A blog about art is hardly the place to pull back the curtain on an ugly subject like an eating disorder. But then again, struggle and pain are real in most peoples’ lives and sometimes in the life of an artist those experiences form the basis of beautiful art. I suppose I felt the need to provide a counterbalance to all that eye-catching art here on Maker; to maybe be more open about why I generally want to share what I find amazing about us humans by shedding a wee bit of light on an eating disorder in my family. And I have to say in my experience not a lot of people know that eating disorders affect boys and men and that they are especially ashamed and terrified of seeking help.
My family experienced this mental health disorder about 15 years ago. In fact I’ve known my son more years with the eating disorder than the years before it took over his mind and body. Black, hollow and cold (because that’s how I think of it), it attached itself to him (and the rest of us) kind of like a parasite attaches itself to a healthy host and we’ve been in a life or death battle with it ever since.
It came about innocently, in the form of a matter-of-fact question one day when my son was about 11…how to lose weight as he entered high school and my equally matter-of-fact if not clinical response…calories in, calories out, if you take in more calories than you expend in energy, you’ll gain weight. If you take in less you’ll lose weight. That was that. Of course starting high school is stressful for most adolescents and he was no different. He had been called names like ‘fatty’ throughout elementary school and as the prospect of high school loomed he decided to choose healthier foods. I was on board with healthier foods! But when he later joined the cross-country running club at school and started paying attention to his appearance I started to worry. Insidiously and over months when family and friends started to compliment his changing physique that attention ever-so-quietly evolved into obsession. And he wasn’t at all interested in going back to what he considered his ‘fat’ self.
I remember feeling helpless as the realization dawned one day that he had an eating disorder. It felt like the whole family was slipping over the edge of a cliff and that nothing we said or did was reaching him. It’s hard to describe that sense of loss, the strangeness that overtakes someone so familiar, my not recognizing him physically or emotionally anymore. Over a matter of months he was a different person; anxious, distrustful and depressed. That was one of the hardest things to take – knowing too well that adage ‘you are what you eat’ and watching him sink further into despair and then thoughts of suicide. How had it come to this? How many times did my husband and I try to convince our son that life was worth living for. And how many times did I go back to memories of feeding him as a baby, of being so in love with his beautiful little face and his curious disposition. And then my own guilt and shame and anger at having allowed this thing to enter our lives.
Feelings of guilt, shame and anger happen but they aren’t helpful in the long run. You can beat yourself up til the cows come home over what could’ve or should’ve been or…you can ask for help, for a family member who has an eating disorder and/or for yourself and everyone else around you. Let me tell you it took me a long time to comprehend the fact that we couldn’t reason with our son and that highly emotional arguments with him were useless. With counselling help though we started to learn (and are still learning) that approaching a loved one with an eating disorder takes a different strategy altogether.
15 years on treatment continues to be life altering. For us it was the first and hardest step in what therapists call ‘recovery’ from an eating disorder. I say hardest step because our son refused treatment for years before finally agreeing to see a counsellor when his blood potassium level was in his boots and he was more than tired of the endless hopelessness. We didn’t get help from our family doctor though. Unfortunately many of them aren’t familiar with eating disorders and if they are they have preconceived notions about them; that they only happen to females and that they can be treated with antidepressants or ‘just eat’ pep talks. Bull Shit. Desperate times call for helping yourself so I researched services online and came across a few clinics and programs in and around our community. If you live in BC an awesome resource for the province is… https://keltyeatingdisorders.ca/. But be aware, as with all publicly funded programs in the province, waiting lists can be long and counselling services scarce. Aligning a son or daughter’s mood at any given time with a counselling appointment can be nearly impossible. Been there, done that many times.
Now as much as I’d like to say we’re all living happily ever after I have to be honest. Real life doesn’t generally have fairy tale endings. Instead, harsh understanding brings newfound determination to make the best of what life has to offer. I was naive when I assumed that his month stay in a children’s hospital ward at 16 would magically return our son to a normal weight and that he’d be over the eating disorder. I was naive when I assumed a 3 month stay on an adult eating disorder ward many years later would rid him of it. But I wasn’t so naive when he entered a 3 month residential program for eating disorders in Vancouver last year. It’s taken me a long time to understand what ‘recovery’ means and that one step forward and two steps back is often normal. It’s taken me years to appreciate the fact that an eating disorder reaches it’s bony fingers into every member of the family, that it sucks the energy out of much more important things that happen in all families. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to listen to your son (or daughter) when it comes to understanding their emotional lives whether or not they have an eating disorder. And that as a society we harm boys and men so much by demanding that they ‘be a man’ which leaves them no choice but to continue to suffer.
If you have any thoughts or questions about this post please feel free to comment below. I’m certainly no expert in much of anything but I do know something about eating disorders and maybe something about being a wiser parent when something black, hollow, cold visits your family.
Returning next post…some more beautiful art. Yay!