Advice to a mother on sending her daughter to college straight out of an Eating Disorders Programme.

My dear friend

I have thought long and hard about this. You must understand that I am a parent advocate and have no clinical training and what I am about to say is peer-to-peer advice, based on observations of other families facing this dilemma.

I understand you wanting your child to resume a normal life and I understand your hopes and dreams for her. I know you have planned and saved and bargained and that you both probably find it too difficult to visualise a life other than the one you have dreamed of and talked about. I understand that you want to leave the eating disorder behind, that you are sick of it, you hate it and you want to stop its vile destructive behaviour cutting a swathe through the future you want for your child.

I think that you think that by giving her a new start, she may choose to leave her eating disorder behind, shut away in a keepsake box, tucked hidden and forgotten under her bed or at the back of your wardrobe. I understand that you are different, that your family is not my family, that your experiences are different from mine. I understand that your child is older, cleverer, more sensible, stronger, wiser than mine. I understand that you know your child and you believe in her, have faith in her and know that she can do this. Or you hope she can.

I also understand that you have been promising that she can go to college at the end of treatment. It has been the carrot you have been dangling, the thing you can talk together about, plan, discuss and feel good about. The spider web strand of commonality that still holds you together. I know you believe that, without the promise of going to college, your daughter would not have made such strides, got so much better, wanted to be well. I understand that you believe you have to stand by this promise, keep your side of the bargain, believe that she wants this more than she wants her eating disorder. You have to be purer than the driven snow in the face of the disordered, contorted logic, of the wheedling, pleading, negotiating. You feel you need to have the moral highground in the face of the eating disorder. You have to the model of perfection, the one that keeps the promises, the one that does as they say they will do, to set her an example that you hope she will follow.

And all I hear, as I hear you say this, is that I can hear the eating disorder making deals with your daughter, telling her she can eat and put on weight because, once she is away, she can lose it all again and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. Because the eating disorder is always in your daughter’s head. It doesn’t have to wait for visiting hours, or for her to be awake, or finished eating or in a good mood. It can talk to her whenever it likes, cajoling and scheming, twisting the truth, turning white into black.

Sadly, coming home from hospital does not mean the eating disorder is “cured” or that your daughter has the skill set to deal with anxiety, depression or any other difficulties that may arise,without defaulting to restriction. Continuing to eat enough and letting go of the eating disorder takes a long time, a lot of hard work and a tremendous amount of love and patience from clinicians and carers. There is no quick fix to this part.

If it were me, I would not even be thinking about sending my daughter away to college for at least another year. She will need support, help and love for a long while after coming out of the treatment centre. Recovery from an eating disorder is all about learning a new way of life and dealing with stress and anxiety in an entirely different way. This cannot be done in 3 months in a treatment centre or three days at home. It takes months and months and years and years. It takes support and kindness and calm firmness. It takes love and forgiveness. It takes catching them when they fall and setting them back on their feet, with a plaster on their knees until the cut is healed.

It takes the tincture of time.

There is a thread on the Around the Dinner Table forum which might give you some idea of the length of time it takes for someone to recover from anorexia here. If you would care to join us on the forum, I suspect the majority of the advice you would be getting, especially from those with children of a similar age who have faced the “going away to college” dilemma would be much the same. I would love you to join and post so you can have advice from other parents who have faced the same situation and see where, when, what and how they have dealt with it.

You should also ask yourself this. Are you sending her away for yourself, as well? Are you fed up with it, angry at it, want to be done with it? Do you yearn for some peace and some space and just one minute of the day that is not about food or exercise or anxiety or distress? Do you really think that you are doing this for her good or is there just a tiny bit of self-care involved in there too? Do you want her to have the opportunities you never had? Do you want her to be the person you couldn’t? Haven’t you worked and saved and denied yourself to give your child that head-start that never came your way? And isn’t there a tiny bit of you that hopes that the good, loving daughter you know is in there would never betray you, disrespect you or let you down by not eating? Are you hoping that the shock of not having you there will force her into making the right choices? Do you hope that she will just see that this whole, new, gloriously exciting world of college and forget all this nonsense about not eating? That she will fall headlong in love with life and boys and study? That a little bit of you wants to live vicariously through her and you want that all to be joy?

It is very difficult to let your child down and I don’t know about you, but for me, letting go of my hopes and dreams for my daughter and her glorious, sunlit, trouble-free future (including Prince Harry on a white charger), was one of the toughest things I had to do.

It is very much your decision and I am hoping that you will get some more support from the forum or other parents of young adults who have been through similar things. Please do not feel you can’t return for further support and advice or that there will be any kind of “I told you so” moments. It is a horrible illness and a lot of unnecessarily hard decisions have to be made and it is very lonely and isolating. I remember when I first joined the forum in November 2009, I thought that my family was different and we would be done with the whole thing in 6 months but then, hey, I have always been over-optimistic.

Yours sincerely

Charlotte Bevan




Charlotte Bevan, wife of a farmer, mother of teenagers, breast cancer survivor and parent advocate Secretary F.E.A.S.T. UK, Expert Carer, Echo Project, Institute of Psychiatry, talkhealth and Mumsnet Blogger

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