When my daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 15, the significant bulk of my energies and resources were focused on restoring her health, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. Our other three children were cared for in the most basic sense; however, when I think about it in retrospect, I was just going through the motions. While I still performed fundamental maternal duties like packing lunches, signing permission slips, washing and folding laundry, helping with homework, driving carpools, making dinner, etc., truth be told, when it came to anything beyond basic day-to-day mothering, I had pretty much checked out.
By the time my daughter was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and referred for treatment, she was in bad shape. Around 6 months of ineffectual outpatient treatment took her condition from bad to worse. After that, 7 months of hospitalization in a program that didn’t work put her life in danger. All in all, considering the circumstances, I think it’s understandable that I was preoccupied with one child to the unintended exclusion of the others. It’s tragic, but it’s human.
We didn’t want our kids to feel like their sister’s eating disorder was a secret or a stigma, so we told them that they could discuss it with whomever they felt could help support them. At the time, my youngest child was 7. He didn’t talk about it with his friends, but he did talk about it with his teachers. One day, his homeroom teacher called me in for a meeting and shared some of what he told her with me, so that I would know what he was feeling. I can still remember that moment, sitting in a small chair in a second-grade classroom, trying (and failing) to maintain my composure while my heart broke into a million little pieces. I was caught unaware; I assumed that due to his age and the fact that I thought that we were keeping everything as normal as possible at home, my son wouldn’t be significantly impacted by his sister’s illness. I had underestimated both his sensitivity and the reach of an eating disorder to hurt not only the affected person, but everyone in their close circle of loved ones as well.
Truth be told, we all needed therapy. My daughter with the eating disorder was obviously receiving therapy. My husband and I were lucky to have been blessed with a family therapist who was able to help us navigate the worst of times and empower us to take back the reins of our family from our daughter’s eating disorder. However, our other three children were left for the most part to their own devices. This was a huge oversight on our part, and something that I truly regret. There seems to be a theme here: tragic, but human. We just didn’t realize how much they were affected, because they seemed to be functioning reasonably.
Eating disorder treatment barely supports parents, much less siblings and other family members. This is truly problematic, because eating disorders cast a web over the entire family, and it’s extremely difficult to extricate ourselves from its sticky grip without help and guidance. We are all caught in the web together, because that’s how families work. What traps one of us essentially traps all of us.
It is impossibly hard to balance the needs of one sick child against the needs of the rest of the family. The reality of it is that even the best parents fail at this balance. It’s is an incomprehensibly difficult situation, trying to figure out how to divide your attention, your energies, your resources, and your time between the child who needs them the most and the other children who don’t necessarily need them any less.
Siblings of people affected by eating disorders deserve more of their parents than what they get. They deserve professional help. They deserve to be considered and to receive their share of attention. They deserve all of this, and more.
And when these siblings don’t get what they deserve, I pray that they realize that the inequity is due to really awful circumstances. I would never have chosen to put the needs of one child over the needs of the other three, but de facto, that’s what happened. It was temporary, it was necessary, it was human, and it was unfortunate. I regret it, but even with 20/20 hindsight I don’t think that I could have acted any differently. However, I could have and should have gotten help for my other kids.
If you know a family who is affected by an eating disorder, or by any other illness for that matter, give some extra attention to their other children, regardless of how old they are. It’s a pretty safe bet that they can really use it.
Eating disorders hurt siblings, probably more than we know. This is another reason to include families in treatment and to give all family members the tools that they need to help both themselves and their loved one.
I am incredibly fortunate that my kids are strong and resilient enough to have overcome the obstacles that their sister’s eating disorder threw at them, and that they are able to put the past in the past and forge strong, healthy relationships with each other and with others. This is a true testament to their remarkable ability to overcome adversity and to thrive despite enormous challenges.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that despite everything, our family is intact, and we have picked up some fabulous new additions along the way. Of all of the blessings in my life, this is the one that I cherish the most.