“I think Melissa has an eating disorder,” the doctor said. I can still picture his office, diplomas and awards covering his walls, Melissa in the leather chair beside me. As I stared at him across the expanse of his desk Melissa’s eyes filled with tears and my reaction was immediate. I said he was wrong, that the little weight she had lost was from healthier eating and increased exercise. I didn’t believe him and we didn’t return for a follow-up visit.
The prior year, at the start of 8th grade, Melissa began struggling with severe constipation. Her pediatrician prescribed laxatives and later sent her for an ultrasound, then referred us to a gastroenterologist who prescribed different laxatives. The problems continued. What I didn’t know, and I suspect most parents don’t understand, is that if the food isn’t going in, or if it goes in and comes out, the digestive system can’t function normally. It seems so simple in retrospect, but I had much to learn.
Although I didn’t yet know it, Melissa had been actively bulimic for a long time. Never overweight, she had gained a few pounds the year before; the weight gain I later learned that is normal and necessary for healthy development of the reproductive system. She told me years later that it was at camp the summer she was 13 that she began struggling with body image issues as the girls changed clothes in front of each other, compared their bodies and talked about boys. She decided to lose a few pounds.
Having struggled with self esteem and body image issues my entire life, I had always been careful never to comment on her weight and was secretly pleased when she started exercising more and making healthier food choices. What started innocently, with Melissa’s desire to lose a few pounds, rapidly turned into an active eating disorder behind our backs.
It was a long time before the signs of Melissa’s eating disorder became impossible to explain away or ignore. Of course in retrospect, they seem more like flashing neon warning signs that should have set off alarms. But why didn’t they?
What makes it so difficult for us as parents to see what’s happening in front of our eyes?
Adolescence by its very nature is a time filled with change. Beginning stages of disordered eating can be confused with “normal” adolescent behavior and early symptoms are easily explained away. Doctors and pediatricians often overlook the signs as well. People with eating disorders become incredibly skilled at hiding the behaviors and lying about them.
What does someone with an eating disorder actually look like? To many people, the image of a person with an eating disorder is someone who appears dangerously anorexic. But eating disorders come in many forms, with many disguises, and I later learned that bulimics are often within normal weight ranges or may even be overweight. Melissa had bulimia.
Then there is the shame. Eating disorders are considered shameful and parents don’t want to believe their child has one. However, the longer eating disorder behaviors continue, the more entrenched those behaviors become. Early detection and treatment dramatically improve recovery rates.
Although we ultimately did everything we could to help Melissa beat ED, using all the information, understanding and resources available to us, I have to live every day with the knowledge that critical time was lost in getting her into treatment. I have made it my mission to speak out and help raise parental awareness so other families don’t have to endure the devastating loss of their child.
The National Eating Disorders Association has developed a wonderful Parent Toolkit that provides valuable information. Read it. Educate yourself. Don’t close your eyes. Yes, it CAN happen to your child.