as a mother when she was a babe. I have not required antidepressant medication or therapy since the day Lachlan was born.
Snapshot of life beyond an eating disorder
I spent today ‘in the past’ doing something I have wanted to do for a long time. The time was right to do it. I got out my family photograph albums. Since age 11, when I got my first Brownie box camera, I have been the creator and keeper of pictorial records in my family. The albums number more than 50 and there are hundreds of pictures. Today, I leafed through each album, pausing, remembering, and occasionally slipping a picture out of its cover, and placing it in a special pile on my dining table as the first step in creating a book keepsake for my children. The task was easy enough, turning pages. But it was loaded with reminders of my pervasive eating disorder.
I stared in disbelief at pictures of each of my children with their annual birthday cakes. The children looked glum, even when about to huff and puff and blow out their candles. Their countenance was downright solemn. I calculated the years. Yes, I was in my twenties, thirties and forties, lost in the dark forest of my eating disorder for three decades, trying to find the way out. Counting calories, checking weights. Lost. At home and on family holidays, my illness ran amok. Binge, starve; good day, bad day. Moods see-sawing. Reflected in the faces. I felt desperately sad for my children and sad for me. We each missed out on much time with each other. I tried to be a good mum, as best I could with the small amount of ‘me’ not consumed by the eating disorder, my illness obviously had affected my children – and their dad. He looked glum, too. Not even saying ‘smile for the camera’ could raise a grin from anyone. The pictures told the story. (Yes, the illness took my marriage, too).
Oh hurry, hurry, through the albums to 2006. The year I regained me. Smiles: genuine smiles. My children are adults, becoming parents now; pictures of grandchildren begin to appear. Smiles, h-a-p-p-y and free. No eating disorder clouding, sabotaging relationships. I’m living in the moment (‘Come on Grandma, it’s time to play’). I squeeze through the tunnels in the playground, and whiz down the toddler’s slide, granddaughter squealing with glee on my lap. Throw shells in the waves. Plant carrot seeds in the garden. Blow bubbles, lots of bubbles, and chase them, too. Everyone is smiling. Including me. The pictures tell the story.
How lucky I am, that my children stayed by me, that their dad provided stability and security for them when I was too sick to do so. Today my children are in their thirties; they are my carers, recovery guides. Their children are the cheer squad.
The grand children are a strategic part of my maintenance team; they are mini-carers, stress-relievers, hug-a-lots, happiness-givers, non-judges, and living-in-the-moment experts. (‘Grandma, please help find this Lego part’; ‘Grandma, you are my favourite when Mummy is at work’; ‘Grandma, help me with this puzzle – sit on the FLOOR beside me, Grandma!’; ‘I want you to come and read FIVE stories when I’m in bed tonight, and there is room for you to lie beside me, Grandma.’)
Having developed anorexia at age 11, and regaining my sense of self at age 55, I spent years wondering who I really was. Who was I without the bossy eating disorder? My grandchildren have helped me work this out. It’s simple really. To my parents and sister I was ‘the one with the problems in the family’ for so long that we became estranged. So sad, but I do not dwell on sadness or loss. To my grandchildren, I am ‘Grandma’. Their unconditional love makes all the difference. Together with three meals and three snacks a day, the grandchildren keep ‘Ed’ at bay. I am growing with them.
Do I have a message to share? Yes. Never give up on recovery.
Adults who are suffering, or have a partner who is suffering, an eating disorder, have opportunity to acquire tools and learn skills from world leading researcher, Professor Cynthia Bulik, at Australia’s first conference on eating disorders for carers, families and sufferers: At Home with Eating Disorders conference in Brisbane, May 24-25.
Professor Bulik, whose latest book is titled Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recovery will present a keynote speech on Midlife Eating Disorders: The Recovery Journey for Adults and their Partners.
Issues covered by Prof. Bulik will include:
Although crisp epidemiological data are lacking, treatment centers around the world are witnessing a rise in the number of women and men in midlife and beyond who are presenting for treatment of eating disorders. This demographic shift is rendering it essential for researchers and clinicians to take a developmental perspective when considering the causes of and treatments for eating disorders. Yet, empirical guidance on how best to treat adults with eating disorders lags behind our knowledge about the treatment of adolescents. Prof. Bulik will review both biological and environmental factors that may be contributing to the apparent rise in midlife eating disorders, will discuss the specific challenges faced by adults with eating disorders, and will elaborate on the critical role that partners can play in recovery with reference to the new treatment developed at the University of North Carolina, Uniting Couples in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa or UCAN.