Eating Disorders Throughout Life

“My daughter is about to turn 35,” says Claudia. “A decade ago, her eating disorder was getting the best of her, and I was terrified that I’d lose her. She’s doing well now, and I hope she can keep the health she’s worked so hard to gain.” Perhaps you, like Claudia, have an adult child who suffers from an eating disorder. We’ve talked at length about the hardships faced by parents whose adolescents are afflicted with anorexia and bulimia, and we’ve pointed out that these illnesses strike children at increasingly early ages.

But not everyone who struggles with an eating disorder is young.

In fact, many of those who visit doctors’ offices and clinics for help are in their 30s, 40s, or older. Is your adult child experiencing food and weight obsession for the first time? Maybe she developed anorexia or bulimia in high school or college and recovered, either fully or partially, but relapsed later in life. Perhaps she has experimented with extreme weight control measures (food restriction, binge eating, purging) in the past or suffered a steady but relatively low level of obsession that escalated into full-blown illness when stress increased. Every stage of life comes with a wide array of challenges regarding body image, self-esteem, and relationships.

How successfully a person copes with the trials and tribulations of any one stage can influence her ability to cope with the next.

The story of Claudia and her daughter will shed light on questions we are frequently asked by adults with eating disorders and their families.

“Sybil is hardworking,” says her mom, “but she also has a spunky, lighthearted, and generous side that allows her to make friends easily. As a child, she was sturdy and strong, and her weight was about average. Although she wasn’t overweight in her teens, she seemed to think she was. Occasionally she’d say, ‘I wish I were thinner,’ or ‘I’m going on a diet,’ but a week or so later, she’d be back to her usual way of eating. To be honest, I didn’t try to stop her from skimping on meals, and if I had, she only would have said, ‘But Mom, you watch your weight’-and she would have been right. Though I wasn’t as serious about dieting as some women I knew, I wanted to keep my youthful figure. Back then, I took dieting for granted as something that came with the territory of being female.

“During her school years, Sybil set high standards for herself.

I never had to remind her to do her homework; in fact, I often encouraged her to close her books at night so that she would get enough sleep. She was always eager to prove herself, not only academically, but also in sports. The pictures I took of her dribbling the ball down the soccer field are so precious. But when I look at them now, my memories are bittersweet. That’s because Sybil developed anorexia and bulimia, not during high school or college, but when she was first married and making plans to attend graduate school. Her husband, Darren, went through a lot with her; we all did. When I first found out she was ‘sick,’ I thought there had to be some mistake. Sybil had always been so sensible.

Why, just when she seemed to be doing so well, did she start to starve herself?”
“I’ve asked myself that question throughout my recovery,”

notes Sybil, “and I’m still not sure I have an answer. I had supportive parents, a loving husband, all that anyone could dream of.

Yet something was wrong-something about me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on was ‘bad.’ This feeling was familiar but at the same time indefinable. Maybe other people had it, maybe they didn’t-I often wondered about that. Now that I’ve had therapy, I can look back on that feeling-without-a-name and describe it as a sense of being nothing. I viewed myself as having no personality, no particular interests, and definitely no skills. Of all my perceived defects, my stupidity was the most embarrassing, so I bent over backward to keep others from discovering it. When I went away to college, I chose the easiest courses I could to improve my chances of getting good grades. Within my first few weeks in the dorm, I heard my roommates talking about the ‘freshman 15.’

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