Today, I’m pleased to present an interview with mom and daughter Cathy and Julia. I think this is a special opportunity to share with you both perspectives of an eating disorder told by two amazing women in their own words.
Specifically, in this 3-part interview, Cathy and Julia talk about how their relationship was affected and eventually strengthened.
But before you learn about that, in part one, Julia recounts her struggles with an eating disorder and how she’s doing now. She also talks about her relationship with her parents.
On a side note, I want to highlight something Cathy says in the interview, which I think is an incredibly common misconception.
Cathy says that because Julia was born a beautiful child and grew into a beautiful woman, she thought she’d be sheltered from societal pressures – and from an eating disorder.
Actually, I think there are two myths at play here. One, people assume that someone who’s attractive or already thin is somehow immune to body image issues or an eating disorder. (They’re not.)
We assume, “Hey, they’re pretty or skinny, what do they have to worry about?” Some of us even get offended that someone who’s already attractive would have these issues.
But anyone, regardless of their looks, is vulnerable to a negative body image. Body image issues and eating disorders don’t discriminate.
The second issue is believing that eating disorders stem from societal pressures to be pretty or skinny. While this can trigger an ED (and unfortunately, create roadblocks in recovery), remember that eating disorders are genetic. And they’re also caused by a variety of complex factors.
Q: Cathy, can you introduce yourself and Julia?
A: I’m in my 50’s; Julia is 25. She is my only child. Her father and I divorced when she was quite young, but we made every effort to stay on good terms for Julia’s sake. I suppose you could characterize our family as fairly normal, middle-class people.
We’re pretty active by nature and reasonably well educated. As a family, we have our share of dysfunctional bits here and there, but I don’t believe there has ever been a family member with an eating disorder until now. It has been a new adventure for all of us!
The thing about Julia is that she is pretty and was so from the day she was born. Everyone remarked on it–family and friends, people at her daycare, strangers on the street. I knew enough about raising a daughter to try to emphasize her other strengths and qualities, but frankly I was proud of having such a beautiful child and relieved as well.
In our appearance-centric culture, I thought that she would not have to worry about her looks. Little did I know that, in a way, she was being “set up” for self-image challenges.
Q: Julia, how did your eating disorder start?
A: I first noticed a change in my eating habits late into my sophomore year in college. I had gained some weight over the course of probably February through May of that year, and I believe it was spurred on by the break-up of a relationship. I was really attached to my on-and-off 2-year boyfriend, and when he finally told me he had started dating someone else, I remember all I could think about was, is she skinnier than me, is she prettier than me.
I didn’t comprehend this then, but I looking back I see just how sick my thinking was–there was simply no choice but to be skinny. Since then I’ve learned that when I give myself that kind of ultimatum, success becomes much less likely.
Even though I had only just started to notice changes within myself, the truth is the eating disorder began a long time before that. As both my mom and I have realized, these warped ideas about “being pretty” and “being skinny” had formed when I was very young.
Q: What led to your recovery?
A: I don’t know if I can truly say what led to my recovery because I don’t quite feel in recovery yet. I’m able to maintain a healthy weight and I work out all the time (it’s a passion of mine), I go to regular therapy and I practice meditation.
But I still overeat at times, especially when I’m feeling anxious about other stresses in my life. My body image fluctuates pretty regularly. But I’m not missing out on life like I used to because I’m too ashamed to go outside.
I guess you could say that the things I’m doing right now, the positive and active steps I’m taking to understand myself better and make peace with my body, are the things that are leading me to recovery.
Q: What’s been the hardest part about having an eating disorder?
A: The hardest part about the eating disorder is that no one really seems to understand. People ask why can’t you just stop eating when you’re full? I don’t blame those who don’t have an eating disorder for not having the ability to totally comprehend. But trying to help my parents understand was really stressful. My dad flat out just did not get it. He wanted really badly to help, but did it in all the wrong ways.
Q: What about your mom?
A: My mom was better about it, probably because as a woman she could relate. But she really didn’t fully understand for a while. And neither did I. So for a bunch of years it was kind of us just talking at each other about it and we’d never get anywhere.
I think it’s been in the past couple years that my mom has really grasped the concept of an eating disorder. I finally have too. I think the first thing was my being able to even come to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder at all. Those are scary words.
Q: After you did recognize you had an eating disorder, what changed?
A: Once I acknowledged my problem, now everyone else in my life could start to do the same. My mom definitely began to understand me more and I started to understand myself. I was able to vocalize myself very candidly to her, without holding back anything I thought was going to scare her into thinking I’m going to commit suicide.
Because the truth is I was never at that point, but I know my crises made it sound as such at times. When my mom could finally keep her “freak out” feelings to herself, and recognize that all I needed was for her to listen and not place a judgment (even though she’d never do so on purpose), our conversations became much more honest and effective for both of us.
I also had to change the way that I spoke to her. Over time, I recognized that if I called my mom all frantic, freaking out, overly depressed or in an extremely negative mood, she’d become frantic too. Often I’d just be calling because I just needed someone to talk to and was particularly upset, but she’d see that as a major crisis situation, and be terribly worried for my well-being.
I realized that if I wanted her to relate to me, I needed to try and work with her a little bit. I could still call her when I needed to talk, but I began trying to tone down the misery/negativity/frenzy just a little so we could both be on a neutral plane. That worked well.
I think that because we were able to overcome a HUGE communication barrier– regarding the eating disorder– we can now relate to each other even better. Our conversations are much more understanding and consequently helpful. We really do understand each other.
Thank you to both Julia and Cathy for sharing their story! Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, where Cathy and Julia discuss their relationship and how they were able to communicate better.
What resonated with you about the interview? How did your eating disorder affect your relationships with loved ones? Were your loved ones able to understand your ED?