Discovering that my son was cutting his arms, withdrawing from his sixth-grade friends, and texting obsessively after we fell asleep were the first signs of trouble. During our annual spring break vacation to Florida, we witnessed his refusal to eat his favorite breakfast and finish every meal. I wondered how a 12-year-old boy who has been swimming all day could not be hungry.
With no knowledge of eating disorders, my wife and I sought the help of an adolescent psychologist. Following my son’s first session, the psychologist informed us that we had a bigger problem. Our son was restricting all food intake and purging after each meal. It was recommended that we see an eating disorder therapist. This was the beginning of a year and a half long journey within the world of eating disorders.
Our table on this day was in a multi-purpose room, which was used for family visits. Visitors were encouraged to interact with their child by playing board or card games while engaging in benign conversation. A dialogue that is calm and soothing does not feed the disrupting desires of an eating disorder while frantic and combative debates erupt into meltdowns. Since our hour together was not materializing as collaborative, and to avoid the looming subterfuge of my son’s eating disorder, I chose to focus on the finite design options for stacking wooden blocks.
As I gazed around the room, I noticed another family whose visit was very interactive. There was a card game in progress among the family members. They bantered back and forth with intermittent laughter. Smiles, giggles and hugs were passed around the table.
If there was a fireplace in the background, I could have imagined them being a 21st century Norman Rockwell Instagram post. Were they the perfect family with a child who had a temporary misstep and ended up in an eating disorder treatment center? But I knew that a moment viewed as tranquil is only temporary while the eating disorder mind refuels itself for the next behavioral eruption.
In an effort to remain inconspicuous to the perfect family, and to avoid any extemporaneous dialogue with my son, I redirected my thoughts to my wife’s prior weekend visit.
Manipulation is a kingpin behavior of a person with an eating disorder. With our son, he obsessed over invalidating the decision for his treatment program. My wife was plagued with our son’s compulsive rants to immediately leave the facility. After relentless conversations, and in an attempt to redirect, my wife concluded her visit by reiterating that he needed to accept this treatment in order to recover.
My visit could not have seemed enlightening to other voyeurs in the room. Did everyone notice the 10-minute recitals and my son’s sobbing regimen? Were we interrupting the tranquility of the “perfect” family? Could I find a glimmer of hope while my son was continuously reduced to tears? It was my turn to experience the wrath of the eating disorder voice inside my son’s brain.
Since he was considered a flight risk from the treatment center, he was restricted from wearing shoes. I couldn’t help but wonder how he could remain content with only socks on his feet. It was a simple and brilliant solution by the staff for an adolescent who attempts to leave the building. Innate human sense seemed to overpower the eating disorder voice when presented with Denver’s icy winter landscape without shoes. He didn’t attempt an escape route again, after doing it once.
Having a child in an out-of-state treatment center is lonely and daunting for parents. For my wife and I, we were no longer neophytes to our son’s absence, his illness and the daily telephone calls. His eating disorder kept him on a perpetual roller coaster of irrational thoughts. His constant rhetoric was centered on demands to be immediately released from the treatment center. “They are horrible here.” “You do not know what they are doing to me,” he said.
We knew everything. First, we felt he was under the best care for the treatment of eating disorders. Second, we became experienced with the fact that eating disorders never tell the truth. Third, we never lost hope for recovery. Fourth, he would not be released without shoes.
Isn’t Memory Lane reserved for soothing thoughts of soccer tournaments, celebratory dinners, and family vacations? I thought about this as I continued to gaze at my son’s feet and reflected on my wife’s text, telling me about his attempted escape. It was the end of the fourth quarter at my job as a marketing vice-president and each business day required focused attention. While in the middle of a strategic planning session, I received an urgent text from my wife that our son attempted to flee the facility. During the meeting recess, I nervously read the treatment center’s e-mail about it, anxiously anticipating a colossal outcome.
Questions raced through my head: Would this be another treatment program setback? Will the insurance provider take issue over this stunt? Can he ever accept his treatment with a willingness for recovery? My fears were a cross between disdain and fury. With a highly skilled staff, the treatment center graciously handled the incident with my son’s safety as a top priority.
And in my first read, I missed an important update: My son’s therapist reported he was 100 percent compliant with his meal plan, and the feeding tube that he had for four weeks would be removed following a session to discuss his flawed escape. There, in the midst of despair, I had a flash of hope that he was placing one foot in front of the other, this time in the right direction, maybe.
With my mind back at the table, I wondered if my son even cared that our visit was about to conclude with no meaningful interaction. I simply deducted that his only thought during the hour was the same one he expressed every 10 minutes. The eating disorder voice is not one of reason. I didn’t have false expectations.
Being a parent of an anorexic child, I honed an instinctive skill to explore options for any potential solution. But I had a final 10 minutes to take charge of the moment.
Repetitively stacking wooden blocks is as elementary as knocking them down. The beauty of toppling timber on a glass tabletop is a loud, echoing noise. I reveled in the idea of making that noise at the end of a mundane visit.
I did. And in addition to capturing the attention of the perfect family saying their emotional good-byes, my son raised his head and rolled his eyes. “Do you want to help me re-stack the blocks?” I asked. Our eyes met. My son missed stating his well-rehearsed line. The loud sob vanished.
To my surprise, he softly responded with a “No.” Followed by, “You haven’t held me.”
“Well, you told me that you hated me,” I responded. With minutes to spare, he said, “I’m ready for you to hold me now.”
He came over and sat in my lap. We embraced. He spoke first, “I love you, Dad, and I am glad that you came to visit me,” he said. “I love you, too,” I said.
I told my son how pleased I was to learn his feeding tube was removed, and he was compliant with his meal plan. He asked, “May I have my shoes back?” I told him that was a privilege he would need to earn by demonstrating a will for recovery. With a look of determined joy, he said, “I want recovery, and I want my life back.”
I refrained from spewing a plethora of encouraging comments. This was a monumental breakthrough. It only required one response, “I am very proud of you, and I do believe you can do it,” I said.
At that moment, the proctor for the family visit announced that the hour was over. We both stood up and my son said, “I think we can clean up the blocks you knocked over.” We repackaged the game and put the wooden blocks away.
In one hour, I witnessed a transformation in my son from despair to a desire for recovery. It was this day that my son walked through his newly opened door, on his journey for a healthy life. I hope he keeps walking.
David Bachman is based in Saint Louis. He is a board member of the Missouri Eating Disorders Association and speaks at parent groups, schools, and on public radio raising awareness of eating disorders. Next to publishing the story of his family’s journey with anorexia nervosa, his greatest accomplishment so far is his son’s continued recovery. You can follow him on Facebook.