In the beginning, don't talk to your daughter, because anything you say she will refute. Notice that she no longer eats cheese. Yes, cheese: an entire food category goes missing from her diet. She claims cheese is disgusting and that, hello? she has always hated it. Think to yourself . . . Okay, no feta, no Gouda — that's a unique and painless path to individuation; shes not piercing, tattooing, or huffing. Cheese isnt crucial. The less said about cheese the better, though honestly you do remember watching her enjoy Brie on a baguette Friday evenings when the neighbors came over and there was laughter in the house.
Then baguettes go too.
“White flour isn't healthy,” she says.
She claims to be so much happier now that shes healthier, now that she doesn't eat cheese, pasta, cookies, meat, peanut butter, avocados, and milk. She tells you all this without smiling. Standing before the open refrigerator like an anthropologist studying the customs of a quaint and backward civilization, she doesn't appear happier.
When she steps away with only a wedge of yellow bell pepper, say, “Are you sure that's all you want? What about your bones? Your body is growing, now's the time to load up on calcium so you don't end up a lonely old hunchback sweeping the sidewalk in front of your cottage.” Bend over your pretend broom, nod your head, and crook a finger at her.
“Nibble, nibble like a mouse, who is nibbling on my house?” cried the old witch. “Oh, dear Gretel, come in. There is nothing to be frightened of. Come in.” She took Gretel by the hand and led her into her little house. Then good food was set before Gretel, milk and avocado, peanut butter, meat, cookies, pasta, and cheese.
Your daughter stares up at the kitchen ceiling, her look a stew of disdain and forbearance. “Just so you know, Mom, you're so not the smartest person in the room.” She nibbles her pepper wedge, and you hope none of it gets stuck between her teeth or she will miss half her meal.
Alone at night, start to Google eating disorder three times. When you finally press enter, you are astonished to see that there are 7,800,000 pages of resources, with headings like Psych Central, Body Distortion, ED Index, Recovery Blog, Celebrities with Anorexia, Alliance for Hope, DSM-IV.
Realize an expert is needed and take your daughter to a dietitian. In the elevator on the way up, she stands as far away from you as she possibly can. Her hair, the color of dead grass, hangs over her fierce eyes. “In case you're wondering, I hate you.”
Remember your daughter is in there somewhere.
This dietitian, the first of three — recommended by a childless, forty-something friend who sought help in order to lose belly fat — looks at your daughter and sees one of her usual clients. She recommends fourteen hundred calories a day, nonfat dairy, one slice of bread, just one tablespoon of olive oil on salad greens. You didn't know — you thought you were doing the right thing, and you are now relegated to the dunce corner forever by your daughter who is thin as shes always wanted to be.
The fourteen-year-old part of you — the Teen magazine-subscribing part of you that bleached your dark hair orange with Super Sun-In and hated, absolutely hated, your thighs; the part that sometimes used to eat nothing but a bagel all day so if anyone asked you what you ate, you could answer, A bagel, and feel strong — that part of you thinks your daughter looks good. Your daughter is nearly as thin as a big-eyed Keane girl, as thin as the seventh-grade girls who drift along the halls of her middle school, their binders pressed to their collarbones, their coveted low-rise, destroyed-denim, skinny-fit, size-double-zero jeans grazing their jutting hipbones.
She is as thin as her friends who brag about being stuffed after their one-carrot lunches.
“It's crazy, Mom. I'm worried about Beth, Sara, McKenzie, Claire . . .” she says, waving her slice of yellow bell pepper in the air.
Google eating disorders again. This time click on the link understandingEDs.com.
Don't talk to your daughter about food, though this is all she will want to talk to you about. Spaghetti with clam sauce sounds amazing, she'll say, flipping through Gourmet magazine, but when you prepare it, along with a batch of brownies, hoping she'll eat, shell claim shes always detested it. She'll call you an idiot for cooking shit-food you know she loathes. “Guess what, Mom,” she will say with her new vitriol, “I never want to be a chubby-stupid-no-life-fucking-bitch-loser like you.”
After you slap her, don't cry. Hold your offending palm against your own cheek in a melodramatic gesture of shame and horror that you think you really mean. Feel no satisfaction. When she calls you abusive and threatens to phone child protective services, resist handing her the phone with a wry I dare you smile. Try not to scream back at her. Don't ask her what the hell self-starvation is if not abuse. Be humiliated and embarrassed, but don't make yourself any promises about never stooping that low again. Remind your daughter that spaghetti with clam sauce and brownies was the exact meal she requested for her twelfth birthday, and then quickly leave the room.
Lovely's Twelfth-Birthday Brownies
2 sticks unsalted butter
4 ounces best-quality unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh raspberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter large baking pan. Melt together butter and chocolate over a very, very low flame or, better yet, in a double boiler. Watch and stir constantly to prevent burning. Turn off heat. Add sugar and stir until granules dissolve. Stir in eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated and the batter shines. Blend in vanilla; fold in the flour and salt until just mixed. Add raspberries. Bake for 30 minutes. The center will be gooey; the edges will have begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Try your best to wait until the brownies cool before you slice them. Enjoy!
Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter. She will tell you she didn't mean it when she called you chubby. Hug her and feel as if you're clutching a bag of hammers to your chest.
