Struggling with and Resurfacing from a Daughter's Eating Disorder
By Barbara Hale-Seubert, Jen Hale
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2011 Barbara Hale-Seubert
All rights reserved.
The Mother Knot
The challenge was not to do the impossible but to learn to live with the possible.
As I opened the door of Erin's apartment on a bright summer afternoon in 1999, I took a deep breath. My 22-year-old daughter lay on the daybed in her living room, bird-like legs stretched out over rumpled sheets. She was propped up on one elbow, drawing in a sketch pad, and her ankles were wrapped in thick white gauze and bandages. I tried not to grimace.
I was used to scanning my daughter's body for signs of deterioration, though it seemed impossible to imagine her more emaciated than she was. Functional starvation, if there was such a term, best described her condition. And now the meager flesh that remained on her ankles had been scalded a week ago when she'd dropped a pot of boiling water on the floor — undoubtedly because her arms no longer had the strength to lift it off the stove. I hadn't realized it was quite this bad.
Erin looked up at me. "They're just not healing as fast as they should," she said, her tone resigned.
I glimpsed the edge of a raw open wound on one spindly leg. Erin was five feet tall and weighed about 60 pounds. How could her starving little body sustain the shock of these deep burns, much less keep her alive? Were painkillers at least softening the agony?
The burns were bad, but I could handle that. Injuries heal. It was the rest of her that, over the past decade of brutal anorexia and depression, left me limp. I felt as though I'd washed up on the beach after alternately struggling to pull my daughter to shore and trying to free myself from a stranglehold that threatened to pull me under along with her.
Close friends knew our family's private pain, but the community at large could only guess at what was wrong when they saw Erin walk up Main Street, her skeletal frame somewhat disguised by baggy clothes, each step an obvious effort. She was a familiar sight in town. Weighed down by her ever-present tote bag stuffed with artificial sweetener packets, herbal tea, sketch pad and colored pencils, she would stop in at the espresso shop and ask for hot water for her tea, or perhaps meet an unemployed friend at Mister Donut. She identified with those whose lives were on the periphery of the 9-to-5 world. Once a gifted student, dancer, and artist, Erin now qualified for Social Security Disability benefits. Instead of anticipating graduate school or a challenging job, she hoped for an apartment in the housing program for the disabled, and underwent partial hospitalization three days a week.
We had exiled Erin to this small apartment several months after she returned from her final failed long-term treatment. She was 21, and after years of having her alternating every few months between living with her father and with me, it was intolerable for either of us to have her in our home. The chronic stealing, bingeing, and purging that ruled her life made living with her a nightmare of missing money, discarded food containers, and clogged drains. Holiday celebrations and family birthday dinners were strained by our tense, surreptitious monitoring. Would the festive meal be flushed down the toilet once again, after she'd filled her shrunken stomach with turkey, mashed potatoes, and homemade rolls? Or would we feel equally frustrated and powerless as her bony jaw chewed, trance-like, on unadorned salad and naked vegetables? She either gorged or fasted, and we'd long since learned that there was nothing we could do. The happiness and well-being of my three younger daughters helped to redeem my motherhood and cushion my despair. Yet I was Erin's mother, too, and I feared I had failed her.
I walked across the room and sat down on the daybed, the weight of my body pulling her closer to me. Gently, I stroked her head.
"I've thought of so many ways to commit suicide," she said flatly. "But each one I've either already tried, or known someone where it didn't work or was even worse afterwards. I'm not going to try anymore."
I flashed back to the night she'd swallowed half a bottle of pills. Why was she telling me this now? Did she think I would be relieved, or did she want me to know how desperate she still felt? I didn't say anything. All my words had been used up, my heart frayed by the fear, sadness, and frustration that had consumed me for a decade. I continued to stroke her hair. That I could do.
The nearby university's carillon bells rang twice, reminding me that I had to be home in an hour to start seeing afternoon clients. "What can I get for you?" I asked.
She ticked off her list of safe foods: "Cabbage, frozen spinach, and tuna in water."
I assumed she had hidden away her stash of pretzels, animal crackers, and popcorn — favorite binge foods — or else was too embarrassed to ask me to buy those, too.
"Are you sure that's all?" I questioned.
She nodded, and I leaned over to kiss the top of her head before I left. Even her scalp felt thin.
I didn't notice the knot in my stomach until I was in the car. Driving to the store, I kept replaying the image of Erin's injured limbs and large, pleading eyes. The eyes of a prisoner. Several minutes later I pulled into an empty space in front of the grocery store, turned off the ignition, and took my brain off auto-pilot. I welcomed the cool air and familiar smell as I stepped into the store, the knot in my stomach loosening with the illusion of normalcy. I'm just picking up some food for my daughter. What could be easier than that?
