Refeeding My Anorexic Child

Helping a loved one get well when they’re ill usually involves doing what you can to help them relieve their discomfort and fight to overcome their illness. You’re working together. This isn’t the case with mental illness. For a teenager with an eating disorder like Julia, wellness and relief from pain were not her endgame when she was in crisis, nor we were in it together. It was so complicated and counterintuitive as a parent and caregiver. I couldn’t understand why anyone would feel compelled to harm themselves. But mental illness sends a different message to the afflicted. It makes everyday living full of conflict. Anorexia, experts say, is the worst of all of them with its high mortality rate and long-term physical damage.

For Julia, the conflict in her mind was slowly building during 7th grade and became a crisis when she started 8th grade. Suddenly, she was terrified of the foods she ate her whole life. How do you get someone to eat when they’re being told by a disease that it’s better off to die than to survive? The bottom line for eating disorders is that the mind will continue its disordered thinking if the body isn’t fueled properly. For caregivers of an adolescent with an eating disorder, the mission is to reverse this problem as quickly as possible. For us, that meant getting Julia to eat at a level that would get her weight restored to her normal growth curve and then a little more on top of that so the mind could function rationally.

There’s an approach called The Maudsley Method that we learned at her first intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP). It’s also referred to as Family-based Treatment (FBT) and involves the family taking complete control of the teen’s eating until they can do it for themselves. It required our full supervision of Julia’s eating, a schedule of three meals and three snacks daily that we prepared and served, and a higher calorie and larger portions diet, all with a sense of urgency to reach weight restoration.

But how were we to accomplish this? Well, it certainly wasn’t easy. I still hesitate to reveal what I had to do since so much of it had to be very underhanded to outsmart the disease. Sorry, Julia. I read about what other caregivers were doing with 2000 calorie milkshakes full of heavy whipping cream and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Knowing Julia, I went with another approach. I worked with what I knew had calories that wouldn’t change the taste and texture of foods Julia was eating: ground walnuts and almonds, ground coconut, unsalted butter, coconut oil, egg yolks, full-fat yogurt, ground flaxseed, and nutritional drinks such as Boost Plus and Ensure Plus. At the same time, I had to stealthily switch the fat-free products she grew to depend on to full fat. I learned to operate quickly and quietly around her and always with an air of confidence. It felt like the eating disorder was watching me to see if there was any hesitation or missteps. By the way, Julia gets her craftiness (definition: skilled in or marked by underhandedness, deviousness, or deception) from me, so while I was on edge all the time, I also knew how and where to hide things around the kitchen and how to have a quick answer for her concerns and resistance.

We got through somehow and are now able to tell the story here on Nourish. My message to all of you reading this is to step up to the challenge of caring for a loved one through a difficult time. Do it quickly and with kindness and vigilance. Our experience changed both of our lives for the better. I’ll finish with a saying that sums up this post: “You can do the impossible because you have been through the unimaginable.”

– Katherine

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Nourish is all about wholesome food preparation for those with disordered eating. Our mission is to provide delicious recipes anyone can make at home, along with education and support for individuals recovering from eating disorders and their caregivers.

26 thoughts on “Refeeding My Anorexic Child

    1. Katherine,
      I want to thank you for your candidness about this horrible disorder! Our daughter was diagnosed 2 years ago at the age of 13. Our story is very similar to Julia’s. Every day is a struggle, but we’ve made feeding our daughter our top priority. She’s come so far, but the end is no where in sight. I’m so thankful for Julia’s story on NEDA! She has been a beacon of hope for us. To hear your stories as well provides reassurance that we’re doing the right thing. Thank you from the bottom of my heart! Anorexia isn’t just isolating for the patient. It’s isolating for the family too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Keep doing what you’re doing and an end will be in sight. The grind is brutal and you’ll be able to look back someday and thank yourself for not giving up, for trying when it seemed impossible, and for fighting for your precious daughter. She’s in there and needs food and time to come back.

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    1. Eating disorders are so brutal and food truly becomes medicine. I’m glad it worked for us and that we can pass along our experience. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Boy, this brings back a lot of memories! I feel so fortunate for everything you’ve done to help me get to where I am today, Mom. (And for not making me eat 1000s of calories of HWC!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HWC, that’s so foreign to me. I’m glad it worked too. It was scary and we somehow got through it. I love eating along side of you these days.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. There is lots of debate about the right and wrong way to refeed a person with an eating disorder. You’re right that you have to do it in the way that might work for the person you love. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aw I’m so glad you helped Julia! Eating disorders are definitely tough; I totally understand because loving your body can be really hard. Sometimes you just feel like not eating is the answer, but we must ~nourish~ ourselves. Wishing you the best 🙂

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  3. Dear Katherine reading your wise words and somehow, as much as I can, sharing your pains, which luckily almost are history, I feel deeply touched by your sufferings and so close to you, somehow ashamed, that I didn’t comfort you than, not being able imaging, how horrible crisis and fears you all had to stand. I am deeply sorry and proud, how you managed to reach so incredible good results, such a close  and deep contact and mutual love and respect. It is beautiful weather in Berlin. Certainly in Connecticut too, celebration day. Much love to all of you Your cousin

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  4. Katherine, thanks for helping us understand this process. Those days must have been so hard – you finding ways to sneak in extra calories, and Julia being on the lookout to detect them. I’m sure you were both really good at your roles so it must have been exhausting. I know it’s a lifetime struggle – I wish you both all the best in overcoming this disease.

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    1. Thank you. Parenting can be so unpredictable and we have to keep trying no matter what. We’re all in this together.

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