As a dad, it is often instinctive to try to “make things good”. To fix things, to make trouble go away. This is especially true in matters involving our children: to catch them when they fall, to answer their questions, to guide them in their choices and to send for the cavalry when all else fails. We dads often feel that we have to be the solution providers— or at least provide an intervention that will have positive results.
That’s how I felt when my daughter’s eating disorder started to have outward signs, almost 13 years ago. My daughter was in trouble – it was my duty as a father to move heaven and earth to help her. At that stage, and for many, many years of watching my daughter live through an earthly hell, the concept of “accepting an eating disorder” would have been totally beyond me, too much of an admission of failure for me to ever consider – an anathema to my whole value system as a father.
13 years on, my perspective has changed. That change has taken a long time and has challenged my fatherly instinct.
Initially I was battered by the eating disorder and all the social and physical suffering and mayhem that it brought to my daughter’s life and those close to her. Eating Disorder Daughter – let’s call her EDD – was wreaking havoc and taking my real daughter away. Clearly EDD was the enemy and to be fought off with every weapon at our disposal.
So for a period of many years we fought a series of battles – including spells of confinement and specialist treatment of all sorts. We won some, lost others, but the war was never won. Casualties were high. Attrition took its toll. And all the time, I was trying to “fix” it. I was seeking an intervention that would magically “cure” my daughter and this led to a pernicious circle of conflict as EDD fought back.
But the only person who can effect a recovery from an eating disorder is the sufferer her/himself. That’s so obvious now and yet so easily overlooked when you are in the middle of it all. The first genuinely positive steps that I took – with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – were when I moved from “fight mode” to support mode. And this meant that I had to “accept the eating disorder”.
Yes – the battle was my daughter’s and hers alone. A hard admission for a dad. Of course, she had been fighting the disorder for years and EDD was screaming at her to conform to all that the disorder required of her, demanded of her. The very fact that she survived all it threw at her should have made it clear that she had the inner wherewithal to recover. She had somehow just to turn her dedication and willpower to work for her, not for EDD.
It has been a slow process of recovery, but each baby step of that process has been characterised by increasing strength and determination on the part of my daughter. All round maturity has helped too as she develops into a person equipped for life generally – including dealing with her disorder.
I am not proposing a totally passive dad role though – after all there are lots of other issues where dads and daughters will have their “emotional” moments and sometimes dads can even be in the right! But don’t drag the eating disorder into these areas – it’s just what EDD wants.
I know – it just took a long time to figure it out.
In retrospect, I guess that was always going to have to accept my daughter’s eating disorder. It was never going to be my fight – so making a fist was never going to help.