I’ve waited my entire life for someone to say that to me, so I’m saying it to you.
I know I’ve Googled “support for child of anorexic parent” innumerable times. And, go figure, the only results are for parents of anorexic children.
And realizing that you’re essentially on your own, like usual? It can make you feel even more like the “parent” you already feel you are.
(If this is you, for the love of god, email me. I think we have a lot to talk about.)
If no one has taken the time to slow down and validate your experiences, let me be the first. Here are seven things I want you to know — seven things I really wish someone had told me.
1. It’s OK to feel helpless
It’s especially OK if your parent is in complete denial about their anorexia. It can be scary to see something so clearly but be unable to get someone to see it themselves. Of course you feel helpless.
At a basic level, the parent has to voluntarily agree to make steps toward healing (unless, as happened to me, they’re involuntarily committed — and that’s a whole other level of helpless). If they won’t take even a baby step, you can feel absolutely stuck.
You may find yourself creating elaborate plans to alter milk selections at Starbucks (they’ll be onto you) or sprinkle CBD oil into a diet soda (OK, so I don’t know how that would work, but I’ve spent several hours of my life thinking about it. Would it evaporate? Would it curdle?).
And because people don’t talk about support for children of anorexic parents, it can be even more isolating. There’s no road map for this, and it’s a special kind of hell very few people can understand.
Your feelings are valid. I’ve been there, too.
2. It’s OK to feel anger and frustration — or nothing at all
Even though it’s hard to feel anger at a parent, and even if you know it’s the anorexia talking, and even if they beg you not to be mad at them, yes, it’s OK to feel what you’re feeling.
You’re angry because you’re afraid, and you’re frustrated sometimes because you care. Those are very human emotions.
You may even feel numb about the parent-child relationship. I haven’t felt like I had a parent for years. The absence of that has become “normal” for me.
If numbness is how you’ve coped, please know there’s nothing wrong with you. This is how you’re surviving in the absence of the nurturing you’ve needed. I understand that, even if other people don’t.
I just try to remind myself that for someone with anorexia, their mind is trapped in a laserlike focus on food (and the control thereof). At times, it’s an all-consuming tunnel vision, as though food is the only thing that matters.
(In that sense, it might feel as if you don’t matter, or that food somehow matters more to them. But you do matter, I promise.)
I wish I had a phaser. They probably do, too.
3. It’s OK to understand and not understand at the same time
I have experience working in the mental health world. But nothing has prepared me for having a parent with anorexia.
Even knowing that anorexia is a mental illness — and being able to explain exactly how anorexia is controlling the thought patterns of a parent — still doesn’t make it easier to understand phrases like “I’m not underweight” or “I only eat sugar-free and fat-free because it’s what I like.”
The truth is, especially if a parent has had anorexia for a long time, the restriction has damaged their body and mind.
Not everything is going to make sense when someone is enduring trauma like that — to them or to you — and you’re not responsible for putting all the pieces back together.
4. It’s OK to name it, even if you’re afraid it will push the parent away
After decades of evasion and denial — and then the subsequent secrecy of “this is between us” and “it’s our secret,” when suddenly it’s you becoming angry at people who express concern — finally saying it out loud can be an important part of your healing.
You’re allowed to name it: anorexia.
You’re allowed to share how the symptoms are undeniable and visible, how the definition leaves no doubt, and how it feels to have witnessed this. You can be honest. For your own healing, you might have to be.
Doing so has saved me emotionally and allowed me to be the smallest bit clearer in communication. It’s so much easier written than said, but I wish it for all children of anorexic parents.
5. It’s OK to try anything — even if some of what you try ends up ‘failing’
It’s OK to suggest things that fail.
You’re not an expert, which means you’re going to mess up sometimes. I’ve tried commands, and they can backfire. I’ve tried crying, and that can backfire, too. I’ve tried suggesting resources, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But I’ve never regretted trying anything.
If you’re someone whose parent might by some miracle accept your urgent pleas that they take care of themselves, feed themselves, etc., it’s OK to try that as long as you have the strength and bandwidth.
They might listen to you one day and ignore your words the next day. That can be really hard to hold. You just have to take it one day at a time.
6. It’s OK if your relationship to food or your body is messy, too
If you have an anorexic parent and you have a healthy relationship with your body, food, or weight, you’re a goddamn unicorn and you should probably write a book or something.
But I imagine that all of us children of parents with eating disorders are struggling to some degree. You can’t be that close (again, unless unicorn) and not be affected.
Had I not found a sports team where big team dinners were a huge part of bonding, I don’t know where I might’ve ended up on this journey. That was my saving grace. You may or may not have had yours.
But just know that others are out there struggling too, struggling to not struggle, and to love our bodies and ourselves and our parents, too.
In the meantime, if you want to have a somehow legal bonfire with all “women’s” magazines directly in the middle of a Safeway? I’m down.
7. It’s not your fault
This one is the hardest to accept. That’s why it’s the last one on this list.
It’s even harder when the parent has had anorexia for a long time. People’s discomfort with the duration leads them to blame the closest person. And guess what, that’s you.
Your parent’s dependence on you may also manifest itself as responsibility, which translates in the language of guilt to “it’s your fault.” Your parent may even directly address you like someone who should feel responsible to affect a change, like a doctor, caregiver, or warden (the last of which has happened to me; trust me, it’s not a simile you want).
And it’s hard not to accept those roles. People may tell you not to put yourself in that position, but those people haven’t looked at a tall 60-pound adult before. But just remember that even though you’re put in that position, it doesn’t mean you’re ultimately responsible for them or the choices they make.
So, I’m saying it again for the me in the back: It’s not your fault.
No one can take away someone’s eating disorder, no matter how desperately we want to. They have to be willing to give it away — and that’s their journey to take, not yours. All you can do is be there, and even that is sometimes too much.
You’re doing your best, and you know what? That’s all anyone can ask of you.
Vera Hannush is a nonprofit grants officer, queer activist, board president, and peer group facilitator at the Pacific Center (an LGBTQ center in Berkeley), drag king with the Rebel Kings of Oakland (the “Armenian Weird Al”), dance instructor, youth houseless shelter volunteer, operator on the LGBT National Hotline, and connoisseur of fanny packs, grape leaves, and Ukrainian pop music.