Today we’re going to hear from a mom whose daughter has an eating disorder, and now the mom is experiencing her own eating issues.
I’ve spent the past six years trying to help our daughter recover from anorexia. We have tried every treatment, and it’s been a very expensive uphill battle. I want so badly for her to get better. In almost every way, her recovery has taken over my life.
But also, I have my own issues. I started having panic attacks last year, which are bad enough. But the truth is that I think I might have my own eating disorder.
I am so stressed out all the time and can’t find time to eat. Then at night, after everyone is asleep, I eat a lot. I’m not sure if it qualifies as binge eating, but it really feels like it. Sometimes I go through so much food that I have to make a special grocery shop the next day.
I’m embarrassed and ashamed of my behavior. We’re already spending so much on our daughter’s care, and we can’t afford another eating disorder. But I can’t stop.
What can I do?
Oh, Ravneet. I’m so sorry. This is incredibly hard.
I believe you when you say that you have put everything into your daughter’s recovery. And I know that treatment is both expensive and exhausting for the family. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. And I’m sorry for your daughter, too. I share your wish that she finds healing. But today, maybe for the first time in a long time, we’re going to focus on you.
And the good news is that I know that focusing on your needs will help you, but it will help her, too. I promise that finding your own equilibrium will help her.
It may seem like there’s only room for one person’s needs in the family right now, but the truth is that we have to make room for everyone’s needs. It’s not healthy for you, and it’s not healthy for your daughter to keep things as they are. Very often when someone has anorexia the family dynamics adjust to focus on that person’s needs. And this makes so much sense.
But while we can sustain focus on just one family member in the short term, when you’re six years in, we have to figure out how everyone else can get their needs met, too. This usually involves setting up boundaries.
The other people in the family
It also sounds like you have a partner, and you may also have other children. This means that in addition to each individual – including you – we also need to carve out space for you to be in a relationship with your partner and be a parent for your other children. It’s a lot.
I’m going to guess that it seems like this is impossible. Right now it sounds like you’re giving your daughter everything you have during the day, and the only space you can carve out for yourself is late at night.
Your evening eating, while I understand it’s upsetting, makes sense to me. You’re so busy caring for your daughter that you don’t have time to take care of your own needs during the day.
But your needs still exist. You need food, rest, comfort, and emotional nourishment. And it would make sense to me if you’re finding that in the middle of the night at your kitchen table.
But what I want so much for you is to get your needs met during daylight hours. I want you to nourish your body, be comforted by loved ones, and enjoy emotional connection with your peers.
Making space for your needs
So how can you possibly do this? It’s going to require changing the family dynamics and making space for your needs in addition to your daughter’s needs.
Exactly how you’re going to do that will depend on the resources you have available. It’s going to require a long, hard look at how your time is being spent right now and deciding what you can stop doing in order to start caring for yourself.
I’m sure it feels as if there’s no room, but I assure you that it’s necessary. Yes, there will be sacrifices. And you will have a hard time setting and holding boundaries.
But as I said in the beginning, I assure you that in the long run, this will benefit not only you but your daughter as well. Your needs must matter as much as your daughter’s. There are complicated reasons for this. It has to do with gender roles, family dynamics, personality, psychology, and interpersonal neurobiology.
But I’m not going to delve into the data and the details. I bet that somewhere in your heart you know the truth. If sacrificing yourself was enough to heal your daughter, it would have happened by now. Instead what’s happening is you’re on a path to burnout.
The symptoms of burnout
Let’s take a little time to talk about the specific symptoms you’re having. To start, this is not intended as medical or psychological advice. It would be best if you were evaluated by both a medical doctor and a psychologist who understands eating disorders. What I can provide is observations and advice about your lifestyle, which has a massive impact on your health.
First, you mentioned panic attacks. Assuming your doctor has ruled out any medical issues, I would take these as very serious red flags pointing out that your current lifestyle is unsustainable.
Specifically, your style of caring for your daughter needs to change. Sometimes when I say this people think I mean stop caring. But that’s not what I mean. Caring lies on a spectrum. Think of a line with a person on either side.
Right now you’re squished up against your daughter’s side, leaving no time to care for yourself. It’s unbalanced. I’m not telling you to abandon her and go all the way to the other side. I’m saying you need to find a balance and move at least a little bit towards yourself.
Panic attacks and binge eating
Panic attacks are terrifying and awful. And there may be a lot of reasons why they are happening. But I think we can agree that since your panic attacks are relatively new and most likely tied to your current lifestyle, they are likely to happen less frequently if you change your lifestyle.
For both the panic attacks and the binge eating, of course I’d love it if you could see a therapist and get some treatment for the feelings you’re having. Your feelings are important, and they matter.
In addition, from a very practical standpoint, I think you recognize that the primary issue with binge eating is probably the inability to feed yourself regular, nourishing meals throughout the day. Without regular meals, your body will drive you to fill the gaps. Binge eating is often an understandable physiological reaction to inadequate nutrition.
Lifestyle = health
Our lifestyles have a huge impact on our psychology. And both panic attacks and binge eating are very responsive to lifestyle.
You need – and deserve – basic self-care. This includes enough sleep, nutritious, regular meals, adequate water, movement, and, very importantly, meaningful connection with your peers. Seriously – that is essential to your health.
A lifestyle that doesn’t give you those things will result in psychological conditions like anxiety and depression, and symptoms like panic attacks and binge eating.
Ravneet, I know this isn’t easy advice. I recognize that asking you to change your lifestyle six years into trying to help your daughter recover from her eating disorder is hard.
But please remember that you matter, and none of us can pour from an empty cup.
I’m afraid that if you keep going as you are going now, you’re going to burn out and be forced to take a break.
I’d love it if you could proactively make some lifestyle changes that will give you the strength to keep supporting your daughter as she continues on her journey. I promise that, while it may be hard, it will benefit everyone.
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