Excerpted from

Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom in Navigating the Tumultuous Teenage Years


The first time I saw the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, I cried through the second half. The second, third, and fourth times I watched it, I cried through the entire movie. I don't watch Peggy Sue Got Married anymore.

Peggy Sue Got Married is the story of a woman who is given the opportunity to live her life over again by confronting the choices she has made in her life. As the mother of an anorexic, I have spent the past four years reliving the choices I have made in my life, searching the past trying to find the cause of my daughter's life-threatening illness. I began sure I would discover that it was my fault: I was responsible, and if only I had been a better mother, if only I had made better choices, this never would have happened to my daughter.

But my search has yielded few answers. I have literally relived our life together over and over again. I have replayed events, searched for hidden meaning in things my daughter said, tried to uncover whether she was subjected to a trauma I did not know about, looked anywhere and everywhere for clues. I have asked myself hundreds of questions, and scrutinized every aspect of her upbringing. Was I too anxious a mother to my firstborn? Did I nurse her for too long and create some sort of dependency? Did I destroy her life by having a second child? Did I set her up for disappointment by telling her she was beautiful, gifted, and talented? As the first grandchild on both sides of the family, was she too adored? I enjoyed being with her-but did I spend too much time with her? Was I wrong to rescue her from uncomfortable situations-did I step in too often, and not allow her to stumble and fall?

Most of all, I question why I didn't recognize the signs that my beloved child was in distress. Or did I really see the signs and subconsciously ignore them? Should I, could I, have intervened earlier so she would not have become so completely disabled? Unlike many parents I have talked to, I noticed the signs of our daughter's anorexia immediately. It was hard not to. She woke up one day, morbidly depressed, almost catatonic, and unwilling to eat. We only let a week pass before seeking help (we were sure she would "snap" out of it), but by that time, she had dropped enough weight to require hospitalization. Although the recognition of the disease was almost immediate, the slow steady descent to that level of her depression and anorexia was barely noticeable to me when it was happening.

Our daughter had continued to participate in activities (sports, school musical, chorus, academics), but in retrospect, the joy of participation had begun to wane many months before the definitive onset of her disease. She was tired, sometimes withdrawn, and unenthusiastic.

It was easy to dismiss what she was feeling as adolescence since she was thirteen when this all began, but I feel somehow I should have known. If I had addressed my concerns earlier, would she still have become so sick? Maybe I could have helped her. Maybe the illness would not have so completely enveloped her life. Maybe I could have reached her before anorexia so totally consumed her. Maybe ... maybe ... maybe ...

In addition to the questions I ask myself about why I didn't recognize what was happening to her, I also constantly ask myself if my response to her illness was appropriate. My shock and guilt at the seriousness of what was happening to my daughter caused me to act defensively rather than with intuition or positive thought. But how could I have reacted any other way? This was something totally foreign to me, something with which I had no experience, and despite the fact that both my husband and I are intelligent, educated individuals, we felt totally helpless to deal with our daughter's illness. We wanted help, and we turned to "professionals" in the field for advice and guidance.

Unfortunately, our daughter's first therapist gave us advice that, in retrospect, would only set us all up for failure. The therapist told us our daughter was extremely fragile, and needed to be protected from the outside world at all costs. As her parents, we were to intervene at every juncture to be sure that there were no external conflicts so that our daughter could concentrate all of her energy on her internal conflicts. Additionally, we were to do everything possible to "entertain" her, in an effort to hold her depression at bay. Another therapist told us our daughter was suffering from a "Peter Pan" complex (she did not want to grow up), so we were to allow her to remain a child until she was comfortable making the transition to adulthood. In retrospect, these approaches were counterproductive for our daughter. She loved the attention, loved being dependent, and consequently, had no intention of ever giving up her status.

The therapists were right about what our daughter wanted, but were wrong about what she needed. And so, although we ended up giving our daughter what she wanted, it certainly was not in her best interest to foster her continuing sense of dependency on us. We set up a behavioral response pattern whereby the only way she felt she could be nurtured and loved by us was to remain sick/anorexic. Thus, it has become impossible for her to break that pattern; if she became well, she believed she would lose us forever.

I question why I allowed myself to engage in behaviors that I instinctively knew would be counterproductive to our daughters recovery. Why did I trust "educated professionals" who barely knew our daughter instead of my own maternal instincts? I've come to realize that it is because anorexia takes more victims than the one suffering intimately with the disease; it also affects all those close to the victim. Anorexia scared me enough to relinquish my parental instincts and rights to total strangers who knew nothing about my child.

Our daughter continues to struggle with her anorexia, and I continue to struggle also. Over the past four years, we have seen the worst the mental health profession has to offer, but have also seen some of the best. Unfortunately, the disease is so precious to our daughter that she continues to be unwilling to give it up, even at the risk of death. She has chosen to protect her illness over everything else, including her family. The ultimate dichotomy for her is that she professes to love her family above all else, but her family has become expendable if it means she has to choose between anorexia and us.

I am now at a point where I am trying to accept that I may lose my daughter. There is nothing I can do to make her want to live, to make her want more from her life than the lie of anorexia. Her life is her disease. She has no life outside of the anorexia; she does not go to school, she does not have friends, she has no interests or hobbies at all. My daughter has successfully erased all aspects of her life so that she can concentrate every waking second on nurturing her disease. Her every thought revolves around protecting her anorexia.

Tags: Parenting and Families

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