But nothing with her was easy anymore. Not shopping for her meager rations, not washing her child-size clothes. Not understanding how to be the parent of a child who was disappearing day by day. My fierce, protective mother-love battled with weary despair, anger at the betrayal of my dreams for her, and the tormenting fear that it was somehow my fault, after all. What did it mean that my heart ached with love, yet I wanted to run at the sight of her? I didn't know what was real or true anymore. "Father Knows Best" had given way to "Mother Knows Nothing."
I drove back to her apartment with the white plastic sack of rations. As I put spinach and cabbage into the refrigerator, Erin looked up from watching a soap opera.
I kissed her on the top of her head and left, the screen door clanging shut behind me.
In 1989, when she was 12, Erin made a pact with the devil, a disease called anorexia. Years of therapy and multiple hospitalizations did little to loosen the grip of her eating-disordered mind, and she battled and colluded with that demon through most of her teenage years and into her early twenties. I felt trapped in a nightmare that made no sense, and I didn't know how to wake up. I didn't know it was possible to wake up. I wept and ranted my feelings in my morning journal, finally facing, after nearly a decade of fear, frustration, and sadness, the inescapable reality that a beautiful woman would never emerge from the stunted, skeletal body my daughter now had.
As Erin's struggle with anorexia and bulimia consumed her life and nearly devoured mine, I lived in parallel universes — the waking world in which I functioned with apparent ease and confidence, and the invisible nightmare world of fading hope, helplessness, and even suicidal desperation. Only a handful of people knew the surreal ordeal that shadowed my daily life. At times I felt that she and I were in mortal combat, and only one of us would win. She was killing me slowly with her self-destruction and her need for me to save her. I felt like I would be the one to die if I couldn't make her surrender.
I surprised myself with my demonic craziness. It clawed at my heart and refused to relinquish its grip on my rational mind. I waged my war silently, in the quiet of my early morning journal writing. Meanwhile, I honed my skills as a psychotherapist, built my career, and, with my second husband, blended our family of five children — his son and my four daughters. We spent countless evenings in the gym, playing volleyball and basketball games, celebrating our other children's rites of passage. That normalcy was the tip of my emotional iceberg, while the mass of my fear, helplessness, and grief lay hidden to those who only skimmed the surface of our lives.
We seemed to go on as if all was well, but I ached for the child who taught her younger sisters and neighborhood playmates to dance and do cartwheels in the yard, and whose infectious giggle sparkled in the air when we watched The Muppet Show or Fraggle Rock. She had the broad shoulders and narrow hips of a competitive swimmer and the lithe, muscled legs of a ballerina. In early photos from those happier times, her large green eyes look wistful, as if she knew her loveliness would be short-lived.
As a psychotherapist, the motto "Physician, heal thyself" only added to my guilt and frustration. What kind of mother would change the locks on her house to keep out her own daughter, especially when that daughter is a tiny, frail wraith who can barely carry her own weight? What kind of mother could take the rest of the family on vacation and leave one of her offspring behind in a dingy little apartment? At the time, those decisions seemed to be the only options for keeping Erin's behaviors from eclipsing any joy and ease in our family life. Nonetheless, the judgment I visited upon myself and imagined from others rang in my ears, often drowning out the quiet voice that said, "It's okay for you to live your life and be happy."
You, too, have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.
On October 5, 1976, sunshine streamed into the hospital room where I sat holding Erin Leah, my firstborn, to my breast. I smiled, filled with postpartum relief and peace, as her little mouth gently and determinedly sucked nourishment from my body. The realization that I was a mother and that this was my child was still sinking in since her birth the evening before. I suddenly knew that we were meant to be together, and I would do everything possible to provide her with the best life I could.
In the wake of how Erin's life unfolded, which I would have been horrified to imagine that day, I find reassurance and comfort in Kahlil Gibran's words from The Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
And so I choose to believe that she came to me and through me for reasons of her own, and I am grateful that I was blessed with her for the time we had together.
Psychologists hypothesize that our memory of painful events is far keener and more powerful than our ability to recall happy and benign times — the way a car accident overshadows an uneventful vacation. It's thought to be a survival strategy; the acute memory of painful past experiences makes us better prepared for future dangers. Because Erin's life was such a struggle, the painful memories eclipsed the happy times. Recently I went through the many smiling photos from her childhood before the disorder and my heart lightened. I felt the shining essence of who she was visible from where it had been hidden for so long by the moon shadow of her disorder, and I could remember and honor the delightful, energetic, bright, and creative child she had been for so long.
In 1977, when Erin was eight months old, my husband Roger and I moved from Albany to Bemidji, Minnesota, for his first college teaching position. The distance from our families in upstate New York was difficult, but I adjusted quickly to the small-town life by making friends with other young mothers. I reveled in the domestic rhythms and routines of my days. Erin was a happy toddler, always actively exploring, and I was delighted to learn I was pregnant again when she was 18 months old.
