… after buckets of therapy and a family intervention by one of my mental health counselors. As of last Christmas, I hadn’t really spoken to my parents in about six months, save for a very limited number of terse exchanges and one overnight stay at their house in November while I was awaiting my admission into the partial hospitalization treatment program at Walden, just over an hour’s drive north. In fact, I was so alienated from my parents and so angry with them that I was planning on spending Christmas with the family of one of my college roommates. It just so happened that I made bounding progress in the weeks between Thanksgiving and that much-anticipated holiday – more progress than I made in the entire preceding year and a half of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy for my depression and binge eating disorder. After my parents drove up for a sit-down with my counselor at Walden, I (with the support of my treatment team) was ready to admit that I missed my mom’s amazing Christmas decorations, the evenings we spent together watching classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and opening gifts beneath the beautiful tree, draped in the same ornaments year after year. It was five years since I last experienced a Christmas in the house where I grew up. At first, I was kept away by a chaotic work schedule, and then I managed to convince myself that I didn’t need it. I would save the vacation time and the money on airfare, and my parents would drive out to visit me in Vanillasville while I continued to work.
Well, I did need Christmas. A real Christmas. A home Christmas. And after all that therapy, I was starting to get to a place of acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance of my parents for who they are, acceptance of myself, and forgiveness of us all. The idea was beginning to dawn on me that my parents might not ever change, and that it was actually OK. I could still love them with all their flaws and imperfections, just as I was learning to love myself in my unfinished state. Maybe there was hope for the relationship. The other piece of the puzzle was my binging. For the first time in my life I was not binging or restricting, my weight was stable, and I had a plan for how to keep moving forward in that same direction. A meal plan! And twice weekly, blind (meaning that I couldn’t see the number on the scale) weights, and a nutritionist nearby everyday, and a whole group of supporters with whom I “processed” for six hours a day, five days a week. Recovery was my full-time job. Knowing that I was going straight back to the safety of that environment on December 26th, I made the leap.
I still remember the anxiety I felt on that first trip back to the place where I learned all my eating behaviors and where they were reinforced for 18 years (and then sporadically whenever I made a visit afterwards). I was finally owning my eating disorder, though. And for the first time, it seemed like my parents were willing to begin acknowledging the role of our family dynamic in my lifelong struggle with mental health issues. The first order of business was to outline BOUNDARIES. I collected my parents around the table and showed them a typed piece of paper with two neat columns. At the top of the page, it read, “Tips for Living with Lulu’s Eating Disorder.” On the left, one column was titled, “Helpful (Please DO!)” and on the right was “NOT Helpful (Please DON’T).” Please do ask me, “Is anything bothering you/upsetting you?” or “How are you doing?” Please don’t ask me, “Should you be eating that?” Please do talk about ways to live a healthy, balanced life and prepare nutritious, enjoyable meals. Please don’t talk about how many pounds you need to lose or how many pounds you recently gained. There were many more, and some were very specific to my personal triggers (like loud noises). After we talked, I stuck the list to the refrigerator door with a magnet, and whenever someone in the house began to act up, I would declare, with as much humor as I could muster, “Does someone need to go read the list again?”
It wasn’t easy, but it was a monumental achievement for all of us, and I’ve been able to make more trips back home since those days. As I become more confident and secure in my recovery, and as I my continue practicing my recovery and interpersonal effectiveness skills, it becomes less awkward and forced, but of course there are always disagreements or issues of one form or another. That’s just family life in general.
As I type this, I am seated in the study of that familiar place. Little hints of gratitude, serenity, belonging, and joy are percolating in my heart. It’s just a brief weekend respite, and I’ll be back in Vanillasville come Monday morning, but for this moment, I am home.