Julia Newman’s dad didn’t know how to deal with her eating disorder. Until the day he was able to help.
The statistics for eating disorders aren’t great. Mortality rates in patients with anorexia are higher than any other mental illness. Surprisingly, it’s more often suicide than starvation that leads to death. The glaring and unfortunate truth is that eating disorders kill.
When I discovered these statistics, I proudly called to my parents letting them know, “A third of anorexics die. But I haven’t!” Their ashen faces left me a little confused.
I may know what it’s like to be someone with an eating disorder, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent of one.
There were years when my weight loss was chronic no matter how many hospitals I attended. And since, there have been years when I didn’t leave my apartment except to restock the kitchen and binge for weeks at a time. Years of pain and upheaval. But here I am, still alive.
So, what is going on? Why am I still around and not a tragic statistic? Firstly, there is always ‘yet.’ I am not recovered. I still cycle in and out of emotional and behavioral extremes. I still sometimes think about suicide.
Nonetheless, people who love me call me strong. People who read my blog or come to my book readings think I’m brave. My rocky-road recovery is mine. But it isn’t mine alone.
Eating disorders are family diseases. For me, and for most, they are based in the mind and soul, developed over a childhood or a time of trauma. Every family has its own challenges in healing its areas of vulnerability, the areas where perhaps they can do better. My family had plenty.
But when they saw me starving to death right in front of their eyes, thinking “what has happened to my daughter? What is going to happen next?” they did what professionals told them.
I withdrew from Vassar, got a doctor, and a therapist, both eating disorders specialists. These were the nuts and bolts; the way I was held accountable. My parents outsourced Julia-monitoring, their connection and concern too palpable to do anything but infuriate me.
My dad especially was at a loss. He once handed me a list of the ridiculously small amount of food he’d seen me eat throughout the day with corresponding calorie counts (for which I’m sure he made up on the spot), as if believing that—see?—the anorexia was simply a lapse of my judgment.
Then he once fell asleep during family therapy—therapy started to help me, to cover all bases, my parents doing everything and anything to get me better—and I held it against him. What I didn’t know until my mother told me years later is that my dad would sometimes cry in the night, panicked and praying.
Part of me wanted to be a child again; I didn’t want to grow up. That family dynamic played out in our house. My father was gifted another opportunity to rear his daughter, to instill new values and show love in new ways.
There was no drastic change, but what I do know is that my father tried really, really hard. And we found ways of connecting that transcended the craziness playing out in our high-jacked lives.
But sometimes I felt like he was expecting me to recover into the person I had been. And I knew that wasn’t possible.
I once was a cucumber and I’d become a pickle. I couldn’t un-pickle myself.
It’s language I learned in a 12-step oriented treatment facility. I went to AA meetings and heard stories about people lying and cheating and stealing to get their next drink. I heard about families estranged and young women living with regret and shame.
And I heard fathers. Strong, tattooed leatherheads teared up when they mentioned the birth of their children. They vented their everyday stresses and talked about how hard it was not to take it out on their kids.
I related to every word. I myself have cheated and stolen to get food. I have left jobs, left friends, left cities because of my food addiction. But when it came to my father, those meetings let me see behind the scenes and because of that, I started to actually grow up.
My paternal grandmother was an alcoholic. The language of AA isn’t new to my dad; or at least the addiction model of disease. However confused and lost my dad felt when I was cycling in and out of hospitals, once he thought of my eating disorder as an addiction something clicked.
People know about alcoholism. They know alcoholics can’t drink; once they start they can’t stop. Everything else gets bumped in line. Lives get destroyed.
And a High Power makes it better – whatever that High Power is.
There was a night during this time when I was curled up in bed, in the dark. I’d been painfully hungry and in the shadow of night crept downstairs to finally eat a blueberry muffin that I’d been drooling over for days, unable to eat a crumb.
I fought with myself and held it in my hand, totally paralyzed until—so scared of my appetite—I ran to the front porch and pitched the thing into the night.
I fled to my room to cower until morning and my father heard my guttural cries. For some reason when he knocked on the door, I didn’t scream for him to leave me alone.
So he came in and sat in the dark with me in the corner on the opposite side of the room in a silence that he eventually broke. “I believe that words matter,” my dad told me. Every cell of my body was telling me to kick him out, stay alone and isolated; telling me I didn’t belong, not even to my father.
But we do belong to each other. We all do. And out connection as humans and non-robots with messy lives and messy feelings, have to be careful with each other and unconditional with our love. Because even when we’re wrapped up in our minds and lives, our words matter. And if we want to matter to each other, we have to try and understand.