26 July 2010
Day 121: Harriet Brown (author and guest blogger)
Six years ago, I thought I knew all about eating disorders. They were, I thought, what rich white girls did when they wanted attention, when their families were neglectful, or abusive, or otherwise dysfunctional. They were distasteful to me, eating disorders, and I felt judgmental about them. They represented a failure of parenting in my mind. But my family was neither neglectful nor abusive, and so my daughters were never going to get an eating disorder.
Wrong on all counts.
When my 14-year-old daughter, Kitty, began to get anxious and obsessed, I did wonder briefly if she could have an eating disorder. She was thin, but she’d always been thin. She hadn’t lost a lot of weight, and she wasn’t throwing up or using laxatives. And, well, we just weren’t that kind of family. Both our kids were fairly outspoken about what they needed, and my husband and I were pretty responsive parents. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to parenting, but it seemed like we were doing OK.
But Kitty was diagnosed with anorexia, and thus began our family’s long trip to the nightmare world of eating disorders. My husband and other daughter and I watched as Kitty became sicker and sicker, and we had no idea how to help her. Neither, it seemed, did the doctors who treated her. “Don’t be the food police, Mom,” one therapist told me. I was supposed to sit at the table and watch my bright, precocious, funny, outgoing daughter diminish into a haunted, angry shadow of herself. I was supposed to watch the light dwindle in her eyes, her hands turn into claws, her flesh become bone, and—what? Talk about the weather?
As a journalist, I’m used to looking for answers. And so I looked, all that spring, and what I found shocked me:
• Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness; 20 percent of all anorexia sufferers die from the disease—half from malnutrition, half from suicide.
• Recovery statistics were grim: maybe 30 to 40 percent of all sufferers recovered; many stayed chronically ill for the rest of their lives.
• No one knows exactly what causes anorexia, and so . . .
• There’s little to no consensus about how to treat it.
• With treatment, the average length of illness is 5 to 7 years. With treatment.
I used my journalist’s instincts to dig deeper, and discovered the one evidence-based treatment for anorexia in teens. We used it to help our daughter get well. Over the next 18 months or so, as our daughter recovered—slowly, painfully, courageously—I began talking to other families who were going through the same process. I kept bumping up against the fact that there’s been very little research on anorexia and bulimia. One big reason is that most families who go through it are shamed into thinking it’s all their fault. And families who are shamed don’t push for more research, better treatments, better answers. They suffer and cope in silence.
So I wrote this book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia, to help break the silence. I wrote it to help the lucky families, the ones who will never have to go through this themselves but who know someone with an eating disorder. (Most people do, whether they’re aware of it or not.) I wrote the book to pull together the scientific evidence as I saw it and push forward a research agenda on these illnesses. Most of all, I wrote the book so families would know they had a choice about treatment, and so they would not feel so alone.
harrietbrown.blogspot.com. For a list of upcoming stops on her book tour, visit harrietbrown.com.
*Photo Credit: © Jamie Young.