When her sister was in her late teens my youngest daughter and I would often talk about the possibility that her sister had an eating disorder.
“Do something mom,” my youngest daughter would insist.
I worried that if I ignored it she’d die. If I acknowledged it, she’d lie, and lying would only make her hate herself more which would exacerbate the problem.
So mostly, I did the best I could, which given the gravity of the situation, was never enough.
I’d obliquely refer to eating disorders, ask if she was okay, ask if she thought she needed professional help. I’d read online about EDs and while part of me believed it was possible, the other couldn’t believe it was true.
I was so accustomed to the violent swings of her emotions. I chalked it all up to ‘it’s just the way she rolls through life’.
The first time she threatened suicide she was five years old. I can’t remember the instigating situation but I’ll never forget watching this tiny, perfect human being standing at the top of the stairs looking down at me and informing me that she was sorry she’d picked us as her parents, she was going back to heaven.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I told my precious child before asking. “How do you plan on getting there?”
She didn’t hesitate in her response. “I’m going to go to the kitchen and get a knife and stab myself to death.”
I stopped smiling. My heart stopped beating for just a second as I quietly suggested we sit down and talk about this.
It was one of the most heart-breaking surprises of being her mother. I never, ever anticipated having to talk my five year old daughter off a ledge. But I would do it, again and again over the ensuing years.
At 13, after her sister informed me one day as I drove her to dance that I couldn’t leave her alone with her sister anymore because every time they were alone Alexis threatened to kill herself, I put them both into counselling.
It seemed to have a positive impact for awhile but then, I fell into a pit of despair in a relationship that was killing me. I tried to juggle the darkness consuming me while I also worked to keep the darkness at bay in Alexis’ life too.
It was exhausting and terrifying.
Even though I know that part of my natural defense/response mechanism is to assume everything is my fault, that I need to fix it because I broke it, when I look back on those days now, I am in awe of the fact that I never once thought I needed help. I was so consumed by guilt and shame and self-flagellation, I couldn’t see the disease eating away at my life was part of the problem that was killing my daughter.
There are familial threads in eating disorders and depression.
My mother spent her life in a deep sea of grief. When we were children, the darkness would become so great, her despair so all consuming, she would stand in the kitchen and hold a knife to her breast and tell us she was going to stab herself to death.
I told myself I had to fix it. That I had to make my mother smile. That I had to lift the cloud of gloom that enshrouded her.
I wasn’t that powerful, but I thought I had to be. And so, I kept smiling and laughing and wanting to be like the sunshine while my mother fought the darkness and I fought with her to be less sad, less clinging, less scared of the world around her.
I was never big enough to take the knife out of my mother’s hands all those years ago, but I became a master at taking the knife out of Alexis’ hands until one day in her mid-twenties when I told her I couldn’t do it anymore.
I was exhausted and had run out of things to say.
That was the day I quit enabling her, quit propping her up and talking her out of every dark corner she’d disappeared into.
That was the day she saved her own life.
C.C. and I were visiting in Vancouver. Something had triggered her despair and in her anger, she informed me she didn’t want to live anymore. I asked her if she had a plan to take her own life and she informed me she was going to the emergency room and checking herself in.
“That sounds like a good plan” I replied and let her walk out the door.
It was just after midnight and I could not go running after her anymore. I had to trust the Universe. I had to believe that whatever happened next, I was not powerful enough to fix this. I had to accept, I love my daughter. It was time for her to learn to love herself.
On the other side of the door, at the end of the sidewalk, my daughter tells the story of sitting down on the curb and calling the Distress Centre. A kind, caring voice answered the line. In that stranger’s deep listening, Alexis let go of the rope she was hanging herself with and began the journey of learning to live without ED consuming her.
It has not been a straight line through recovery. It has not been a one step after the other. There have been many detours back to the darkness, many steps forward when I thought I could grab her out of ED’s arms.
My daughter has taught me a great deal about courage. She’s taught me alot about learning to trust, about being willing to let go of my belief I have to fix it, I have to hold it all together. I still struggle with letting it go. Still sometimes fall into the trap of believing I have the power to make my daughter love herself more than ED or the darkness consuming her.
Like Alexis, I am learning to reach out, to not hold myself in silence’s killing embrace.
I am grateful for a stranger who listened deeply to Alexis one night years ago. Because of her, I am learning to walk my path without fearing I won’t have the answers that will save Alexis’ life. Because of her, I know, there is someone on the end of the line who my daughter can reach out to when the darkness becomes too great. All she has to do is call.
This is Eating Disorder Week. Please, if you are living with an ED, reach out, seek help. If you are living with a loved one with an ED, know, you are not alone. Distress Centre Crisis Line: 403.266.HELP (4357)
I shall be writing more about ED from my perspective this week. It is healing and it is freeing because in writing it out, I find myself not alone with just my thoughts.
Alexis’ blog post today is HERE.