Let’s say, Heaven forbid, that your daughter is a drug addict. She is essentially enslaved; trapped in the cunning and powerful clutches of her addiction. Her rational thoughts are suppressed, and all she is thinking about is getting high, which overshadows and overpowers everything and everyone else in her life. Her job, her family, and her interpersonal relationships all take a back seat to the overwhelmingly compelling pulls of her addiction. To say that she is not herself anymore is an understatement of epic proportions.
As you are walking down the hallway of your home, you peer into your daughter’s room and you see her poised to inject herself with a potentially lethal dose of heroin. Do you just stand in the doorway and watch her do something horrifically dangerous enough to risk her life, especially when you know that she is incapable of rational thought as it relates to her addiction? She can be perfectly rational at times, and extremely intelligent, but her mental capacity is compromised by the totalitarianism of her addition when it comes to evaluating her own safety.
I don’t know about you, but personally, I would be lunging at lightning speed to knock that drug filled syringe out of my daughter’s hand. Parents are not built to stand idly by while their child is in danger. The absolute responsibility of keeping our children safe from harm and protecting their well-being is not contingent upon their age, it is contingent upon need. And while it is a parent’s job to give our children wings so that they can fly away from the nest, it is also our job to notice when those wings are damaged to the point where our children are plummeting to the ground at breakneck speed, and to swoop in and catch them before impact; especially when that impact has the potential to be fatal. I am all for teaching our children to be responsible for their own actions and to face consequences, but this is not that.
Parental responsibility is applicable regardless of how old our children are, and does not diminish as they grow. If anything, in certain unfortunate situations, sometimes the responsibility increases. While the term “adult children” may sound like an oxymoron, to me there is no contradiction in terms. They may be adults, but my children are still my children, and I will always be responsible for their safety and well- being.
I used drug addiction above as an analogous preface to my thoughts about a legal battle which took place in a New Jersey courtroom last week, as parents of a 20-year-old woman with anorexia nervosa, whose health was compromised to a dangerous point, fought their daughter for legal guardianship, which would give them the authority to make medical decisions regarding (force) feeding on her behalf. While drug addiction is not a perfect analogy for anorexia nervosa, I think that there are definite parallels regarding the enslavement to certain behaviors and the diminished capacity to competently evaluate personal safety.
Since so many patients with anorexia nervosa are highly intelligent, and they are generally rational thinkers when it comes to everything but their eating disorder, it is difficult for a judge to ascertain exactly how diminished a patient’s mental capacity is regarding decisions relating to his/her health. Therefore, in the perceived interest of preserving a patient’s rights, sometimes judges rule against the parents’ petition for guardianship, which I feel sadly slants the odds against a patient’s survival. Thankfully, in this case, the judge ruled in favor of the parents’ guardianship, so they can take the necessary action recommended by their daughter’s medical team.
I am not here to debate the merits or deficits of force feeding. There are people way more qualified than I who can do that far more competently. I am here to say how saddened, angry, and shocked I was by the multiple comments to this article that I read online which called the parents “controlling”. Because seriously, define controlling in this context. There are a lot of adjectives that I can think of to describe these parents—tenacious, loving, determined, hopeful, brave, and dedicated are just a few. Controlling is nowhere in that mix. Nowhere.
One of the traits of anorexia nervosa is anosognosia, which is the patient’s impairment in recognizing his or her own illness. Patients with anorexia nervosa don’t realize how sick they are; and to a degree, they feel invincible, which only adds to the danger of the illness.
So here is my question—if your child donned a superman cape and thought that he could fly, would you let him jump off of a 10-story building? And would it really matter if he were 8 or 18 or 38? Would that influence your instinct to protect him or impede your actions to stop him? And if you reached out to grab him before he plunged into the air, would anyone think to call you controlling? Even if he was considered legally to be an adult?
Fighting to save your daughter’s life from an eating disorder is not considered controlling in my book; it’s what good parents are programmed to do, so don’t ever call me controlling in that regard. I am not sure why in every other context but eating disorders, protecting your child’s life is considered an expected and laudable responsibility of parenting, but I do know that it’s time for that skewed thinking to change. Actually, that change is long overdue.