• Wed, Feb 26 - 3:00 pm ET

If You’ve Had An Eating Disorder, The Thought Of Your Child Hiding One Is Terrifying

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I always wonder if I’ll recognize the things in my children that I managed to hide when I was a teenager. More often than not, these thoughts linger on the usual suspects; drinking, smoking, hanging out with questionable company. I’ve heard parents of older children say they always thought they would be hip to what was going on – until they realized that they weren’t. Will my kids be able to hide things from me?

When I think about the things I hid in my teens – my struggle with disordered eating is definitely the thing that stands out to me the most. It almost trumps my fear of alcohol, drugs or any other thing parents of teenagers have to deal with. Will I recognize the behaviors of a person trying desperately to disappear?

Will I notice the extra trips to the bathroom, the watery eyes and runny nose when she* emerges? Will a calloused knuckle ring a bell? Will I see her look away when people tell her she looks “great?” I had an eating disorder for over ten years and not a single person in my life ever seemed to realize it. I had boyfriends. I was close to my family. I was fully emerged in a very social life with people constantly around me. Nobody ever asked me anything.

Nobody wondered why I dropped twenty pounds my senior year in high school; they were too busy applauding me for how amazing I looked. I know what it feels like to go to bed hungry – and not because my family couldn’t afford food. I became addicted to that feeling, of my stomach growling at night and the weakness I felt in the morning. Nobody ever knew.

My mother grew up poor and hungry, there is no way she would have conceived that one of her kids wouldn’t eat. She also grew into an immense vanity that appeared in a lifetime of senseless diets (she never had any weight to lose) and an obsession with the weight of my older siblings. I think it’s true that older siblings always bear the brunt of the pressure for perfection; my siblings suffered through the constant nagging, while I was able to vanish into the background – almost literally – as I lost more and more weight.

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  • Bethany Ramos

    This is such a wonderful post, Maria! I also had an eating disorder starting at the age of 12, and I remember the exact moment that it happened. My parents were divorced, and I felt incredibly vulnerable. I went to visit a friend, and her mom commented that I gained weight. BOOM. That was something I could fix.

    I talked to my mom recently about my eating disorder, and she apologized to me for ignoring the signs. She said that she heard me throwing up in the bathroom once, and I remember her asking me about it and telling her I wasn’t feeling well, and she said that she accepted the excuse because it was easier for her.

  • Tk

    This. I have read mommyish for about a year, and never commented. I have a 7 week old girl, and I have had an eating disorder until I became pregnant. I will be very interested to read the comments. I plan on never calling myself fat, ugly, complaining about my weight, that I don’t fit into clothes etc in front of her. I hope that will help a little bit, but it terrifies me that she will hate her body as much as I have (and do) for over half my life.

    • Natasha B

      You are so brave to,share this. Huge internet hug! And kudos to you for laying out a plan on how to help your daughter with body image, my husband and I consciously work at that also.
      I have a close friend with three daughters, and they are all slim and beautiful-but she constantly harps about weight she needs to lose in front of them, and how much she hates her body, and I know they are absorbing it all :(

  • Natasha B

    Thanks for sharing this Maria! It’s one of the things I worry about with my kiddos, the boy too…with so much societal pressure. It’s hard.

  • Sam Inoue

    I have so much fear surrounding eating disorders and my kids! I was anorexic as a teenager, I pretty much drank coffee and would eat a peanut m and m or two when I got lightheaded. The only foods I ate were veggies, and occasionally a little bit of peanut butter. I was sick, and so underweight. I couldn’t imagine not noticing something like that, but neither my dad or stepmom did. It wasn’t until my stepsister and I went on vacation together that she intervened. I have tried to instill healthy eating habits in my kids, but it still scares me.

  • Guest

    So funny you say that- I had a reaction to one of my birth control pills that took away my appetite entirely. I forgot to eat and drink because I never the normal hunger pains. I literally would realize I forgot to eat all day and force myself to put something down because I knew I should. I dropped weight like crazy and I was a little skeleton but gawd did I get compliments, attention, and I felt great about my body for the first time ever. The only people who brought it up were both of my Grandmas (separately) to my parents who said I looked gaunt.

  • jsterling93

    I’m reading this at work and trying not to cry. I was a dancer during my teen years and fought a daily battle against food and my natural body shape. I am short and curvy. From age 11 on I had boobs and a butt and I would starve myself to try and make them go away. I worry about my son. I don’t want him to have my unhealthy attitude about food. I also don’t want him to have a negative attitude about women’s bodies. I want him to respect how strong a woman can be not how thin.

