“Mom, you don’t know everything. You aren’t perfect, you know.”
If I only had a matching pair of socks for every time I’ve heard that from my kids over the years, imagine the time I’d save getting ready in the morning. As much as I am usually tempted to argue their point, truth be told, those words hit pretty close to home.
October 20, 2016 was the day I finally admitted my decade long secret to someone other than myself, my husband, and my new treatment team. I was a nervous wreck. The heart pounding, sweat inducing, “I can’t do this” kind of nervous. The admission was to my two boys who were 12 and 15 at the time.
My therapist, Kirsten, encouraged me to be forthcoming with my kids, reminding me that I had an illness — not a major character flaw. I wasn’t yet convinced of that, so I was especially skeptical that two teenagers would buy into the theory. Not to mention the fact that I’d worked hard over the years to ensure that my kids felt loved, safe, and happy; I was worried that if they knew I had been suffering from a life-threatening illness, safe and happy were going to fly right out the window.
As we sat there in Kirsten’s office, my youngest son Brennan sat close to me on the couch as if he could sense something big was coming, while my oldest, Dylan, sat in the chair across from me with the kind of glare only a teenager can emit. Apparently, this therapy session was cutting into his “hang out” time.
“So, you guys,” I began, still not certain the “A” word was going to make it out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe I was about to admit to them that their words rang true: I didn’t know everything, and I was far from perfect. “I wanted to let you know that I am going into treatment for an eating disorder, specifically, anorexia nervosa.”
They stared at me in stunned silence, Brennan’s head dropping onto my shoulder while Dylan’s arms crossed over his chest. Just saying the words out loud caused relief to wash over my body like warm rain water, allowing my muscles to relax. The secret I had been trying to shield from them for over a decade was out.
“What?” Dylan shouted, breaking the silence. “Mom, you cannot have anorexia! That is a teenage girl thing. How could you let this happen?” The intensity in his voice caught me off guard and even made Kirsten flinch a bit. His words cut right to the core of what I myself thought about my situation. How could I, Ms. “Got To Have It All Together,” let this happen?
I could have easily kept my anorexia and the pending recovery process under wraps from my kids, and continued to go on pretending that I had life under control. They were at the age where their friends, Twitter, and texting kept them too preoccupied to realize I had a life outside of packing lunches and soccer carpools, so perhaps my increased absences (I was going into treatment in an outpatient setting) might have gone unnoticed. But I didn’t sit in silence. I took a chance, went against my instincts, and chose to disclose my struggles and my need for professional help.
As a parent, it has been my natural instinct to protect my kids from the harsher realities of life, keeping the challenges of marriage, parenting and finances hidden away from their Nike-clad world so they could focus on their job of being, well, kids. But I realized when it came to hiding my fight with anorexia, I wasn’t protecting them much at all. I understand now that Dylan’s outburst in Kirsten’s office that day did not come from anger; it came from a pent-up release of fear. For years he suspected something was wrong with his mom. My frail frame, demanding exercise regimen, and preoccupation with food did not go unnoticed, despite my attempts to appear perfectly fine. Kids have an uncanny way of detecting parental hogwash, and like a metal detector on a crowded beach, my kids sensed mine. Who was I kidding?
It has been a bumpy, hard road to recovery for all of us, but ultimately, outing myself to my kids has made me a better parent. Through my recovery, they have had the opportunity to witness firsthand that life can be hard in unexpected ways, challenges will arise, and when they do, there is no shame in asking for help.
I am now gratefully recovered from my illness and find myself in the thick of parenting my boys through their tumultuous teenage years, when appearance, performance and pressure is at the forefront of their reality. A time when social media has kids believing that life is easy for some, full of exotic vacations, must-see concerts, and football trophies, leaving others feeling confused and shameful as they grapple with their complicated teenage angst. Sharing my own experience with my kids has allowed me to give them a different perspective, a reality check, and a softer place for them to land.
I’m grateful I took the risk, and set aside my belief that to be a good parent, I had to know everything. My hope is, through this journey, my kids have learned that no one is perfect and that is perfectly okay.