In this story we meet Carol, who says her daughter lied about her bulimia. Carol knows that Jessie is purging frequently, but every time she brings it up, Jessie becomes aggressive, denies it or just ignores her mother.
Carol doesn’t know what to do. She’s scared that Jessie will permanently damage her body. But she doesn’t know how to have a conversation that Jessie seems unwilling to enter.
She called me to ask how she can address this problem. Although Jessie lives with Carol, she is a young adult. And Carol can’t compel her to seek medical or mental healthcare. Carol feels completely stuck.
Carol and her husband Mike struggled with infertility for years before adopting a son. Almost as soon as they brought him home, they found out that Carol was pregnant with Jessie. It was a thrilling surprise, and they felt incredibly lucky. The children are just 10 months apart, and Carol and Mike were excited to have a family that previously felt out of reach.
But by the time he was two years old, they noticed that their son was developmentally different. He was diagnosed with autism, and the parents began a lengthy and intensive process of accepting and managing his diagnosis.
Carol recognizes that from the start they treated the children differently. “He needed so much more attention than Jessie,” she says. “It was just natural that we focused most of our time and attention on him.” He also had fits of rage, which Carol felt helpless to manage on her own. “I know that Jessie suffered as a result of his behavior and my inability to care for her,” she says.
While the parents tried to manage their son’s condition, Jessie existed as best she could. She dressed and fed herself from an early age, and got good grades. Jessie was well-behaved and easy to parent. “I just thought I got really lucky with her,” says Carol. “And frankly, I didn’t have the energy to put very much into parenting Jessie. I feel so bad about that now.”
Carol thought things were going pretty well until Jessie hit 10th grade. She abruptly changed friend groups. Rather than hanging out with the girls she had known since Kindergarten who were all focused on grades, she made friends with kids who smoked, had piercings, and rejected mainstream culture.
Jessie changed the way she dressed and behaved. She started ignoring and talking back to her parents. She refused to be in the same room as her brother, and blamed him for “sucking the life out of the family.” Carol started finding signs of smoking and drinking. Jessie’s grades dropped. And then Carol started finding evidence of vomiting.
“I didn’t know what to do or say to her,” says Carol. “I was so disturbed. And it hit me like a freight train that we had been ignoring Jessie all this time. I thought we were close, but really I had taken her for granted.” When Carol tried to talk about the things she was seeing, Jessie screamed, cried, or ignored her. They got nowhere.
Jessie went to college and had just begun to work at her first job when COVID-19 shut down the U.S. economy. Instead of beginning the life she had planned for herself, she moved home to live with her parents again.
Living in her old room, using her old bathroom, it quickly became apparent that she was still purging.
“It’s just that I clean that bathroom!” says Carol. “It’s impossible for me not to notice what she’s doing in there.” Carol tried to talk to Jessie, but it didn’t go anywhere.
The conversation went something like this:
Carol: Jessie, I know that you’re purging. I need you to talk to me about it.
Jessie: You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Carol: (crying) I do know. I can tell. I clean that bathroom!
Jessie: I have no idea what you’re saying. (closes the door)
Carol: (screaming) We have to talk about this! I can’t have you living in my home doing this!
Jessie refused to respond. Carol felt shut out, literally and figuratively. And she felt a little embarrassed about how she acted. “I didn’t mean to say she couldn’t live here, I mean, after all, my son lives here. I guess I just got so angry and didn’t know what to do.”
Parent coaching for a daughter who lied about bulimia
Together we talked about how the family situation might have impacted Jessie’s mental health. I helped Carol understand the causes of bulimia and we discussed the challenges of overcoming an eating disorder.
I shared with her that many people who have bulimia have lied about their eating disorder, and it can be hard to have a daughter who isn’t being honest.
We also talked about how the home situation might have been experienced as trauma for Jessie. While most of us think of trauma as a major, singular event, it can also be traumatic to live in stressful conditions. Having a brother with developmental disabilities was likely stressful for Jessie on many levels. And Carol and Mike didn’t have the knowledge or energy to give Jessie the care she needed in the midst of the daily household chaos.
What we worked on
This family had two stages of recovery:
1. The family system
In this family, we had to recognize that while Carol called me about Jessie’s bulimia, the foundational issue was within the family system.
- Carol first needed some help with her own mental health. She had been focused almost entirely on her children for over two decades. She was exhausted and depleted, which made her less effective. We came up with some steps she could take to care for her own needs.
- Carol found a job coach for her son and began exploring supported living programs that would give him a positive environment and a more independent lifestyle.
- We established family chores for the first time ever. Carol had always kept a spotless, efficient home with almost no help from others. Now the three other family members were given chores and responsibilities.
- Carol agreed to carve out one hour per day dedicated entirely to her own peace and serenity, and a 2-3 hour date once per week with Mike. During their date, they agreed to focus on each other and their marriage rather than talk about the children. In the future, she hopes to intentionally balance her time between herself, her marriage, and each of her kids.
2. Jessie’s issues
Once we addressed some functional issues, we focused on Jessie’s issues in particular.
- Carol felt guilty about how Jessie was raised, but she hadn’t directly addressed the issue. Jessie needed her parents to address how it felt growing up in their family. We prepared some scripts to help Carol explore and address her daughter’s pain.
- Once Carol began talking about Jessie’s childhood with her, Jessie broke down and admitted how hard it had been. Carol found a therapist who had experience working with children who had siblings with serious challenges, and Jessie agreed to go to therapy.
- Carol attended several family therapy sessions with Jessie and Mike. It was hard, but Jessie seemed to appreciate the experience of being the center of their attention.
- Carol focused her energy on Jessie’s sense of security and worthiness. Carol recognized that her daughter lied about her bulimia in part because of a lack of security and trust.
- Jessie began working remotely in her chosen career, and immediately felt more independent and secure as a result.
- After a while, Jessie decided to pursue recovery from bulimia without any pressure from her parents. As their relationship improved, she stopped lying as much and began relying on her parents for care and security.
This is a complex case that is still in progress. The most important step was recognizing the weaknesses within the family structure and creating a more stable environment for both Carol and Jessie. A stable family structure can make a significant impact on eating disorder recovery.
Why Carol’s daughter lied about her bulimia
When a child lies, it is useful to consider why they feel they need to lie. Who and what are they protecting? Parents often assume the lie protects the child, but lies are often to protect the parent from a truth the child thinks their parent is unable to tolerate. Jessie lied in part because she didn’t want to burden her already overworked mom. She had pain, but she didn’t feel she could get support from her parents. Bulimia became her coping method. When her mother talked to Jessie about her pain, their relationship began to heal. Jessie won’t feel compelled to lie to her mom as much once she can trust that her mom can tolerate her pain.