I struggled with anorexia nervosa and orthorexia for eight years. My battle with food and my body began at 14, shortly after my dad died. Restricting food (the amount, the type, the calories) quickly became a way for me to feel like I was in control of something, anything, during this very disruptive time.
Ultimately, my eating disorder took over my life and affected my relationship not only with myself, but with my loved ones — specifically my mother and stepfather, who lived through it with me.
I have a very open relationship with my parents, yet we never really sat down just to talk about my eating disorder. After all, it’s not really dinner table conversation (pun intended). And that part of my life was so dark that I’d much rather talk about all the wonderful things happening in my life right now. And they would too.
But recently, I was on the phone with my stepdad, Charlie, and he mentioned we’d never actually had an open conversation about my eating disorder. He said he and my mom would really like to share some of their perspectives on being parents of a kid with disordered eating.
What began as an interview quickly evolved into a more open-ended conversation. They asked me questions, as well, and we flowed pretty organically between conversation topics. While the interview has been edited to be more concise, I think it showcases how much my parents and I have grown together through my recovery.
Britt: Thank you guys for doing this. Do you remember one of the first times you noticed something was wrong with my relationship to food?
Charlie: I noticed it because one thing we shared was you and I would go out to eat. Generally speaking, it was never the healthiest of food, and we always ordered way too much. So I guess that was my first sign, when I several times asked you, “Hey, let’s go grab something,” and you kind of pulled back.
Mom: I would say I didn’t notice the food. Obviously I noticed the weight loss, but that’s when you were running [cross-country]. Charlie actually came, he said, “I think it’s something different.” He goes, “She won’t eat with me anymore.”
Britt: What were some of the emotions that came up for you? Because you guys were fully consumed in this with me.
Charlie: I would say helplessness. There is nothing more painful for a parent to see their daughter doing these things to themselves and you can’t stop them. I can tell you our scariest moment was when you were going away to college. Your mom cried a lot... because now we couldn’t see you on a day to day.
Britt: And then [my eating disorder] morphed into something totally different in college. I was eating, but I was restricting so much in what I was eating... I’m sure that was hard to even understand, because the anorexia was almost simpler in a way. The orthorexia was like, I can’t eat the same food twice in one day, and like, I’m making these food logs and I’m doing this, and I’m vegan... Orthorexia isn’t even recognized as an official eating disorder.
Mom: I wouldn’t say that was harder for us at that point, it was all the same.
Charlie: No, no, no. That was harder, and I’ll tell you why... The people that we talked to at that time said that there cannot be rules with your eating... You were basically mapping out every meal, and if you were going to a restaurant, you would go the day before and pick out what you were gonna...
Mom: I mean, we actually tried not to tell you what restaurant we were going to just so that...
Charlie: You didn’t have that process.
Mom: You could see the look of terror on your face.
Charlie: Britt, that’s when we really knew that this was more than what you eat and what you don’t eat. That’s when the real gist of this, the toughest part of this took effect. We could just see you, you were exhausted... and it was in your eyes, babe. I’m telling you right now. You would get all teary-eyed if we said we were going out to eat that night. I mean, it was tough. That was the toughest part of this.
Mom: I think the hardest part is, you actually thought you were doing really well. I think that was harder to watch emotionally, going like, “She actually thinks she has this right now.”
Charlie: I think at that time you were just refusing to see that you had an eating disorder.
Britt: I know I shouldn’t, but I have a lot of guilt and shame around it, feeling like I caused these problems in the family.
Charlie: Please don’t feel any sense of guilt or anything like that. That was totally out of your control. Totally.
Britt: Thank you... How do you think that my disordered eating affected our relationship?
Charlie: I would say there was a lot of tension in the air. On your side as well as ours, because I could tell that you were tense. You couldn’t even be completely honest with us, because you couldn’t even at that time be completely honest with yourself, you know? So it was tough, and I could see that you were in pain and it hurt. It hurt, OK? It hurt us.
