The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Q & A with Harriet Brown: Part II

This blog is the second of a 3-part blog series featuring Harriet Brown, author of the upcoming book, Brave Girl Eating: One Family’s Struggle With Anorexia.   If you missed it, you can go back and read Part I in which Harriet shared about her family’s initial discovery of her daughter’s anorexia and where their journey to recovery began. Today in Part II, we resume our conversation with her about that journey to help her daughter recover, how it affected their family, and what she has learned from it.

Harriet Brown will be speaking at a free community event in Towson, MD on August 25, 2010 – click here for details.

Q & A with Harriet Brown: Part II

You describe your daughter’s recovery as a “slow, painful, infinitely courageous climb back up to health and hope.”  Can you share some of the most important steps your family took along this difficult journey?

HB: The most important step in the journey came when we decided to use family-based treatment and, essentially, empowered ourselves to help her recover. Until then we’d been more or less sidelined; we felt helpless and we didn’t know what to do. We wanted the doctors to tell us what to do and how to cure our daughter. It quickly became apparent that they weren’t going to do that, that they didn’t seem to know much more than we did in certain ways.

When we took on the FBT, we took on both the responsibility and the power to intervene. That was a tremendously liberating step. The worst part of my daughter’s illness for me was standing by helplessly, watching her suffer and starve. The notion that my husband and I could help her required a huge mental paradigm shift—but once we made it, we were much more effective.

Externalizing the disease makes it easier to stay calm, not engage with the eating disorder, and not get angry at what often feels like oppositionality. It helps you understand, as a parent, that your child is essentially being held hostage by an illness, not acting out or being stubborn. It’s very, very helpful.

Another important step was learning to externalize the disease. Anorexia is insidious; it speaks with your child’s voice and looks out of her eyes. It’s natural to think that it’s your child refusing to eat, resisting, raging, or whatever the behaviors are. We made a conscious effort to think of the illness as something separate from our daughter, and that let us see the glimpses of the real her under the savage face of the disease. I characterize the disease as the demon in the book—it’s not that I thought she was literally satanically possessed. Rather it was my metaphor for the way the illness took over her thinking and behavior.

As parents, how did you and your husband manage to take care of yourselves and other aspects of the family while putting the necessary time and energy into supporting your daughter’s recovery?

HB: Well, I don’t think we managed this very well! We made our daughter’s recovery our top priority in the family for many many months. We more or less gave up having a social life, because most social events revolve around eating, and it was a long time before we could eat in public comfortably. We cared for our younger daughter, which mostly consisted of getting her out of the house sometimes so she didn’t have to deal with all the chaos and noise and angst. I went to work sometimes and worked at home sometimes, thanks to a very supportive boss; my husband is a freelancer, so he was home a lot. Other than that we did very little that wasn’t related to re-feeding and recovery. We became very single-minded. And honestly, I think that’s what we needed to do. When you’re engaged in such a full-on onslaught, such an encompassing, overwhelming effort, you have to focus on that as much as possible. In fact that’s advice I would offer families: Don’t think you have to keep up a normal social life during this time. Take care of recovery first, and if you want to fit in other things and they nurture you, great. But don’t feel like you have to. Most families find this process pretty absorbing.

What is the most important thing you learned in the process of parenting and caring for someone with an eating disorder?

HB: I learned the power of love. I know that sounds corny, but the truth is that no one loves your child the way you do. And no one, therefore, has the power you do, the utter commitment, the doggedness, the resilience, to see her through the hell of an eating disorder. And you need every ounce of those qualities as a parent, because this is the most grueling experience your family will likely go through.

We would like to express continued thanks to Harriet Brown for taking the time to address these questions and share her insight and experience with our readers.  Be sure to check back for the third and final Q & A post with Harriet next week.

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