Letter to a Worried Mother
Hey there. My name is Sarah.
If you’re one of the mothers of the 55% of teenage girls in the US who are struggling with an eating disorder, this letter is to you today.
When I was your daughter’s age, I didn’t trust anyone with my thoughts and worries. I understand how hard it is to show others the inside of your heart when you’re afraid of seeing it yourself. If she’s pushing you away, it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong. She’s just trying to figure out who she is without the shame of seeing you worry about her. Hang tight. I promise it gets better.
I’d like to give you something I wish my mom had been given years ago. Judging by what I’ve heard from most mothers, I’m sure she has told you some bits and pieces about her main thoughts. But I’d like to help you truly understand her, hopefully even more than you do now, through my story.
Anorexia isn’t simply about an eating disorder. It goes so much deeper than the skin, and way beyond starving oneself from food. It’s caused by levels and levels of emotional and spiritual starvation. Once you’ve convinced yourself that you’re worthless, the self-hate that results can drive you to doubt everything about your life. And the instant you let that doubt take root, you put up walls that reject any hope that might nourish your heart. You don’t deserve joy. Your only joy is in hope of one day being perfect on the outside, perfect to the world. Even if your personality is destined to be unbearable, maybe some perfection from the outside will soak down to make you like yourself a bit better.
You can’t see your accomplishments. Any good thing you happen do is by chance. You can’t believe that your friends could possibly care about you—in fact, you come to ardently believe that they just pretend to like you because they’re nice people, but secretly can’t stand you any more than you can stand yourself. Life is your purgatory, but without the promise of a heaven beyond it. You feel like the only person made by God who can do nothing but fail. You look at yourself and the world around you and you feel too small to dream. If you were made to be so imperfect and screwed up, God must have forgotten to make you better before smacking you onto the earth. And he has forgotten you. You’ve served your purpose here, and you’re alone. It’s up to you to invent your purpose.
I’m very open about my past struggles, only because of how far the Holy Spirit has lifted me out of them. I went through a situation almost identical to the one she is experiencing now. I was anorexic from the age of 13 all the way up through the early months of 17. Like your daughter, I would never have admitted to the title. In my mind, girls with eating disorders were weak, insecure, and self-pitying; I told myself I was nothing like that. I said was just more aware than others about what I considered to be the “perfect” version of me. And I wouldn’t let myself be happy until I was there.
At age 15, I weighed 98 pounds. My BMI was a dangerous 16.8, nearly two full levels beneath the clinical threshold of underweight (Below is a picture of me from the summer of 2010). I remember these numbers because I tracked them obsessively. If my weight verged over 100 pounds at any point, I’d punish myself by restricting from myself all my favorite foods, sometimes even bruising or scraping my skin to have an external pain to remind me to stop myself from eating the next time I felt hungry.
I hid my scrapes and bruises under my clothes, and hid the secret of my anorexia behind a convincing smile. My parents never knew what was going on, and I never told them because I was afraid that they would freak out and try to “fix” me. I didn’t feel like I needed to be changed. “I just have high standards for myself,” I thought. “I’m not crazy. I don’t need people telling me that I’m beautiful. I don’t care what people think or say. I found a way to become perfect. If I’m not perfect, I’m bound to fail at everything. And if that’s my destiny, what’s the point of living?”
When I would stop to think about my lifestyle, all I let myself see was the sparkling goal ahead of me— to have the perfect body. It wasn’t about attention from boys (although I secretly wanted it, badly) and it wasn’t about feeling ugly (although I did, often). It was about feeling worth something. Worth enough to enjoy life without fear of failure, enough to let myself accept when people accepted me, but most of all, worth enough to hope that I was on earth for a reason. And this is where I think your daughter and I understand each other the deepest. We both know the feeling of purposeless. It’s easy to feel like God has abandoned you when you’ve conditioned yourself to be blind and numb to all the blessings around you. (“We accept the love we think we deserve.” - Stephen Chbosky)
Last summer, I reached my breaking point. I had a free-spirited older sister, and so had full time role of peacemaker as the middle sibling. Well, since much of my childhood had been spent as the diplomat between my angry sister and frustrated parents, this identity as the problem-solver rapidly became my entire self. I held a majority of my value in my ability to help people fix their problems. In the course of a single month, my sister entirely cut off communication with my family and my best friend fell into depression and refused to respond to my messages. I felt out of control of my life and entirely inadequate at what I thought was my reason for living. So I finally decided, Maybe God is done using me, and maybe this is a sign. Maybe it would be better for everyone if I was gone. I seem to make everything worse whenever I try to help.
