Whitney Baumann: "Mom has to go away for three months. She is sick." Those are the words my parents told me and my sister when they revealed to us that my mom needed to leave to receive treatment for anorexia, an eating disorder.
At that time, Christine (my sister) was 12 years old and I was 11 years old. This was the first time my family had openly discussed Mom's eating disorder. However, the reality of the situation was that the eating disorder had been lingering beneath the surface, not only years before I was born, but for my entire upbringing.
Mom's Anorexia Takes Root in My Life
During my childhood, I wasn't consciously aware of my mom's eating disorder. My mother had the eating disorder during the pregnancies of both my sister and I, so I see the eating disorder as an element of us. The relationship between me and my mom has always been extremely close and strong. When I was a baby, I would cry when I was out of her presence. When I was in preschool and kindergarten, I chased after her car when she dropped me off at school. I'm in college now, and whenever I struggle, I always have an urge to say, "I want my mom!"
The dynamic between me and my mom caused me to be sensitive to her emotions. So, as a young girl, I sensed her sadness. Since I was at such a young age, I really didn't have the capacity to understand the situation. The way my mom treated herself was drastically different from the way she treated us. Mentally and physically, she was dying. Although she was going through a battle within herself, this never stopped her unconditional maternal love for my sister or me. My mom tried to protect me from the reality of the eating disorder because of my age. However, I don't think she was strong enough at the time to deal with the issues that were the roots of her eating disorder.
As a child, I observed my mom's abnormal outlooks on food and self-image. Anything associated with food would be a struggle for my mom. From the age of 5, I knew how to look at certain food's nutritional information while grocery shopping. I would not ask Mom to buy the food if I determined that the fat content was too high. Along with her attitude toward food, she was addicted to exercise. She would exercise daily, sometimes even twice a day. There was a period when I would sit on my parents' bed while my mom would ride the lifecycle (an exercise bike).
Recovery Begins, Struggles Continue
Although my mom's perspective on food did affect some ways I viewed food, my mom and dad protected my sister and I from the eating disorder. I know they did this because of the immense love they have for us. My mom stopped eating with the family at some point during elementary school. Mom never cooked, and stopped going grocery shopping with us. This was an intentional way to stop my mom's unhealthy perspective on food from being transmitted to me and my sister.
I went through 11 years of my life unaware of how sick my mom truly was. Mom suffered a long time in silence. Her problems were hidden. A trip to the hospital in the fall of 1998 forced Mom (and our family) to face her eating disorder -- it could no longer be ignored. It had gotten to the point of choosing a life on the long road to recovery, or death from anorexia; she chose life.
The age of 11 is an awkward time of life for any child, because it is a transition period. An 11-year-old is no longer a little kid, yet not quite a teenager. It is an age where children are attempting to be independent but are still very dependent. Since I was 11 when my mom left for three months to get treatment for anorexia, it was already a confusing period of life for me. Her abrupt departure confused me even more. When I look back on her time in treatment, I can't remember much. I don't think I was equipped with the skills to cope with what happened. I believe the way I dealt with her absence was avoiding dealing with it at all. I was blind to how much it truly affected me.
When I look back on my life, I divide it into two periods: before Mom went to treatment and after Mom went to treatment. After she came back from treatment, I started acting out in different ways. I became depressed. I believe my brain's defense mechanism is to block out difficult periods of my life because I can't remember much from this post-treatment period either; I was in a depression. My only memory of that time is the feeling of sadness. It is hard for me to recall the feeling of being depressed, because it is such a frightening feeling. It was scary to feel so extremely down one day, and then to wake up the next day feeling the same. It seemed like a never-ending cycle. Thankfully, I went to my mom to talk about my depression, and I was able to deal with it, and overcome it. I see my depression as a manifestation of my inability to effectively cope with Mom's three-month absence.
Rebelling Against the Eating Disorder
During seventh grade, a year after Mom returned from treatment, I lost interest in school. Prior to this year, I had been a perfect student and a model child. Then there was a drastic change in me. I began to get in trouble at school, not do homework, and completely ignore rules in general. I became focused on my social life -- friends and boyfriends. I became selfish, disrespectful, and extremely manipulative.
The end of middle school into the beginning of high school was a period of time where I was not close to my mom or dad. In retrospect, I see that I deliberately distanced myself from my parents. This distance was both positive and negative. I continuously got into trouble, inside and outside of school. I would skip school, or experiment with alcohol. My parents encouraged me to see a therapist, and I did. However, I did not go to therapy to work out any of my underlying issues. I used the therapist as a tool to manipulate my parents. I regret not accepting the therapist's help because I believe it would have been beneficial. My dilemma was I denied that I had any problems.