Several months later, I started transitioning Erin to a bed so the new baby could have her crib. One afternoon I tucked her into her new bed for a nap and went downstairs to catch up on household chores. When I peeked into her bedroom an hour later, I found her fast asleep in the nest she'd made with her blanket in the little wooden chest a friend had made when she was born — an early, playful metaphor for a life in which she was determined to make her own bed and lie in it.
Although she slept well at night, she fell into the habit of waking up around 1 a.m. and calling for a bottle of water. I worried that once the new baby was born, I wouldn't have the energy for any additional nighttime demands, but I didn't want Erin crying herself back to sleep, either. One evening as we sat in her brightly wallpapered room reading the Best Word Book Ever! (Others may experience divine intervention through praying to a favorite saint or the Blessed Virgin, but mine came through Richard Scarry.) She turned to the airplane page.
"Honey, you know how Grandma comes here to visit and then goes back home on an airplane?"
She nodded, wide-eyed. She had a special bond with Roger's mother, Carol, who would visit for several weeks at a time.
I continued, "Well, bottle went bye-bye on the airplane, just like Grandma."
We read a few more pages, and I tucked her in, not knowing if the seed I had planted in her fertile imagination would sprout. During the middle of the night I woke up to her little voice softly chanting, "Bottle, bye-bye ... bottle, bye-bye." And she never asked for a bottle again. Years later when I remembered her soft voice in the night, I would long for such painless solutions.
Despite Roger's occasional bouts of temper, our family life had a pleasant domestic rhythm. Roger's academic schedule allowed summers at home, which gave us the opportunity to take day trips and explore the many small lakes in the area. One hot August day when Carol was visiting, we all went to the beach at Lake Benjamin, a short drive from Bemidji. Carol was pushing my second daughter, Jenna, in her stroller at the edge of the sand, by the woods, as Roger and I played in the water with Erin. "I want to give your mother a break," I told him after I'd cooled off in the water, and I headed for the beach. I assumed he'd heard me, but he didn't, and he began swimming on his own, assuming I was with Erin. When I reached Carol and the baby, I looked back out at the water and panicked. I didn't see Erin's wavy blond head anywhere. "Where's Erin?" I screamed to Roger. He swung around and dove underwater. After a few long seconds he was holding Erin up above the surface and carried her to where I was standing on the beach. My heart was still pounding with the possibility that we might have lost her as I ran to hold her wet little body close. She wasn't choking or gagging, so I knew she couldn't have been under too long. The only one of us unshaken was Erin, who said, "Mommy put her face on Daddy and pulled me out of the water."
Later that day after the girls were tucked in for the night, Carol brought up the near tragedy and Erin's words. "I think what she saw was the face of our Blessed Mother." Carol believed there had been a divine intervention. Though at times I dismissed Carol's spiritual interpretations of mundane situations — seeing the name on a passing truck as a message from God or particular cloud formations symbolizing guardian angels — I had no other way of explaining what Erin had seen and said.
From the time Erin was a toddler, just learning to make marks with crayons, her drawing seemed inspired by another dimension. I had just come downstairs from changing Jenna's diaper one afternoon, and saw Erin kneeling in front of the coffee table with Carol beside her on the couch. Erin was drawing stick figures with large circles on each side of their triangular bases. "What are you drawing, Honey?" Carol asked. "Those are wheel angels, Grandma," Erin replied matter-of-factly. I chalked her response up to a child's imagination, but Carol insisted that there was a category of angels called "wheel angels" that she had recently learned about in her study of mystical beings. Though Erin's drawings became more skillfully detailed over the years, they were seldom representational. She was absorbed for hours creating colorful designs and elaborately detailed scenes of whimsical creatures — it seemed as if she drew inspiration from a transcendent realm.
Erin was also an active explorer of her physical world. Some of her escapades landed us in the ER, but many were simply harmless little adventures. Several months after Jenna was born, I awoke after midnight to her crying. More than 10 pounds at birth, Jenna nursed every two hours, day or night, for months. After nursing Jenna and laying her back in her crib, I noticed a dim light coming from downstairs. Misty, our Australian sheepdog, would have barked if there had been an intruder, I told myself, so I didn't feel the need to awaken Roger. I followed the light down the stairs and through the dark living room to the open basement door. As soon as I got to the top of the steps, I saw Erin in her turquoise footed sleeper sitting in the middle of the cat box at the base of the steps with the litter scoop in her hand. I laughed as I ran down the steps, saying, "It's not a sandbox, Honey!" After washing her off in the bathtub and putting her in a clean sleeper, she quickly fell asleep. If there were other middle-of-the-night escapades, I slept through them. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Riptide by Barbara Hale-Seubert, Jen Hale. Copyright © 2011 Barbara Hale-Seubert. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.