My family was away from home that day, and I had my first round of painkillers lined up on the kitchen table. After about an hour of sobbing my eyes out, I even got enough courage to get a glass of water. I passed two more hours, shaking with tears and screaming at God, daring him to stop me, yelling at the top of my lungs that I’d give him one last chance if he cared. At last, when nothing happened, I reached to grab the first two pills. Suddenly, something fell over me. It’s so hard to describe. It was like a wave of gravity. My anger just disappeared, and my heart stopped in a flutter. I dropped the pills and folded down onto my dining room floor, confused and terrified. At that moment, a peace washed over me, unlike anything I’d felt before. And after a few minutes of catching my breath, when I looked up at the scattered pills on the tabletop, I felt sick to my stomach. I left the dining room, ran into the living room, flopped onto a couch and instantly drifted asleep.
When I woke up, something inside me had changed. I had an overwhelming sense of peace. I guess there’s really no other way to describe it. I went back to the table, put the pills in their bottle, and put the bottle away in the back of the bathroom cabinet. I slept for the rest of the day. But the next day and all the days following, a feeling of awe stayed with me. I soon went to seek the counsel of spiritual mentors of mine and was able to turn that experience into a spiritual passion for life. But it took taking away all I had to bring me back to my Creator.
I know this is a whole lot about me, but I’ve shared all of this only because I do believe that to some degree, your daughter is just like me. We have different passions. But the emotional troubles I had are most likely pretty identical to hers. I strongly believe that the only way she’ll overcome this is when she realizes that there is so much more to her life than her “perfect” picture of herself. And that might take a while, once she gains more independence and becomes old enough to start building her future and her career. She’s still so young, and I’m sure she feels trapped by that fact. Her mind far exceeds her age in maturity. And actually, I’m sure one element of her anorexia is in this fact; her life is kinda on hold right now because of her age, although she feels ready to be an adult. Her weight is one of the few things she has control over. She might do it to feel like she’s actually doing something to change herself, since nothing around her seems to be changing in the way she wants.
But PLEASE BE ENCOURAGED. I wish I could give you a hug right now and pray with you. I can’t imagine how scary this must be for you as her mother. If I’ve seen nothing else, the greatest thing I have faith in is the strength of her dreams. She has big plans and a bigger heart. And as much as she doubts herself and thinks about ending her life, she as an unbelievable ability to dream and hope, even when she feels like she doesn’t deserve the luxury of doing so.
I have a few ideas of advice, and I fully respect your judgment in this situation, but it’s just a couple thoughts to consider if you’d like: She doesn’t need Bible verses, at least for now. I know and firmly believe that God’s word is living and active, but further exposure to Scripture in the context of what she feels are people trying to “fix” her will only callous her to it. I know that was the effect for me. She just needs people to support her, and affirm her in what she does. Openness to Scripture will come with time; what message she needs most is your love.
I know as a mother, it must be hard to see her thinking in such a negative way; you feel like you should be able to make her feel content and happy with herself again. But this is really something she needs to figure out on her own, between her and God. What she does need from you, though, is constant love. When she tells you that she’s not going to eat something, the best thing to do is not make a big deal out of it. The more she feels like you think that there’s something wrong with her, the more she’ll hate herself. She really is just searching for a security in her identity, like we all have in our early teenage years. Only, her search goes much deeper than most. And she feels like if everyone sees her struggles as some sort of freak-of-nature habit, she can’t rely on the words of others for encouragement, but only on the lofty standards she has drawn for herself.
Never forget that your daughter’s life is a beautiful story that is still unfolding. No pain is beyond repair. This is only one chapter of her story. Be her friend, be the open arms when words can’t touch her. Above all, be her place of peace during this struggle. No interrogations, just ever-present love.
Today I am a Psychology student at a private Christian college, given a passion for teens lost in the same fears and self-hatred. My story is the fuel to my passion for life. And I cannot wait to stand hand and hand with her after she’s pulled through, stronger than ever, with a victory story of her own.
These are a lot of words, but I hope some have helped you. I really hope I haven’t offended you in any way. You and your daughter are constantly in my prayers, even if not by name. I love you both dearly and I feel your struggles so close to my heart. I’m always here if you have the need or desire to talk.