My body is not a big fan of pregnancy. Some women glow when they are pregnant, but not me. I vomit. Incessantly. It’s awful. “Morning” sickness is a serious misnomer.
During the first four months of my triplet pregnancy, I was losing weight, and my doctor was justifiably concerned. She encouraged me to eat more, and I tried to explain that the nausea was so bad that just smelling food was enough to make me sick. My poor husband had to go next door to heat up his dinner every night, because I couldn’t tolerate the smell of anything in the oven or the microwave.
My doctor became exasperated with me. She couldn’t understand how I was unable to eat. She said to me “come on, just eat a peanut butter sandwich, that won’t make you sick, it doesn’t even smell”. I looked at her and asked “you’ve never been pregnant before, have you”? She looked at me quizzically and answered that no, she hasn’t. She asked how I knew that, and I answered that while she understands the medical aspects of morning sickness, she doesn’t understand how it feels, because she never experienced it herself.
I hadn’t thought of that story in years, but it suddenly came back to me recently as I was meeting with another mother of a daughter with an eating disorder. As I was listening to her tell me about how her daughter was deteriorating and about how scared she was, about how she was marginalized as a parent, and about how her daughter was facing a possible hospitalization, I realized that I knew exactly how she felt, because I was in her shoes once upon a time.
A lot of people use the phrase “I feel your pain”, but they don’t really. They can’t possibly. However, sitting across from that woman, hearing her talk about what her family was going through, I literally felt her pain, because it took me back to a time when I was the one with the child who was deteriorating, the one who didn’t know what to do. It was incredibly hard for me to feel her pain, because what is now her pain was once mine. Even if old wounds heal somewhat, they are still sensitive. However, as she gave me a grateful hug as we parted ways, I realized that what hurts me is helping someone else.
When my daughter was initially diagnosed with anorexia, we received no significant professional support. We were more or less left floundering on our own, and we were more scared than we had ever been about anything in our lives. The only thing that kept me sane and functioning was an online parent support forum by the name of “around the dinner table”.
Until my daughter developed anorexia, I never felt the need to be supported. I dealt with a lot during my teens and twenties; my father died when I was thirteen, my mother was diagnosed with ALS when I was twenty-four and died three agonizing years later. Throughout all of that, I managed to get through the hardships with the resolve to just suck it up. I didn’t feel like I needed help or validation from anyone or anywhere, and I sure as hell didn’t want anyone’s sympathy or pity.
It was through my daughter’s illness that I learned the importance of connecting with others, both as the one who receives support and as the one who gives it. The type of advice that I received from other parents through the online forum was practical, intelligent, intuitive, compassionate, wise, resourceful, and supremely helpful. It was advice from others who had “been there, done that”, advice that only someone who had been in the trenches battling their child’s illness day in and day out could possibly extend. For as much as even the best of professionals know about any specific illness or disorder that they treat, there is so much that they can’t possibly know, because you can’t learn it from any academic, clinical, or research source–it is experiential knowledge. Just like someone who has never been pregnant cannot conceptualize what morning sickness or a baby’s kick from within the uterus feels like, someone who has never parented a child with anorexia cannot possibly know what that feels like–the angst, the terror, the disquiet, the weight of the responsibility, the inability to breathe sometimes—you can’t feel that pain unless you have experienced it. It’s that experience that gives you the ability to help others in the same situation, and that’s why peer support is such a valuable asset.
I think it’s like this with so many different things in life, and that is why it’s so important to reach out and offer the wisdom and the strength of your experience to those who need it. It helps to know that if others have gotten through a similar experience intact, then you can do it as well. It helps to know, especially when you are in the eye of the storm, that the clouds will eventually clear and that life will get better. It helps to know that you are not alone. It helps to know that someone out there understands exactly what you are going through, even if their only words of wisdom are “it sucks”. Sometimes, that’s as wise as I get when I offer my support to other parents. But when I say “I feel your pain”, I truly mean it.