    I too had a mother who complimented me constantly when I was at my most unhealthy and who ignored the signs that things were wrong. I won’t do that to my son. Whether it is an eating disorder or signs or something else just not right I won’t ignore it in the hopes that it just goes away.

  • My Oubliette

    Thank you all for sharing. I’m not a mother, but I have and have had friends with eating disorders (like four out of ten people, as Maria points out). And I am terrified for them. The relief I felt, and feel as my most vulnerable friend was in recovery was and is palpable – but so is my fear when she shows signs of relapse. I can’t imagine experiencing that sort of fear for your own children.

    All of you, no matter where you are in your recovery, please be well. You are wanted. You are valuable. You are strong.

    (Edited for grammar)

  • Kay_Sue

    I find that the things I most regret? (I don’t know if that’s the right word there) about myself are the things that I am most afraid for my sons to encounter. For me it wasn’t an eating disorder, but my own mental illness. I tried to hide the effects of it however I could, and until it all blew up, my parents had no real idea. I worry my sons will feel that same pressure and try to hide it, when I’m the one that wants to support me the most. In that sense, this does not surprise me at all.

    • My Oubliette

      Again, I don’t have children, but my ambivalence towards having them (I’m only 22) would probably lean way more in the “yes, please” direction if it weren’t for my mental illness. I worry about the genetic factor, the effect of medications on a potential pregnancy, and primarily being able to hold on to my (hypothetical future) control of my illness. I don’t want my hypothetical kids to grow up with a mother who will cry for hours at the drop of a hat, fly into monstrous rages – again, lasting for hours – hurt herself on purpose, abuse drugs, or sleep for days, and I don’t want them to experience any of these things themselves, ever, and I don’t them to wonder if their mother loves them, or why she isn’t like their friends mothers. If I have kids, I want them to have a functional mother who can focus on their needs because she doesn’t need to focus on the menace eating her from the inside out.

    • Kay_Sue

      I can totally understand that rationale. If you ever do want to explore the option, there are a lot of medical professionals that are able to help too. They can help you plan and explore treatment options that are safe for pregnancy. If you don’t ever want to, don’t ever let anyone make you feel guilty for it. Your mental health is important. Take care of it.

    • My Oubliette

      Thank you, Kay :) sometimes it’s hard to remember that doctors and other medical personnel are actually on your side the vast majority of the time. I guess I forget it because trying to be well can seem like such a futile effort. When you’re testing medication after medication and nothing seems to help, you start wonder if they’re even trying, but psychiatry is such a hit or miss and they’re honestly doing they’re best to “hit”. I try to look forward to a future where neuroscientists understand what’s going on in a sick brain and can target it with better treatments than we can even dream of right now.

  • That_Darn_Kat

    When I was a freshman in high school, I had a slight weight problem. My 8th grade school had PE only once a week, and offered pizza, fries, and a chocolate malt as the main lunch of choice (I’m sure that’s no longer the case). I put on a bunch of weight that year. When my mom was diagnosed as diabetic, her and I changed our eating habits and began to jog. I lost weight so quickly, and loved the attention I began to get. We wound up not being able to continue jogging (mom wouldn’t let me jog by myself at 5am), so I turned to food to help keep the weight off. I would barely have breakfast, only eat veggies at lunch, and would often barely touch my dinner. When I started working at a food place, I was able to tell my mom I had eaten at work, and she would let me pass on dinner. It got to the point where I was probably only consuming enough to keep me from passing out. I remember my mom joking around about the weight I had lost, and asking if I was anorexic, but I just laughed it off and told her I just wasn’t a breakfast person (which had always been true). It wasn’t until I saw a picture of myself after I graduated that I finally started eating like I should. I had dropped down to almost 125lbs (which on my frame was NOT a good look). I realized, looking at that picture, that I looked sick. I was (slowly) able to pull myself out of that, but 2 kids later, I don’t like my body, and it’s really hard to not slip back into bad habits.

  • Andy

    This-so much this. I battled bulimia for my last three years of high school. I can point to the event that triggered it too-when my boyfriend freshman year dumped me for a taller, thinner friend. My mom was in law school, my dad worked long hours, and I was pretty much on my own, so they never noticed. I finally broke down and told my best friend-she had no clue, despite the fact that I had lost over ten pounds between freshman and sophomore year. The biggest thing about eating disorders is that they are about control. As a teen, there was very little I felt was within my control, but my weight-and the perverse pleasure I got from being the thinnest girl in my social group-that I could control. At 5’1 and 145 pounds five months post baby number two, I’m at my heaviest, and I daily have to stop myself from putting down my body within earshot of my daughter-I don’t want her to grow up with my insecurities. I also have to take deep breaths and remind myself my current weight isn’t what I’m going to be for the rest of my life-once my son is sleeping enough for me to catch up on sleep and have the energy to work out, I’ll be able to lose some, if not all, of the weight-although I don’t think I’ll ever be the 85 pound waif of my school days.