Indications of anorexia nervosa are an obsession with food and an absolute refusal to maintain normal body weight. One of the most frightening aspects of the disorder is that people with anorexia nervosa continue to think they look fat even when they are wasting away. Their nails and hair become brittle, and their skin may become dry and yellow.
Prepare meals you hope she will eat: buckwheat noodles with shrimp, grilled salmon and quinoa, baked chicken with bulgur, omelets without cheese. When you melt butter in the pan or put olive oil on the salad, try not to let her see. Try to cook when she is away from the kitchen, though suddenly it is her favorite room, the cookbooks her new library. Feel as if you always have a sharp-beaked raven on your shoulder, watching, pecking, deciding not to eat, angry at food, and terribly angry at you.
Begin to have heated, whispered conversations with your husband — in closets, in the pantry, in bed at night. He wants to sneak cream into the milk carton. He wants to put melted butter in her yogurt. He wants to nourish his little girl. He is terrified.
You are angry, resentful, and confused. You want help. You are terrified.
“She's mean because she's starving,” he says. “How you feel doesn't matter.”
“Yes, but I have to live in this house too.”
“How you feel doesn't matter.”
“Yes, but she used to love me.”
“This isn't about you.”
Later — after you once again do not have sex — get out of bed, close the bathroom door behind you, close the shower door behind you as well, then cry into a towel for as long as you like. Ask yourself, Is this about me?
Take your daughter to the doctor. Learn about orthostatic blood pressure and body mass index. Learn that shes had dizzy spells, that she hasn't had her period for four months. Worry terribly. Feel like a failure: like a chubby-stupid-no-life-fucking-bitch-loser.
When the pregnant doctor tells your daughter that she needs to gain five pounds, your daughter starts to cry and then to scream that none of you people live in her body, you people have no idea what she needs, you people are rude and she will only listen to herself. You people (you and the doctor and the nurse) huddle together and listen. You don't want to be one of you people, you want to be hugging your frightened, hostile daughter, who sits alone on the examination table. But she won't let you. The doctor gives her a week to gain two pounds and find a therapist or she will be referred to an eating-disorder clinic. You want your daughter to succeed. You want her to stay with you at home, to stay in school, to make new friends, to laugh, to answer her body when she feels hunger.
You watch your daughter watch the pregnant doctor squeezing between the cabinet and the examination table and you know exactly what your daughter is thinking — Fat, fat, fat.
Before you leave, the doctor pulls you aside and tells you that your daughter suffers from “disordered eating.” She tells you to assemble a treatment team: doctor, therapist, nutritionist, family therapist.
“You'll need support; you'll need strategies.”
You've never been on a team before. Ask the obvious question: “Eating disorder versus disordered eating? Whats the difference?” Get no answer. Try to go easy on yourself.
Knowledge about the causes of anorexia nervosa are not fully known and may vary. In an attempt to understand and uncover its origins, scientists have studied the personalities, genetics, environments, and biochemistry of people with these illnesses. Certain common personality traits in persons with anorexia nervosa are low self-esteem, social isolation (which usually occurs after the behavior associated with anorexia nervosa begins), and perfectionism. These people tend to be good students and excellent athletes. It does seem clear (although this may not be recognized by the patient), that focusing on weight loss and food allows the person to ignore problems that are too painful or seem irresolvable.
Remember, you were always there to listen to painful problems, to help. You kept your house purged of fashion magazines, quit buying the telephone-book-size September Vogue as soon as you gave birth to her. Only glanced at People in the dentists office. So why? How? How did this happen to your family?
Karen Carpenter, Mary-Kate Olsen, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Sexton, Paula Abdul, Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Margaux Hemingway, Sally Field, Anna Freud, Elton John, Richard Simmons, Franz Kafka, for Christ's sake
You should never have paid Cinderella to enchant the girls at her fourth-birthday party. Cringe as you remember the shimmering blue acetate gown and the circle of mesmerized girls at Cinderella's knees, their eyes softly closed, tender mouths slackened to moist Os. Cinderella hummed Cinderella's love song; she caked iridescent blue eye shadow on each girl while they all fell in love with her and her particular fantasy. Know in your heart that even though you canceled cable and forbade Barbie to cross your threshold, you are responsible. You have failed her.
After the doctor's appointment, drive to your daughter's favorite Thai restaurant while she weeps beside you and tells you she never imagined she'd be a person with an eating disorder. “If this could happen to me, anything can happen to anyone.”
Tell her, “Your light will shine. Live strong. We will come through this.” Vague affirmations are suddenly your specialty.
“I'm scared,” she tells you.
For the first time in months, you are not scared. You are calm. Your daughter seems pliable, reachable. During the entire car ride, the search for a parking space, and the walk into the restaurant you are filled with hope. And then you are seated for lunch and she studies the menu for eleven minutes, finally ordering only a green papaya salad. Hope flees and this is the moment you begin to eat like a role model. You too order a salad; you also order pho and salmon and custard and tea. Eat slowly, with false joy and frivolity. Show her how much fun eating can be! Look at me, ha-ha, dangling rice noodles from my chopsticks, tilting my head to get it all in my mouth. Yum! Delicious! Wow! Ha-ha! Ha-ha!