“But when a teacher reported purging, I felt devastated. That phone call instantly awakened the horrors of my illness. The news was so painful that I had the urge to binge and purge to tune out the world. But my child needed me, and she needed me to be strong.”
Making the situation even harder was the special bond Yvette enjoyed with her firstborn. As she elaborated on this theme, the pain she experienced when her daughter fell ill was practically palpable. “I had a history of fertility problems,” she explains, “and I often thought of Felice as my ‘miracle child.’ My recovery from anorexia and bulimia took hold when I was pregnant with Felice.
Now she had an eating disorder, and I couldn’t save her. I knew her as a sweet, generous, and open-minded child with a lively sense of humor and a zest for life. But once she became ill, I felt like I could no longer reach her or connect with her. It felt like she was gone.”
Despite these excruciating moments, Yvette wasted no time in seeking treatment for Felice, first in an outpatient program and eventually as an inpatient. Now, about a year after her discharge from the hospital, Felice-a superb student and athlete-is progressing well in treatment, and Yvette, who has remained healthy, is gaining perspective on all that has happened. “During the darkest weeks of Felice’s illness, I was bereaved and guilt-ridden,” she says. “The thought that I could have passed a genetic predisposition to eating disorders on to my daughter was difficult enough.
Even harder to bear was my hunch that-even though I’d never verbally pressured Felice-I may have unwittingly modeled a weight consciousness that gradually rubbed off on her. I eat well, but I’m a competitive athlete, and my leanness sent a message.”
While children who perceive weight as important to their mothers are prone to dieting, fathers also exert an influence. Dads can go a long way toward helping their daughters feel good about themselves and their bodies. Felice’s father (Yvette’s ex-husband) cared a great deal about his children; due in part to his cultural background, he found it hard to communicate with his daughters and let them know that their inner qualities are more important than their physical appearance. The divorce and 50-50 child custody arrangements were understandably tumultuous for Felice.
Even as she longed to spend more time with her mom, she continued to try to be perfect, pushing her feelings inward, a problem that-in conjunction with a perceived rejection from a boyfriend-made her return to health even harder.
Yvette’s story has inspired hope and courage in other individuals and families who struggle with eating disorders. Over time, she has realized that Felice’s eating disorder is no one’s fault. Infinitely more valuable than laying blame is finding help for a high-risk child. She believes it is also important for parents to take good care of themselves so they can accompany their children down the road to recovery. We couldn’t agree with her more.
David B. Herzog, M.D., Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., Pat Cable, RN
David B. Herzog, M.D., is the Harvard Medical School Endowed Professor of psychiatry in the field of eating disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Northeastern University and the associate director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital
Pat Cable, RN, is the director of publications at the Harris Center.