  • gmc

    I understand completely. I definitely had an eating disorder in high school, to the point where I would only eat 1/2 cup of Special K a day. I grew up in a loving, attentive family. However, my mother’s self-deprecating comments about her body somehow rubbed off on me, as did the constant pressures of being a ballerina. Even to this day, when she compliments me on how thin I am, I try to redirect the message–”I feel healthy, and that’s what’s important.”

    I don’t have kids yet, but I have already gotten to test out how different I want the commentary to be on my (much) younger sisters. I think it’s working–neither of them seem to have picked up my mother’s insecurities. I think the most important thing is always to be positive about your own body. When fitness or eating comes up, I try to focus on how good a run makes me feel, or how much more energy I have when I eat whole foods instead of processed foods. I tell my sisters that I do not weigh myself, that my body has settled at the weight it is and as long as I’m healthy, I am happy with it. I hope and pray this is enough.

    • My Oubliette

      I love that you’re putting body acceptance/positivity into practice. I firmly believe in teaching future generations to love their bodies for what they can do, for being the vessel that lets them live rather than or in spite how they look.. I feel like ours, and probably the next, and maybe the next is already f-ed, and that it’s a slow change that will be extremely hard to implement, but every little bit counts. So many snaps to you for doing what you can!

    • gmc

      Thank you! Yes, redirecting the narrative to “food is fuel” is a cultural shift that definitely will take time. But I’m hopeful, I really think it’s already happening. Also, science is catching up– we’re learning that a calorie is not a calorie, that quality matters. I’m hoping that eating for health and disease prevention becomes the dominant cultural narrative!

    • My Oubliette

      Here’s to that! *clinks glass* (it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!)

  • Smitthh

    I have a strict “no body talk” rule around my ten month old. The nurse at the pediatrician’s office got a mild rebuff when she said something about the scale being “evil” to my daughter. Even though she can’t understand what people are saying quite yet, I don’t want her to grow up thinking the scale is good or evil, it’s just a thing.

  • Snickity Snark

    ((hugs)) Thank you for writing this. I have struggled since I was about 14. I can honestly say that I still struggle daily and I’m going to hit 40 in just two years. I have two daughters and the thought also horrifies me.

  • SusannahJoy

    I’m like 98% better, and haven’t been actively restricting for years, but still. Every time I decide I need to lose weight, I immediately start with the “tricks” I learned. It’s so hard not to. I know they work! And then the pounds start rolling off, and I feel so proud, and I think “Hey, I lost that 5 pounds so easily, why not make it 10 pounds?” and then I freak the fuck out and eat an entire batch of cookies because I’m terrified of going down that road again. I was so skinny and hated my body so much because I thought I was fat and that was deeply, deeply shameful.

    • My Oubliette

      That’s the evil of eating disorders. That way of thinking isn’t something that goes away, from what I’ve heard, it can only be muted and replaced with healthier thoughts about food through therapy (I say “from what I’ve heard” because I don’t have personal experience with an ED, thankfully). Those things are evil. Keep fighting.

  • Psych Student

    I’ve never had an eating disorder (though depression and anxiety in a huge way), but it’s taken a long time for my wife to convince me that I am beautiful with my fat and muscles. Because we both prefer the look of people who aren’t rail thin models, we tend towards saying that they “need to eat a sandwich” and my wife will say they are “gross”. I laid down the law the other day and said that when we have children there will be absolutely no more of that talk. I know we like to say stuff like that, and we like to say negative things about ourselves as well, but when we have kids, we are going to have to be *very* conscious of how we talk about other people’s bodies. Body acceptance means being supportive of *all* body types – thin to fat – as long as the person it healthy and happy (which is to say, accepting of their body). We don’t have to put down thin women to lift ourselves up.

  • Hilary

    I’m currently suffering from an eating disorder and I was able to tell my parents. I think the reason why is I knew they’d understand. They try to hard to keep up with these things I feel like I can tell them anything. When I’m healthy and ready to have children I know I’ll be hyper vigilant. I think anyone who’s gone through something like this will be. I agree that talking to your children about it can be a big help. Then at least if something does happen they know they can trust you to understand and help instead of being accusatory.

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