Woodland Forge What People Are Saying

A Mother's Story

If I had known what I know now about anorexia, my family and I could have been spared a lot of heartache, pain, and suffering. My hope is that by sharing some of my experiences, you will see that there is definitely a better way.

Our journey, (Ashley and mine) began six years ago. Ashley was 14 and in the 8th grade. I knew she had the beginnings of the disease because I suffered with it in my late 20’s. Initially I relied on the internet, on reading the 30+ books which I quickly acquired, and on anyone who I thought knew more about my child than I did.

The standard treatment was for the patient to go to an inpatient facility specifically for eating disorders. We chose a very well-known one about 45 minutes away from our home. Actually in our journey, Ashley had been admitted there two times—not because the treatment had changed, it was exactly the same, but because the first treatment had not changed the problem. All the books I bought within the six years had not changed either - the information within that time span was exactly the same and was not helpful. We were told by the experts that it was not unusual for patients to return to a hospital two or three times.

In the facility there would be very strict meal monitoring where patients would eat large amounts of foods or protein drinks, have individual therapy, family therapy, journal writing, art therapy, and meetings with the nutritionist. This would go on for as long as insurance was willing to pay. There was supposed to be some kind of after care program (which I and many of the parents I met there never got.)

There were group family meetings on the weekends. The focus was on the patients and their feelings. I would take notes, review them with my family, go back to the books and spend sleepless nights wondering where I went wrong. At these family meetings most of the patients would be knitting or doing some activity with their hands. (I’m not sure why this was allowed.) Many fell asleep.

Some of the activities were beneficial for the patients, but they were just “fluff” compared with the real work that had to be done. Meanwhile insurance was spending thousands of dollars for this treatment.

Another problem with these facilities is that the younger patients would get an “education” from the older, more seasoned ones. All the tricks of the trade were shared on how they could beat the system and fool everyone. In this type of group setting it is impossible for young children not to be influenced. This is why the younger the patient is, the more important it is for the parents to intervene in the treatment. When the child gets older—or is on their own, it is much more difficult to influence them.

Luckily a few months after Ashley’s discharge from the hospital, we were introduced to family based outpatient treatment by Drs. Ellen Davis and Alex Gonçalves. They put parents in charge like they’re supposed to be. Once the family makes up their mind that they are committed (and it is a commitment), this method actually empowers you and maybe for the first time your child knows you are serious. At the previous treatment center—I felt I had to “tread delicately” so as not anger Ashley, I felt as if I were “walking on ice.” Family based treatment changes this. It puts the parents in charge as it should be. It’s not easy—there may be lots of protest—yelling, slamming doors, etc. But if you don’t back down—your child will respect you and know you mean business! It does get easier and the change is permanent. I can honestly say that my relationship with my daughter has gotten so much better. She now knows I am in charge and fully committed to helping her get better.

I could not believe how much faster this method works. Ashley had been “into” her disease for six years. During that time she was hospitalized two times and made no progress. We were actually worse off because Ashley became more independent, learned more tricks and her brain became more malnourished. After using family based treatment, we saw results immediately—little by little. By two months her body and mind began to function. For the first time in six years she began to menstruate again. She became interested in having a social life. She regained control (in small steps) of the food while always being monitored by the team. She stopped calorie counting-- she ate out and was not afraid to try new restaurants. By five months my husband and older daughter said, “Ashley’s come back to us.” It had been so long, I forgot what it felt like.

This was a learning experience for me as well. I had to remember to keep the disease separate from Ashley. Since she was so malnourished, she was often combative and angry. I had to tell myself to keep Ashley, the person, separate from Ashley’s anorexia. Many times the disease was talking, not Ashley. The support and guidance I received by Drs. Davis and Gonçalves helped me make the distinction between Ashley and her anorexia. After making this distinction, my anger lessened and the process became easier. I loved my daughter and hated the disease.

Another important key to this method is choosing the correct consequences when they do not follow the meal plan. Something you honestly know you can enforce and something they never want to lose. I never had to enforce Ashley’s consequence. If I did, I was prepared to adjust my schedule. Was it easy? Of course not. It was easier to give the problem over to an inpatient treatment center. But the easy way never worked and I felt that we had wasted so many valuable years with that method. Also, I never wanted to turn her over to a hospital. She was sick but I WANTED TO TAKE CARE OF HER now that I had a method that I knew would work. Sometimes I thought it would be impossible, but I held my ground and never gave up. This is where I also received a lot of support from the staff at Woodland Forge. If I felt like I would “cave” they were there to help me feel strong and stick to the limits I had created. I never cared if Ashley called me the “food police”. Sometimes she called me much more—but I knew it was the disease talking. I always tried to be firm and kind. I was never mean (although many times I wanted to be) and tried not to take what she said personally. When she finished a meal or snack, I always told her how proud I was of her and knew how hard she was working.

Many times I asked myself was it my fault? So many parents feel guilty and think they could have prevented the anorexia in their child. Don’t waste your time dwelling in the past. Experts say that this is a very complicated disease. You are not the cause of the problem BUT you can be part of the solution. For us, the solution was family based treatment.

— Mother of 20 year-old Ashley