Three Thursdays ago, I lied to my 5-year-old daughter about seeing a therapist for the last time. She was getting ready for bed, pulling her zebra-print nightgown over her head, when she asked why Daddy would be reading her a story that night — a hiccup in our usual routine.
“I have to go to the store,” I answered. I rested my gaze on a point on the wall somewhere above her head. It makes no difference that she’s a kindergartner who believes her legs will one day morph into fins when the Great Mermaid Goddess up in the sky deems her worthy of discovering her true calling in life. When you lie to your child, you feel their little eyes burning truth rays through your skin.
“But it’s night out, Mom,” she said. “What do you need to get? Can I come? Why can’t you go tomorrow?”
All valid questions — all questions I couldn’t answer because I wasn’t, of course, headed to Walmart to stock up on cans of tuna. I was going to see my therapist, just as I had been doing (on and off) since age 21 to prevent my head from commanding my body to lose weight just for the sport of it. As World Mental Health Day loomed in the distance, serving as the critical reminder we need to approach mental health issues without shame, I began to wonder whether I wasn’t doing my daughter a huge disservice not owning my problems completely by being completely honest with her.
That night though, I muttered something senseless to my daughter and rushed out the door, feeling a weight grow heavy in my stomach. I knew it was only a matter of time before she would no longer accept my lies, but having children doesn’t automatically mean you become comfortable enough with your own truth to share it.
I developed an eating disorder when I was 12. At the time, my parents were deciding if they liked each other enough to stick it out, and I was beginning to equate power with toying with my body and subtracting calories from my daily diet. Losing weight was easy for me, and judging by the many TV commercials for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Suzanne Somers workout videos, I quickly learned this wasn’t the case for everyone. I had zero control over anything in my life with the exception of molding my own pubescent body into whatever shape and form I chose. Since this was in the ‘90s, an era when Kate Moss and heroin chic were the stars of my imaginary mood board, their sinewy bodies, absent of most signs of womanly sexual development, were my ultimate goal.
Fast-forward 20 years. My daughter is just seven years younger than I was when I got hip to the “tricks” that those who suffer from EDs have committed to memory. Eat cereal in a cup, never a bowl. Drink lots of water every hour to fill up your stomach. Peppermint helps control your appetite. Before flushing food down the toilet, be sure to smear some of it on a plate so your parents will think you’ve eaten.
There’s a bottomless magician’s hat of tricks. They take up space in your head where great works of literature, political facts and all of your observations about nature and humankind should reside. And it sickens me to think my kindergartner, who lives for gymnastics, soccer and the color purple, could one day be robbed of both the joy and of the sadness that real life offers because of a preoccupation with body image. Living within the shell of an eating disorder is like starring in your own version of Memento. It can take years to learn how to begin living outside your head again, and it’s so easy to forget. It’s a lesson you repeatedly have to learn each morning when you wake up.
I’ve remained the same healthy weight for 15 years now, but for me, therapy is a non-negotiable part of life. It’s one of the tools I need to explore those parts of my head that continue to think starving is success. Starving is my personal survival technique when confronting my own mortality and the enormity of a universe I don’t understand. Therapy is a lifeline to the rational world. Most important, now that I’m a mom with two little ones, it’s added insurance that I won’t pass my eating disorder on to my daughter — or son.
Between the last Thursday I lied to my daughter and the first Thursday I showed her that piece of myself I prefer to squirrel away, I thought a lot about what it means to hide your mental illness from your kids. I imagined her growing up and feeling anxious, depressed or empowered when she skipped meals, and then feeling alone and like there was no outlet to which she could turn. I could change that with just a few honest words. I could begin to show her that treating your mental wounds and preventing new ones is like going to the doctor when you’re sick; it’s like taking a daily Frozen multivitamin.
“Are you going to the store again?” she asked after dinner the following Thursday.
“No,” I said and looked straight into her dark blue eyes. “I’m going to therapy.”
“Physical therapy?” (Thanks, Doc McStuffins).
I explained how therapy was a place where you could talk to someone about things that make you sad, angry and even so happy you don’t have words for them. “You can just call it therapy.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh. Is it fun? It sounds fun.”
I want to tell her that, actually, it’s the worst — the absolute worst. It can make you question your intentions and the motivations of those around you. There are nights when it leaves me kicking and screaming in my head and wanting so badly to hold colored veils over the people I thought I knew and the person I assumed I was. I want to explain how unfair but liberating it is to realize those veils have suddenly vanished and can never return.
But she’s 5, and for now, I simply say, “Yes. It can be fun to learn about yourself.”
This is how we start talking about ourselves to our kids and teaching them to accept themselves. It doesn’t require lengthy, meaningful confessions and platitudes about life while sitting around the kitchen table over cups of chamomile tea. It just takes self-acceptance and honesty on a Thursday evening. Little by little, I’ll teach my daughter everything about my eating disorder in the hopes that she will one day do everything in her power to choose a different path.