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When Mom Has an Eating Disorder, Everybody Suffers
Teresa Coates, a 40-year-old mom and solo parent of two, was anorexic in high school. She survived on 3 Musketeers bars and not much else. After high school she continued her bizarre eating habits until one day she went into convulsions at work and was rushed to the hospital. The emergency room doctor told her if she ever wanted to have children, which she did, she would have to start eating.
Coates' daughter recently turned 13 and she worries about her. A lot. "I worry genetically about my daughter because I come from a family of very heavy women. And that was a concern when she came home from the hospital. I remember being worried about that. It's a hard thing to know you're genetically predisposed to not be thin."
She does feel, however, that her daughter is off to a much better start than she was at her age. "I came from a real working-class family. We didn't eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and the vegetables we ate came from cans. My take on healthy food wasn't really there. I've been cognizant trying to teach both my kids how to tell if food is good for you. They both read labels, a lot. They eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. They're very aware that you need to drink water."
But that doesn't mean it's easy.
"It's a constant battle in my head," Coates says. "I think about [food and eating all the time." She still resorts to mind games, vestiges from her anorexic days, like "chewing food and spitting it out, so you can taste it but not eat it," she says. "I still do stuff like that that I get really frustrated with and I don't know how to stop."
She says she's able to hide that from her daughter as well as other unhealthy food-related behaviors. "I've tried really hard not to pass on the weird eating things," she says. "Those are easy to hide."
Not so, say the experts.
"Kids are seeing various behaviors in moms [with eating disorders] and absolutely they pick it up," says Brooke Hailey, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director at New Directions Eating Disorders Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "I hear from kids who are older and come in for treatment: 'My mom never ate dinner with the family;' 'My mom would always eat a special meal and cook separately for herself;' 'My mom never eats carbohydrates, why do I have to?' They're much more influenced by what they've seen their mom do than by what they hear their mom say they should do."
Coates is in the eye of the storm in terms of her parenting with an eating disorder. Every day she struggles, wondering if and how she is going to get over her own eating issues. She doesn't want her daughter to suffer the same disordered eating and negative body-image issues like she did and, unfortunately, still does.
Tsilah Burman, a 52-year-old mother of two, found her escape hatch two years ago. After dealing with food and weight issues for almost her entire life (her doctor put her on a diet at age 11), she finally found relief in a program called Heal Your Hunger. She learned that food was just the symptom and worked through her real issues. After that, the weight came off effortlessly -- 70 pounds so far. And with that, of course, the protective layers that concealed the painful truths she tried for so long to ignore. Six months ago she separated from her husband of 23 years.
"I realized [the marriage] wasn't right, and it wasn't right from the beginning but I had made myself believe that it was. I saw that I was eating because I was angry, or tired or was in a situation I wasn't comfortable in so to hide that I would eat. My kids saw that as they grew up. I wish that I would have found and started this recovery process before I had kids so that they would grow up in an environment with a mom that was healthy around eating and [I'd be] a role model for that."
As her daughter embarks on her teen years, Coates knows it's going to become harder to shield her from disordered eating and body-image distortion: "It's not just the anorexia, it's not just the not eating, it's the whole self-hatred that comes along with that scares me more than anything."
Although at different stages of parenting and recovery, both Coates and Burman have experienced tremendous fear, shame and isolation. Yes, Burman recently found relief, but she suffered for many years in silence.
"Mothers with eating disorders would be shocked if they knew how many other mothers there are with eating disorders," says Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist in Illinois. "So many parents with eating disorders are so secretive about it because they think they are the only ones with these eating disorders. And they are not! There are many, many, many, many! They feel isolated and alone. They need to find each other."
Natenshon, who has been working with people with all sorts of eating disorders for more than 40 years, shares her wisdom and experience on her website, Empowered Parents, a treasure trove of resources on all things eating disorder-related.
She cites this statistic on her site: "By age 5, kids of parents with eating disorders demonstrate a greater incidence of eating disturbances, whining and depression." Some moms aren't interested in seeking recovery for whatever reason, until they realize the severe damage they are inflicting on their children. That's often all the motivation they need to seek help.
If there's one thing she wants to make clear, it's that eating disorders are curable. "Most people don't know that eating disorders are 100 percent curable. But they're curable in 80 percent of the cases," says Natenshon. "People think eating disorders are an addiction and like all addictions it never fully gets cured. That's not the case. An eating disorder is not an addiction. Aspects of it behave like an addiction, but it's not an addiction. And it's curable."
Correction, Nov.15, 2010: The original version of this article left off the quote, "But they're curable in 80 percent of the cases." The quote has since been included.
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