By Doris Smeltzer
A few weeks ago, my husband Tom and I sat in the well-appointed living room of a family we had met face-to-face just a few moments before. We agreed to this meeting so that we could talk about what we had learned during the very short duration of our 19-year-old daughter Andrea’s struggle with bulimia. Her 13-month battle tragically ended in her death, but through this tragedy we have gained knowledge that we feel compelled to share with others. Our hope is that families may learn from our experience so that their children may live.
As we sat with this family and watched them grapple with the reality of their own daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder, we recognized our prior-to-Andrea’s-death selves in their words: "We have been careful to honor our daughter’s desire for privacy…we’ve told no one of her illness."
Tom and I glanced at each other and smiled. We, too, had honored Andrea’s request that we not speak to others about the bulimia. We now realize that this is a request made by the eating disorder: it thrives in secrecy and silence.
When I look at this request with my newly focused eyes, I see it as if through a multi-faceted prism. One side of the prism contains our desire to do as our child requested. Yet, this isolated us at precisely the moment when we needed as much support and information as possible. If my daughter had been diagnosed with cancer I would have talked to everyone I knew in the hope of learning from someone else’s experience.
I know that if I am completely honest, I must admit to another side to this desire to remain silent: the shame I felt in having a daughter who would “choose” the behavior of bulimia…how could she do such a thing? The guilt I felt in wondering what I might have done to cause this behavior in her: How would others judge me as a mother?
Yet another side to the acquiescence with our child’s request for silence is the fear of the anger and even rage that may be directed at us for our plan to “share the secret.”
Today, I feel no shame about my daughter’s illness. She did not choose bulimia—it is an illness that invaded her body and mind because of many complicated factors—it was not her fault. Today, I feel no guilt. Yes, I made mistakes as a mother, but I did the very best I could with what I knew at the time. Today, I would be able to withstand whatever anger or rage was directed at me, knowing that the eating disorder was the one railing at me, not Andrea.
As we sat sharing these thoughts with this desperate family and their suffering child, I recognized their hesitation to believe that good could come from talking openly about their child’s illness. Their daughter filled the silence that sat between us. She wisely observed, “Seeing you have the courage to speak so openly and without judgment has allowed me to feel that I can do the same.”
Today, I would not keep secrets or remain silent if for no other reason than to give my daughter permission to do the same.