The Unwanted Guest

The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man be perfected without trials.

~Danish Proverb

 I came from a family where food was always at the center of our lives. It was how we celebrated life and survived whatever ills prevailed. Then food became a big part of our daughter’s life, too, though not in a celebratory way. She came home from her eighth grade science class one day and informed us that she was no longer going to eat red meat.  The following Thanksgiving, she informed us that due to inhumane treatment she would no longer be eating turkey or chicken. However, she remained a healthy eater, seeking recipes that fit her vegetarian lifestyle.

As the years progressed, she spent a great deal of time talking about food, the nutritional value, her likes and dislikes, and she began eating less and less. She often stated that she “felt fat.” Her vision of herself was becoming skewed. By tenth grade, Francesca and I were in what we call “the food wars.” The more I tried to reason with her, the more she restricted. No matter what I said or did, it was to no avail. Needless to say, lots of tears were shed by both of us.  In college she joined the crew team. There were two-hour practices before and after classes each day. Because of the intensity of the practices and her minimal eating, she passed out after a crew practice and her coach told her she would have to increase her protein intake if she were to remain on the team. She did just that, and we were relieved.

Francesca loved rowing. She worked hard and excelled, but in the process tore her meniscus. The pain was excruciating. She was told to strengthen the muscles around the knee. That summer she exercised twice a day to strengthen her muscles. However, the injury did not heal enough and her coach moved her to the coxswain position — the person in the boat who sets the pace and directs the boat. She hated it and it wasn’t long before she dropped off the team. It was then that the eating disorder took over our daughter’s life.

During this time she pushed us away, wanting as little contact with us as possible — mostly to avoid confrontation. Since she was no longer putting in four hours of crew practice, her workouts at the gym became longer and more intense, and her eating was greatly reduced. During the week she would starve herself and then on weekends overindulge in sweets and alcohol. She was five foot five and weighed less than 100 pounds. Worse, she was suffering from exhaustion, dizziness, low blood pressure, collapsed veins, thinning hair, and severe depression. It culminated in a car accident and a desperate phone call for help. Could she come home? Yes, we told her, but only if she agreed to seek professional help for her eating disorder.

Francesca entered The Renfrew Center for women with eating disorders as an outpatient. The first week she came home and begged us not to make her go back. “I am not one of them: I am not that bad.” She had been witness to patients who were cutters, survivors of abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, and suffered with various eating disorders as well. The routine, the strict food requirements and the prohibition of exercise were difficult for her. A battle was raging between our daughter and this disease. She called it “Ralph” — an entity with a huge head, small body and wild hair! We held her, cried with her, and sent her back. By the second week, she began to connect with her peers and realized that though their lives were different, she shared many of the same feelings. She began to meditate, and sought spirituality by finding a church and a college-age Bible study group. She threw herself into getting healthy, both physical and mentally.  But it was not easy. Even though Renfrew provided her with the tools to overcome her eating disorder, she elected not to take medication and did not continue with outside counseling or support groups. She felt she could do it herself. She returned to college, graduated with honors, and married a wonderful man.

But the war was not over. She continued to struggle with her eating and our relationship continued to deteriorate. There was nothing we could do that we had not already done. “Ralph” set out to destroy not only our daughter and our relationship but now her marriage. While she continued to keep us at arm’s length, she began to distance herself from her husband as well. His frustration was growing as his wife was disappearing. We shared with him that he was her husband, her lover, her friend, but that he could not choose her food, nor make her eat. We were left to watch. We realized we were not in control and had never been. We told her that we would love her unconditionally and would love her “where she was at.”

Our prayers were answered in the form of a second breakdown. The loss of her job and the possibility of losing her husband finally broke the hold “Ralph” had on her.  She sought care and elected to take medication. It made all the difference. Slowly, ever so slowly, she became healthy. We began to heal our relationship. We learned not to dictate her eating, her behavior, and her feelings. We learned to trust her ability to acknowledge her body’s signal for nourishment, her desire to seek out healthy eating practices and faith that she would overcome “Ralph’s” voice in her head telling her to restrict. In turn, she learned to trust those who loved her to be honest with her when she was in a battle with this disease, and to accept that sometimes her vision of herself might be skewed.

Today “Ralph” is unrecognizable and although she is aware of him in the background of her life, he is on mute! Francesca still has days when she “feels fat” and knows it may be a life-long battle. She utilizes her knowledge to help others through her work as a fitness instructor for the YMCA and through her church — where she combines her love of health and faith to administer to others. She is a happy and healthy wife, mother, and daughter.

I am so proud of the woman my daughter is. It was a difficult journey and one I wished she never had to take. I did not like the journey myself. There are some battle scars for both of us. There is the saying that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”  I believe that because of “Ralph” we both have grown and have a close, personal and open relationship. Together we have built a relationship far better than we could have ever wished and prayed for. Today, we are each other’s best friend.

Thanks, “Ralph”!

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