Our experience with bulimia

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series offering an inside look into bulimia. This part was written by the father and stepmother of the author of “A thirty-something’s battle with bulimia.” The family’s names have been changed.

The thing I remember most about that time was Jessica’s anger. Long before I realized she was bulimic, her rage was remarkable.

Keep in mind that there are so many very wonderful aspects to Jessica’s personality and character. Perhaps the most obvious one as a child was her sense of justice. Jessica was always quite small and, even though she was always taught to be kind, I never was more proud of her than the time I discovered she had punched a huge boy at her elementary school because he was bullying a friend of hers.

She has always been very determined, and self-motivated. And she is a wonderful writer, all of which is to say that, where bulimia is concerned, bad things do indeed happen to good people.

When Jessica was 8, her mom and I divorced. I know the divorce was a traumatic event in her life but at the time, I didn’t see any obvious manifestations of it. Again, all I can recall about this period of time is that she had a bad temper.

When Jessica was 14, she came to live with her stepmom, Sheryl, and me. Sheryl had become pregnant. When Jessica moved in, she seemed to be excited about the idea of having a little sister. But a comment she made later about her being sorry to upset our “little family” — meaning me, Sheryl and the new baby – made me think she felt alienated. It could have just been her striking out, looking for something hurtful to say, but the comment was made, nonetheless. I know now that bulimia is about control and I feel certain that her living arrangements were a part of her life that frustrated Jessica and that she felt helpless to do anything about.

She seemed to be happy at her new school. She found friends and became a cheerleader. She always made good grades, and we would remark to one another about how much self-discipline she had about her schoolwork. We never had to ask her if she’d done her schoolwork, she just did it – right after dinner, secluded in her upstairs bedroom.

During this time, Sheryl told me that Jessica was becoming angrier and angrier. I guess I didn’t believe it was anything more than teenage angst, until I saw firsthand some of her angry episodes. When Sheryl suggested getting her some counseling, I finally sat down and talked to Jessica. She told me she hated everyone and could not stand to have anyone touch her. She said she knew she needed help and that “it can’t go on like this.”

The psychiatrist we took her to prescribed an antidepressant. Unfortunately, Jessica wouldn’t take it on a regular basis. The therapist said this was typical for teenagers. He told us that she was depressed and that in teenagers, one of the major symptoms of depression is anger.

Eventually Jessica graduated from high school. We had apparently weathered the storm and thought things were pretty good.

Jessica was very bright and had no problem getting accepted to a college seven hours away from where we lived. Like most kids, she thought she wanted to get as far away from home as possible. In school, she was, of course, about as far away from Dallas as she could get and still be in a state-supported university.

She seemed to do well at college. Phone calls and visits home revealed nothing out of the ordinary. She joined a sorority, got a job and made excellent grades. Then, during her sophomore year, things started to fall apart. She called me in tears one time and told me that everything was disintegrating. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but it seemed obvious to me that she was screaming out for help. I told her to pack her bags and come home so we could get her the intense help she needed.

Jessica sat out for a semester. She got the care she needed on an in-patient basis with continuing counseling after she was discharged. During this time I accompanied her to a visit with her counselor. At the time, Jessica’s physical build was normal, if not a bit on the thin side. I was astonished to hear that she thought she was too fat and needed to lose some weight. The counselor told me that that was an indication of her distorted sense of herself.

In retrospect, we should have gotten Jessica help sooner for her anger. I also trace a lot of the problems back to the divorce. Regardless of how resilient they appear on the outside, I think all children need professional guidance to get them through such a traumatic experience.

Today, Jessica is married to a loving husband. They have children. Her problems with bulimia seem to be far behind, but I suspect she still, to some small degree, silently fights the battle.

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