I've been completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of emails I've received since my New York Times Magazine article appeared yesterday ("One Spoonful at a Time," www.nytimes.com). Wow. It's an incredible feeling to be so connected with so many people who have shared the same awful and misunderstood experience.
I want to share one of those emails with you, because it moved me so much. The author has given me permission to excerpt it here. The notion that a parent or other close relation's love and caring are a vital part of recovery from anorexia feels absolutely true to our family's experience.
I'd love to hear what other people think about this.
Hi, Ms. Brown,
I’ve just read “One Spoonful at a Time,” your article in the NY Times about refeeding your daughter, and her long recovery from anorexia nervosa. As a teenager—also 14—I was anorectic, and the memory of the first milkshake my mother asked me to drink is still vivid, a full-body memory. I’m writing as a former sufferer of anorexia nervosa to provide a kind of confirmation of the wisdom of the Maudsley approach, which my parents had never heard of, but which mirrors their approach to helping me escape the grip of the “demon” you describe so well in your article.
Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out just how I escaped anorexia. Two things stand out, and I was amazed to find both addressed very clearly in your article. First, I was simply exhausted by what you’ve called the anorexia demon—the obsessive thoughts about food, about how fat I was, about how undisciplined and grotesque I would be if I gave in and allowed myself to gain weight. I ran three to four miles a day just to keep that demon at bay. I was never as open with my parents as your daughter has apparently been with you, but if I had been, I’d have said precisely the things that you report in your article. I knew what was going through my mind would seem absurd if I revealed it, so I kept it to myself, sometimes completely convinced that I alone knew how true it all was, sometimes not so sure, but always, always fatigued by it.
More importantly, I was deeply affected by my mother’s sense of urgency about my need to eat. Your description of the frustration, fear, and anxiety you’ve experienced as you’ve tried to help your daughter recover is very familiar—I’m sorry to say that my mother went through something very similar with me. The full-body memory I mentioned above is not so much of drinking the milkshake, but of the experience of taking it from my mother’s hands, her presence, her watchfulness, all of which were, in comparison to my masochistic inner voice, so gentle and nonjudgmental. Her concern, and the patient but steel-willed lovingness that went into each milkshake, did the demon in. If you’re ever tempted to believe that your daughter isn’t aware of and grateful for all you and her father have done and continue to do to help her, please think again. I’m not sure how else to put it. And now, over 20 years later, it’s easier for me to admit that on some level what I really needed most was for someone to show that she cared that much, and that her caring was stronger than my self-hatred. I’m not sure why—my parents were always loving people—but maybe it’s just that, once self-imposed starvation really sets in, an opposite and greater-than-equal reaction from a firm, compassionate outside force is required to overcome it. Showing your daughter that you care, that you’re concerned--so much so that you’re not going to back down until she’s regained her health and vitality--is what makes the difference. If that’s the core of the Maudsley approach, I’m sure further tests will continue to reveal its effectiveness.