In 2010, Harriet Brown visited The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore to speak about her [then] new book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle With Anorexia. Below is the third of her 3-part blog series with us, in which Harriet discussed some of the most important things she’s learned as a parent of an adolescent with an eating disorder.
After finding out about her family’s introduction to anorexia nervosa in Part I and delving into the labor of her daughter’s struggle and recovery in Part II, we asked Harriet to reflect on the lessons she has learned that would be helpful to share with other parents and families. Her very honest and informative answers are below. You can learn more about Harriet and her book on her website, www.harrietbrown.com.
Q & A with Harriet Brown: Part III
What would you tell other parents who are in a similar situation and looking for support and hope?
HB: I’d tell them four things:
• Full recovery is possible. Many professionals will tell you that once you have an eating disorder, you’ll always have it. That it’s like alcoholism, something you can learn to manage, something you’ll “be in recovery from” for the rest of your life. The evidence suggests that especially for adolescents who are sick for less than three years, full recovery is absolutely possible. Don’t settle for anything less.
• You have more power than you realize. I get emails and phone calls from many parents who say that FBT [Family-Based Treatment] would never work for their family because their child is too stubborn, too entrenched, too defiant, too fill-in-the-blank. FBT doesn’t work for every family, it’s true. But the studies done on it so far show that it works in about 90% of families. That’s the vast majority. I think families often count themselves out, in a way; they think they can’t do it, and then they can’t. The most important piece of helping a child recover using FBT is believing that it will work. Because it usually does.
• Faster is better. Studies show that time is of the essence; the less time a child or teen spends being acutely ill, the better her chance for full recovery. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by waiting and seeing. You’d never hear an oncologist suggest that a Stage 1 tumor be “watched” rather than treated, yet people say that about eating disorders all the time. Once someone has been acutely ill for 5 or 15 years, her chance of full recovery is greatly diminished. At some point people become chronically ill, and no treatments help. It’s crucial to turn the eating disorder around before that happens.
• You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, you shouldn’t—it’s way too hard and stressful. When we went through this, there were very few therapists trained in FBT. There still aren’t enough, but thanks to Drs. Daniel le Grange and James Lock, who started a training institute to certify FBT providers, the numbers are growing. We also relied on the help of friends and neighbors. Many families don’t want to tell anyone what they’re going through; they feel ashamed, responsible, embarrassed. But secrecy and isolation make recovery that much harder. So look for support. Several other moms and I started a website of resources for parents, Maudsley Parents (www.maudsleyparents.org), which offers information on treatment, recipes, stories about how other families have managed, and links to a lot of useful information.
Who could benefit from reading your book, Brave Girl Eating ?
HB: First and foremost, families who have a child with an eating disorder. Our story is about anorexia, but FBT has been very successful with bulimia as well. Second, friends and relatives of those families, because if they really understand the nature of the illness and what families have to go through to make it, they will have a better sense of how to support and nurture those families. Third, professionals who diagnose and treat eating disorders—pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nutritionists, social workers, dietitians. Many of them have still never heard of FBT. I would love for them to become aware of FBT and be able to refer families to it and, maybe, to get trained in doing it themselves. Fourth, sports coaches and dance teachers, especially in the activities where eating disorders abound: ballet, figure skating, gymnastics, track, cross-country, cycling, as well as wrestling and ski jumping. I recently read a tragic story about a 16-year-old track star who died from anorexia while training. Her high school coach was quoted in the article as saying that in his 30 years of coaching he’d never encountered an athlete with anorexia before. I wanted to say, Really? Even those who are perfectly aware of eating disorders don’t know much about them and don’t know how to support and help their athletes.
Finally, I hope the general public will read this book, too. The more people who truly understand the essential nature of eating disorders, the more our dialogue around EDs will evolve. The more awareness, the faster people can get help, and the fewer people who will become chronically ill.
Many thanks to Harriet Brown for answering our questions and providing hope to other families struggling with an eating disorder.
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