Imperfectly me, imperfectly you: Mothering my daughter through anorexia

By Vangie Alban, Guest Writer

The prayer was bold–if not audacious.

“Lord, please let me know how to help my daughter in the next five minutes. I just don’t know what to do!”

Months before I prayed this prayer, our daughter Abby came to my husband Don and me in tears. She shared how she had become ostracized from her peers and how she felt that some were criticizing her food choices at lunchtime. She compared herself to the “popular girls,” describing them all as “thin.” We listened as she sobbed through her story. Her pain became our pain.

She had also lost weight.

After months of praying, we made the decision to switch Abby and two of her siblings to a different school. Abby quickly made new friends. Life was going well – we thought.

In the summer of that year, Abby approached us about her desire to run for her school’s Cross Country team the following Fall, her first year of High School. She began running and found a “family” with her new teammates.

This is a lot to share. This first picture is me as an underweight, alone, confused, and lost girl on October 14th, 2017. However, today I took another picture. I am now restored, loved, strengthened, and happy girl. Fighting anorexia is NOT easy. I had anorexia for a year. It totally took my happiness away. I under-ate and over exercised to get what I thought was the perfect body image. So, on October 25th, 2017, I was admitted to Canopy Cove Eating Disorder Treatment Center in Tallahassee, Florida. I have come so far since then, but believe me, I still fight a daily struggle. But I know that God will help me fight through this.

Soon after she started running, her coach shared that Abby was an excellent runner. In fact, she was the top varsity girls’ runner. We felt elated as Abby soared through her races; her personal record improved with each race. She was like a blade of grass running in the wind. Cross Country was becoming her life. But we also noticed that Abby was looking smaller. As a mother, I would pray during the races for the health of her heart.

Our concerns grew and we began meeting people who gave us valuable information about eating disorders. One person was “Lisa” (name changed to protect privacy), a girl who had had an eating disorder, but through faith and hard work, had overcome her eating disorder. Lisa introduced us to Gwen, a nurse who had a solid understanding of eating disorders. Through Gwen, Abby met a college girl who had spent months at an eating disorder center and who now had victory from anorexia. Abby had yet another friend who had had anorexia and was treated at a Christian Eating Disorders Center called Canopy Cove in Tallahassee, Florida. Through meeting Nurse Gwen, we also met Trish, a counselor.

Medical testing revealed that Abby had low levels in some of her body chemicals. Meanwhile, Abby’s counselor Trish was deeply troubled by Abby’s condition. Abby shared about feelings of isolation and past hurts. The counselor urged us not to allow Abby to run and to get an EKG for her as soon as possible.

However, Abby denied that she had an eating disorder and was increasingly isolating herself. There were no peaceful meal times. Abby was experiencing meltdowns, similar to toddler days. Her siblings were also becoming concerned.

One morning, Don and I told Abby she would be unable to run a race. She just did not weigh enough. In anger, she ran out of the house into the pitch-black, freezing night. Panicked, we ran after her. I was in my robe. Don had a flashlight. We were terrified that she may run into the open highway.

Finally, Don found her – crouched behind our neighbors’ trashcan.

Was this our Abby, our brilliant, rational daughter? But, it was.

Soon, we also discovered that Abby was running at home when we thought she was studying. In fact, a screen shot of her pedometer revealed that she had been running 24-26 miles a day.

That’s when I found myself, crying to God in prayer: “Lord, please let me know how to help my daughter in the next five minutes. I just don’t know what to do!”

Then one day, I received a text from Abby:  “Mom, my vision is blurry. I can’t see. All I see are lines.”

“Don’t worry, Sweetie,” I texted back. “Dad will pick you up from school.”

I made an appointment with the pediatrician who was alarmed by Abby’s low heart rate. The next day, we were referred to a pediatric cardiologist. Though an EKG and heart monitoring were normal, there were still a couple areas of concern. A local pediatric endocrinologist confirmed that she did have an eating disorder.

We realized that Abby was at a point of life and death. Don and I began talking with someone from Canopy Cove, the Eating Disorders Treatment Center. As we began to educate ourselves more and more, we I realized that God was guiding us to this place.

Within a week of our initial talks with Canopy Cove, we made round-trip flight to Florida to prepare to take Abby to treatment. We left our precious daughter in Florida at Canopy Cove, even though she was pleading with us to come back to Virginia.

We’ll never forget our cab driver, Rico. “I’ll say a prayer for your daughter. I’ve driven many young girls to this place. I think your daughter will be just fine,” he said as he drove us back to the airport. With tears rolling down our cheeks, Don and I boarded the plane back home.

Abby stayed at Canopy Cove for seven weeks. She was diagnosed with extreme anorexia and compulsive exercise disorder. During that time, Abby learned that she and the disorder were not one in the same. She learned how to separate from the disorder, even naming the disorder.  Through those agonizing weeks of Abby’s absence, we wrote her daily. During Thanksgiving, we visited Abby. She was stronger and more vibrant. Her brain fog was gone.

I flew to Florida for a week as Abby transitioned from residential to the partial hospitalization program.  I observed her tenacious spirit and determination to get well. Ten days before Christmas, Abby and I flew home.
Abby continues to be treated locally. She has faithfully stuck to her meal plan and is at a restorative weight. She has created a recovery account to encourage others in their own recovery from anorexia.

This recovery journey from anorexia for Abby is ongoing. It’s a marathon—and not just for my daughter. It’s a marathon for me too.  It’s navigating through what to say and what not to say to my daughter. It’s praying for sensitivity, patience, and wisdom to do the best I can for that moment.  It’s rejoicing in every victory—big and small—as my daughter bravely and daily fights against these nightmarish disorders that were hijacking our family.

Abby’s journey has changed my perspective as a mother and her recovery has strengthened my faith. It has made us, as parents, less judgmental and more empathetic to others’ struggles. It’s helped me personally mother beyond my expectations as I’ve seen prayers answered and learned to love my daughter unconditionally. While she was gone for those seven weeks, I reflected on my mothering and determined to be a better mother – not a perfect mother.  I’m learning new ways to encourage her and my other children.  I’m grateful for our laughter and Abby’s renewed sense of humor.

I’m savoring our moments together – even the imperfect ones.

Vangie Alban is an adjunct Communication Professor for Liberty University Online. She voices radio spots for “The Journey,” a local radio station.  She is a devoted wife and mother of four and lives with her family in the Blue Ridge foothills of Central Virginia.

If you or someone you love are struggling with ED, here are some resources that may help:
Life without ED
by Jenni Schaefer
Goodbye Ed. Hello Me.  By Jenni Schaefer

National Eating Disorder Online Support


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