Mom: It was like a little wall that was just always there. You know, even though you could say, “Hey, how was your day, how was whatever,” you could have a little chitchat or whatever, but then that was like... it was just always there. It was all-encompassing, really.
Charlie: And when I say it hurt, you didn’t hurt us, OK?
Britt: Oh I know, yeah.
Charlie: It hurt to see you hurt.
Mom: We had this forethought of, “Well, we want you to go to college. Is it better to say you can’t go and put you in somewhere so that you recover first before we would send you away?” It was like, no, I really feel she’s got to at least try, and we’re still gonna do this. But that was the hardest part, we really wanted you to not only beat this, but we didn’t want to have you miss that college opportunity either.
Charlie: Or, if I’m gonna go with you freshman year and be roommates.
Charlie: That was a joke, Britt. That was a joke. That was never on the table.
Britt: The moment for me that changed everything, it was sophomore year of college, and I went to my nutritionist because I was having those malnourishment shakes. So I was just, for two days straight, just shaking, and I couldn’t sleep because I would have these jolts. I don’t know why that was what did it for me, but that was what made me be like, “Oh my god, my body is eating away at itself.” I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was too exhausting at that point. I was so tired.
Charlie: Honestly, I think you were in denial for so long, and that was the aha moment for you. And even though you said you knew you had this eating disorder, you didn’t. In your mind, you were just saying that, but you didn’t believe it, you know? But yes, I think that the health scare is what really needed, you needed to really see, OK now this has really turned into a problem. When in your mind, did you pick up that, “Uh-oh, [my parents know about my eating disorder]?”
Britt: I think I always knew that you two knew what was up. I think I just didn’t want to bring it to the forefront, because I didn’t know how to, if that makes sense.
Mom: Did you honestly think that we believed you when you would say, “Oh, I just ate at Gabby’s house,” or whatever... I’m just curious if you actually thought you were tricking us.
Britt: You guys definitely seemed questioning, so I don’t think I always thought I was pulling one over on you. I think it was kind of like, how far can I push this lie without them pushing back at it, you know?
Charlie: Everything you said we didn’t believe. It got to a point where we didn’t believe any of it.
Mom: And on top of it, whatever you ate, it was immediately, you know, “She just had a cheese stick.”
Mom: I mean, it was a constant. Hysterical actually, now that you think back on it.
Charlie: Yeah, it wasn’t at the time.
Charlie: I mean, you gotta find a little bit of humor in it, because it was really emotional... It was a chess match between you and us.
Britt: How has your understanding of eating disorders changed over the last eight years?
Charlie: This is just my opinion: The most brutal part about this disorder is, outside of what it could be physically health-wise, is the emotional, mental toll it takes. Because take the food out of the equation, take the mirror out of the equation: You’re left with somebody that thinks about food 24 hours a day. And the exhaustion of what that does to the mind, it is, I think, the worst part of the disorder altogether.
Mom: I think thinking of it more as an addiction, I think that was probably the biggest realization.
Charlie: I agree. Your eating disorder will always be a part of you, but it does not define you. You define you. So yes, I mean, to say that you couldn’t relapse six years from now, 10 years from now, 30 years from now, it could happen. But I think that you’re a lot more educated now. I think that there’s a lot more tools and resources that you’re willing to use.
Mom: We want you to finally just have a life.
Charlie: The whole reason why your mom and I wanted to do this with you is because we just wanted to get out the parents’ side of this illness. Because there were so many times when your mom and I just felt helpless and really alone, because we didn’t know anybody else that was going through this, or we didn’t even know who to turn to. So, we kind of had to go this one alone, and the only thing that I would say is, you know, is if any other parents are going through this, to educate themselves and to get out there and get a support group for them, because this is not an isolated disease.
Brittany Ladin is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. She’s passionate about disordered eating awareness and recovery, which she leads a support group on. In her spare time, she obsesses over her cat and being queer. She currently works as Healthline’s social editor. You can find her thriving on Instagram and failing on Twitter (seriously, she has like 20 followers).