By Laurie Nelson, as told to Jennifer Clopton
It happened on what was otherwise a very normal day three years ago.
Two of our 18-year-old triplets, Emma and Sophia, were standing in the kitchen when I suddenly noticed they looked different.
“Wow, they look thin,” I said to my husband, Mike, “Do you think they have lost some weight?”
Before that day, I don’t think we had ever talked about weight with the girls. We are an active family who likes cooking healthy meals, so weight control never seemed like an issue. We had a scale in the house but none of us even knew where it was. We searched and found it and asked the girls to weigh themselves. The results were deeply concerning. Both had lost a significant amount of weight since their annual doctor’s visit the year before.
What had changed in that time? Well, our girls were very active high school athletes who had been playing basketball and golf. But as the responsibilities of high school academics, activities and part time jobs intensified, they decided to stop playing basketball, and without our realizing it, that was the start of what ultimately turned into an eating disorder for both of them.
A search of their phone messages, texts and the websites they had been on – plus some tough conversations – revealed how hard they had been working to lose weight. Fearing they would gain weight without rigorous basketball practices and workouts, they were severely restricting their calorie intake and running and working out every chance they could get. When I took them to the pediatrician, our worst fears were confirmed. They both had anorexia.
The girls began to meet with a local nutritionist and counselor weekly, but over the next few months we didn’t see any progress. The girls became extremely thin. They were always cold and tired, and our concern grew by the day. Our whole focus became finding help for them.
Our research finally led us to a family-based treatment plan for eating disorders where parents play an active role in helping re-feed their child to restore their weight in an outpatient setting. This involves parents preparing every meal and snack and sitting with their children while they eat.
Once we learned about this program, we firmly believed it was the right one for us. But it was very challenging, especially in the beginning, Our girls became very defensive. At times they were in denial that they even had an eating disorder, so it felt like we were on different teams with deep battle lines drawn. We wanted them to eat; they wanted to limit their calories. Mike and I worked with their counselor and set guidelines. But there were many times the girls would yell, argue, and refuse to eat or share their feelings. One poured out the first smoothie we ever made for her – refusing to drink it. Another threw cheese across the kitchen one day because it contained ‘too many calories.’
Mike and I worked hard to remain united and consistent, and the girls learned we were serious. If they didn’t eat breakfast, they couldn’t go to school. We also learned that we had to separate them during mealtimes at home because they did not want to eat anything the other one wasn’t eating. So we didn’t have family dinners together at home or really go to restaurants for about 8 months. One of us would eat upstairs with Emma and the other would eat downstairs with Sophie, and their brother Cross took turns alternating meals between them.
At times it felt like a turning point would never come. But it finally did when the girls’ counselor raised the possibility that they might have anxiety. She said that can play a huge role in eating disorders and suggested we take both girls to a psychiatrist to see if that was a factor for them. It was, and once they were diagnosed and put on medication, we finally began to see some progress. Two years after their diagnosis, the girls were finally at a healthy weight again and able to maintain it.
There’s no doubt in our minds this treatment program saved our girls’ lives. It’s hard for me to even imagine where we would be now if we hadn’t found our way to it. Now three years out from their diagnosis, they’re in a good and healthy place, but I still worry. Like any addiction, this is something I believe our girls and our family will manage for a lifetime.
As life has gotten back to normal, we’ve started talking more about this journey. For my girls, I think that sharing their experience is part of the process of holding themselves accountable, while also helping others with similar struggles.
As their mother, I too feel compelled to speak out so other parents and families don’t feel alone. In some of my darkest moments, this felt like a unique and insurmountable challenge. I yearned to know that healing was possible after your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder. It is.
I also want to speak out because I am just so proud of my girls. They are beautiful proof that with courage, a lot of hard work and real help, a healthier life is truly possible.
Laurie Nelson is the mother of triplets, now age 19. The Maudsley approach is the family-based treatment program that her family used. For more resources, you can visit the National Eating Disorders Association at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.