My daughter certainly was depressed, holed up in her room for days on end, but eventually her illness brought about a turning point in each of our lives, and in our relationship.
She was so depressed she tried to commit suicide – thankfully that didn’t work. After that attempt – she had been having outpatient therapy – she was transferred to a private clinic. I was to learn that my habit of taking all responsibility from my daughter was preventing her from moving on.
Her ability to develop and mature was being hampered because I wouldn’t let go – I would help her find a job, find a flat – my helping was obsessive – anything she said, I would do better – she needed to get away from my smothering attitude and take responsibility for her own attitude and actions. Like, if that meant she would not have a job for years, then that would be her problem.
I had to learn to be a parent and set boundaries that were healthy. This was one of most important things that happened to our family as a result of my daughter’s eating disorder.
The crunch came when eventually the clinic forbade my daughter to see me. Three or four years had passed since her bulimia became known. It was shortly after her twenty-first birthday. She wrote a letter saying: ‘Mum, I love you very much but I want you out of my life.’
She said: ‘I don’t want to see you until we sort this out.’
Professor Janet Treasure calls my habit ‘over-caring’. I was absolutely devastated and came very close to letting depression get the better of me as I dealt with this issue. I couldn’t bear to be alone and I am normally a great loner. I would not stop talking and spent a massive time in tears. I couldn’t believe someone I loved and whom I was helping and in whom I had invested years in her life. My daughter was telling me to push off and get out of her life.
In a way I am the lucky one because what happened next was that the leaders of the carer group I was attending took me aside and said: ‘You need to consider your own treatment’.
I respected their advice, accepted my behavior was not helping and I enrolled in the 12-step program for over-caring. The guidance in Professor Janet Treasure’s book (Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder) is very similar to the treatment I underwent. It revolutionized both my daughter’s recovery and my whole life. With my changes in attitude and behavior, my daughter quickly got into recovery.
I learnt carers have a need to recognize and be open to accepting that looking after someone with a mental health problem is different to looking after someone with a normal medical illness.
I have since met many parents who are over-smothering. They feel like doing everything. But helping a child recover from an eating disorder is about setting and recognizing the boundaries and being open to being told how to do things. I think a lot of carers find it difficult to accept what they are told; perhaps due to how they are told. It is a leap of faith. When you learn what you have to do – the next step is putting it into practice and this is definitely a leap of faith.