Living in the Shadow of Anorexia Nervosa

Living in the Shadow of Anorexia Nervosa
A guest post by Rebecca Perkins

Eight years ago I finally faced up to the fact that all was not well with my beautiful 14-year-old daughter’s health. She had over many months and in all reality a number of years been gradually changing her eating and exercise habits. I didn’t want to see, I didn’t want to name what I suspected was happening to my girl.

The numerous trips to the doctor, the hospital trips for any number of ‘presenting’ conditions hid from all of us — family, doctor, friends, consultants — the fact that my daughter was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa. I was witnessing the gradual diminishing of my daughter. Her weight, her energy, her vitality, her general well-being and health were not what they were. The lack of concentration, her mood swings, and her withdrawal from life were all the evidence I knew I needed.

What unfolded next is a mother’s worst nightmare — the fear, the guilt, the anxiety, the sadness, the anger, the distress, the desperation. My daughter was sick. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, the psychiatrist, the nutritionist, the psychotherapist, myself. I wanted to know why, I wanted to know how. This illness rocked our family to its foundation. My husband (at the time) was unable to come to terms with her illness. We have never spoken about it and are unlikely ever to do so. My sons were bewildered. The eldest (17 at the time) felt an enormous sense of guilt — “if I’d been a better brother”… “if I’d been around more” … “if I hadn’t done as much sport” … My youngest (8 at the time) withdrew completely, daydreamed his way through school and cried. His words still resonate, “I just want my sister back.”

I carried the weight of not only her illness but the emotional turmoil it was causing in our family. I supported my sons and my wider family in their anxieties. I found some support amongst my friends and my sister, but felt completely isolated and alone.

One of the hardest issues I had to deal with was recognizing and understanding that I couldn’t “fix” her. I couldn’t make her better, I couldn’t give her paracetamol or put a band-aid on a grazed knee. This illness was hers, not mine. She had to want to heal herself. In a way, I had to watch events unfold and be there with unconditional love for her at all times. When the rage came I stood and took the full force. When the tears came I sat and comforted. When the rejection of food came I suggested something else that might appeal. When the fear came I held her in my arms.

Friends and family asked me how I did it. How I coped day to day, week in week out, being constantly there for the family and my daughter. I’m not sure I had any other choice (yes of course we always have a choice, we can choose our attitude even when things seem impossible). I chose to get on with it. I chose to do all I could to be there for my family. I chose to allow my daughter to take control of her illness, her life.

I found a way to separate my daughter’s identity, the real person, from the behavior, which was the illness. I coped with whatever the “behavior” threw at me. My daughter wasn’t her behavior. Thinking back to how we parented when our children were young — we loved the child but didn’t like the tantrums. This is how I made sense of it in my head.

I now appreciate how resilient I am, how I bounce back after setbacks. I believe this is the case because I choose to live my life fully — ups and downs. Even today, 8 years on from her diagnosis, and I struggle to write without tears. Anorexia lived in our house for some time, casting a heavy shadow. It moved on, my daughter is well and living her life having learned like all of us from the experience.

This post originally featured in The Huffington Post and is reprinted here with full permission.


About the Author: Rebecca Perkins

Rebecca Perkins is the author of Best Knickers Always: 50 Lessons for Midlife and founder of RebPerkins.com. Her latest book 40 Words of Wisdom for my 24 Year Old: A Parenting Manifesto (originally a Huffington Post blog) was published in April.

 She began writing to make sense of her life after the ending of her 20 year marriage. Rebecca is a NLP Master Practitioner and Personal Performance Coach working with women to navigate the transition of midlife. She is passionate about midlife as a time for renewal and for living the second half of life with enthusiasm and vigour.

 As a coach she is challenging and fun, motivating and inspiring. Midlife has taught her to be open-minded, to take more risks, to enjoy the simple things and to live each and every day with the question, ‘If not now, when?’ She lives in London and enjoys supporting and being surrounded by her children, spending time with her guy and celebrating life after 50.

 You can contact Rebecca via her website and follow her on FacebookTwitterand Pinterest as well as YouTube.

Follow Rebecca on Instagram for her 365 days of self care #365selfcare 

(I recently read Rebecca’s book, Best Knickers Always: 50 Lessons for Midlife. It’s rich, warm and wonderful and full of practical, insightful ideas – a great read.)

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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