A positive aspect of my problems was that none of them were food-related. Like many young women, I dealt with body-image issues. Honestly, I still deal with those issues today, but my mom always emphasized to my sister and I the importance of being healthy. As I got older, I understood that an eating disorder is not about food. Eating disorders are just a manifestation of internal issues. I became aware that Mom's relationship with food and exercise was not healthy. It was during my adolescence when my mom started to share the experiences that contributed to her eating disorder. I believe that her honesty is a huge reason why my sister and I do not have an eating disorder. Also, it taught me a lot about eating disorders and allowed me to comprehend a lot of my childhood experiences. I learned that an eating disorder is a coping mechanism. At this time I started to understand the eating disorder. I stopped resenting it and learned to accept it.
My mom relapsed in my junior year of high school. When you live with someone who has an eating disorder, it is hard to see the physical indicators of the disease. I wasn't aware that she had started to slowly lose more and more weight. I realized how sick she was the day I got my first camera cell phone. I took a picture of her with my cell phone, and was shocked when I looked at the picture -- she looked like a skeleton. Shortly after that, she left for treatment for the second time.
I can remember more about the second time she was in treatment than the first. It was sad, but it did not have such an impact as the first time she was in treatment. My mom and I were still extremely close, but I was a typical teenager. I was sixteen at that time, and was very self-absorbed. I was working, going to school, and had many other distractions. Those distractions helped me cope with her absence. Since my mom had been open about her eating disorder, my sister and I were involved in the discussions about her leaving for treatment. Also, we were able to communicate much more when she went to treatment the second time. Her first trip to treatment we were not able to speak often -- cell phones weren't around yet. The second time our communication was almost daily, and this allowed us to talk about things that were going on in her treatment and in our lives at home.
I truly believe that after my mom came back from treatment, she invested her whole self into recovering. A year later, Christine left for college. Then I left for college a year after that. I saw college as an escape from a household that was entangled in past eating disorder issues. That period of separation was necessary for my personal growth. It was the only time I could truly distance myself from her struggles and start the process of finding out who I am. As I reflect on the four years that have passed since I moved away, I realize how crucial that detachment was for both me and my mom. Our dependence on one another hindered our ability to be self-reliant and independent. My mom went back to school to earn her master's in marriage and family therapy. She balanced a job and school, and graduated within two years.
It is hard to explain how proud I am of my mom. She is an example of someone who has overcome a lot, and learned from her struggles. She battled anorexia my whole life, yet never stopped being a supportive, loving mother. As far as my dad goes, I have not met a better man. Like my sister and I, my dad had a hard time understanding the eating disorder. Yet, my dad never failed to be extremely supportive of my mom, my sister, and me. My mom's eating disorder unified our family, and brought us closer. I believe through her eating disorder, my mom became a stronger person. She is a selfless, compassionate person who has changed the lives of many people. Through her words and her actions, she has taught me so much.
My Growth and Perspective
Growing up with a mom who suffered an eating disorder has had a huge impact on me. I have learned a lot about myself. I have experienced ups and downs. However, when I have been in trouble, or had a problem, my parents have been nothing but supportive -- even when they weren't necessarily happy with, or proud of, my decisions. Basically, they accept me for who I am. But most importantly, I have accepted myself for who I am. I have learned how to express my emotions in healthy ways, like painting. I've been able to establish my own identity.
I've experienced the other side of eating disorders: the daughter's side. It will always be a part of who I am. Many mothers struggle with eating disorders, and many daughters are now struggling with similar experiences I endured. As a daughter of a mother who suffered with an eating disorder, it is frustrating that there is little information or resources for the children of people with eating disorders. Our society doesn't understand eating disorders yet. Many people see it as a selfish, superficial illness. My perspective on my mother's eating disorder is that it is separate from her. It has its own identity. The eating disorder is selfish, not my mother. The eating disorder is superficial, not my mother.
Ironically, an eating disorder is hard to control because the eating disorder desperately attempts to gain control. There have been times when the eating disorder was nearly successful at defeating my mom and our family. But my mom is an illustration of the fact that people can be stronger than their eating disorders. People can recover from an eating disorder. The eating disorder road to recovery doesn't have an end. I believe that as long as you're on the road to recovery, everything will be okay.