Julia was only thirteen when she was diagnosed with anorexia, depression, and anxiety: the trifecta of mental illness, as I called it. I spent far too much time trying to figure out how and why it happened; after all, I was the stay-at-home mother by choice and with all that daily love and experience I was giving my children, I should have seen the signs and intervened. But more often than not, parents aren’t to blame for mental illness, as was the case for my wife Susan and me.
Mental illness is a result of biological, psychological, and social factors, and if they collide in a certain way, illness strikes. Julia was a sweet and quirky kid who had some issues with food, could behave impulsively, was an overachiever, and grew up in a home and society where the bar was set high, none of which was out of bounds for what to expect of kids. When the crisis hit, it hit hard and fast and turned our lives upside down. One day, Julia was off to start eighth grade, the next day, she was refusing to eat at home, and the third day, a crisis unit was called in to her middle school. From that moment on, Susan and I were mostly on our own to navigate the hell of Julia’s mental illness. She was ours to save if we could just figure out how.
From the start, we took all the obvious actions to improve our odds of helping Julia, including educating ourselves on anorexia, finding and getting her into quality programs with established clinicians, trying many medications to ease her discomfort, and fighting for our rights with our school district and health insurance. Then came the really hard part; we had to change our expectations and ways of thinking and behaving and take action with a strength we’d never tapped into before. Anorexia, we quickly learned, is a tricky illness, so we knew we had to be united to effectively fight it.
We committed to unconditional love and determination against grim odds: only 20% of those with anorexia experience full recovery whereas 20% will take their lives. We found little bits of hope to latch onto along the way, one of which was a book titled The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz that we were required to read for one of Julia’s programs. The basic tips imparted of awareness, forgiveness, and action helped us get over ourselves so we could help Julia. In order to save her, we had to let go of our insecurities and failures and accept our situation. Whenever we lost hope, we reminded ourselves of the four agreements:
Number One: Be impeccable with your word.
Basically, say only what you mean and mean only what you say. To us, that meant choosing our words of support and encouragement with Julia very carefully, and if we didn’t have anything helpful to say, saying nothing at all.
Number Two: Don’t take anything personally.
We couldn’t let the brutality of the disordered thoughts that were dictating Julia’s actions at the time impact us. She was often out of her mind, and if we let her words influence us at all, we’d fall prey to her illness.
Number Three: Don’t make assumptions.
It was so easy to think that we knew what was going on when in reality, that’s not the case with mental illness. We had to listen and act without judgment or we’d be doomed.
Number Four: Always do your best.
The conditions around us were challenging and constantly changing so our best was a moment-to-moment experience. That was all we could ask of ourselves.
Julia beat the grim odds and is now in solid recovery after seven years of battling anorexia. As parents, Susan and I played a huge role in helping her find her way there. In our experience, this involved learning how to be patient, loving, vigilant, and determined. We were tested not only to reveal our weaknesses but to discover our strengths.