Wednesday 11 March 2015

For parents, life doesn't just ping back to 'normal'

At the end of this very excellent article about how relatives, neighbours, teachers and friends can assist and support parents as they battle to get their child through an eating disorder, Jennifer Denise Ouellette (a member of the Parent Advisory Committee at the renowned UCSD Eating Disorders Center) says: "...this is not a case of just waiting for everything to return to 'normal.' Our lives will never be the same again and it helps us to embrace that. In the best cases our children will fully recover and we, and our families, will still be fundamentally changed by the terrifying experience of seeing our child slip away and having to pull him/her back to us inch-by-excruciating inch." Too true, but all too often ignored by relatives, neighbours, friends, etc.

I know I am not alone in struggling to get my own mental health back on track after my mind was battered and bruised as a result of years of battling to get my son, Ben, through anorexia. It is now 6 years since his symptoms first began to emerge (in 2009). I can't place an exact date on his recovery as it was a very gradual process; there are still some issues that need sorting out, but I feel confident they will iron themselves out naturally over time, which is reassuring.

Around 18 months ago (as you'll know if you've been following this blog), I started to experience symptoms which were eventually diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) - or, more accurately, Complex PTSD because the disorder is a result of prolonged exposure to trauma. Over the past 9 months or so I've undergone CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in an attempt to get my head back to 'normal'.

I know I am not alone and that many parents experience post-eating-disorder trauma of their own plus a range of other illnesses. All of us struggle because our lives, in the months and years following our child's recovery from the eating disorder, simply haven't returned to 'normal'.

Sure, I suspect that most of the people around us think that now our child is moving on with their lives, we are OK. We should be, after all. Our child is getting on just fine (much of the time) and we're back at work or whatever. We're out there again, at the gym, socialising, working... To all intents and purposes we can all put this unpleasant episode behind us.

The problem is that we can't.

However, like many of these 'unseen' illnesses, no-one except our therapists (if we are fortunate enough to have one) and anyone else we may have opened up to is aware of this.

We behave normally; we do things that other people do. Yet, inside, we know that it's just a very excellent act.

Part of the learning curve of the eating disorders experience as a parent is learning how to be the World's Best Actor, with a performance worthy of an Oscar. At the time, many outsiders never even knew that our child was sick (unless they were unlucky enough to be present when she / he was throwing a wobbly in a cafe, restaurant, at school or whatever). We, as parents, just pretended to carry on with life as if nothing was happening in our homes. God only knows how we did this, but we did.

One of the reasons we acted like this was because of the misconception that parents 'cause' eating disorders. We, naturally, didn't want people to point the finger at us, adding to the burden we had to bear. And also the 'shame' that's still wrongly attached to mental illness. Plus the sheer lack of understanding or knowledge about eating disorders in the wider world. Are you familiar with the blank look you get when you attempt to 'educate' outsiders about the complexities of eating disorders?!

So we parents are still acting, still pretending that everything is OK. Our children are well and so are we. Life is back to normal. Phew.

Sorry, but for many of us it's not.

And because of the reluctance to talk about mental health issues and the natural inclination to brush everything under the carpet once a family is 'back to normal', we suffer in silence and isolation.

Apart from those wonderful people that 'get' this - primarily other parents that are going through exactly the same experience, for exactly the same reasons.

And to them I am grateful. You know who you are!

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