Teen Dad at 16: How I Told My Parents
'How I Told My Dad About My Eating Disorder'
"Condition Confessions" is a new series by Women's Health, where we'll be asking women how they told their friends, significant others, family members, and colleagues about their health conditions. If you find yourself in a similar situation, we hope these stories will help you be open, honest, and prepared.
Now’s as good a time as any, I thought to myself. I was sitting in the car with my dad on the way home from a college football game at the University of Florida, where I was a third-year student. I knew that once I told him about my ongoing struggle with anorexia and bulimia, our relationship would never quite be the same. But I also knew that I couldn’t keep this part of me from the guy I call my father and my friend. Could I?
My eating disorder story started years prior in a dance studio. Growing up, it was my second home. My mom was a professional ballet dancer for years, and my dad had worked in theatre. The passion I had for performing was in my DNA. My mom, coming from a dance background herself, always encouraged me to eat healthy and keep my body in shape for dance. She knew how much I loved dancing, and she never wanted me to have a reason to feel self-conscious. She knew what that could lead to—she was bulimic for more than 10 years when she was younger. I was 13 when she told me that, and I couldn’t imagine getting to the point of throwing up everything that you ate.
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But around my sophomore year of high school, when talk of desperately wanting to be skinnier filled the halls of my dance studio, a thought crossed my mind for the first time: I need to change. I started looking at myself in those floor-to-ceiling mirrors in a different way. I stared at my legs, thick with muscle. I saw the bulge of skin under my arm, poking out of my sports bra. I saw breasts where I wanted to see protruding collar bones. I nit-picked myself so much that I started skipping meals. I wasn’t the only one.
About a dozen girls at my studio, most of whom I had known since pre-school, created this culture of degrading our 15-year-old selves. We would stand at the mirror and talk about what parts we hated about our bodies. We all knew that all of us were either starving or purging, but we would never admit it to each other.
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Slowly, my sporadic meal-skipping escalated until it became a combination of anorexia and bulimia. Every day, I woke up and skipped breakfast. For lunch, I picked at the lunch my mom packed me, and I threw the rest away. After school, I spent four hours dancing in the studio. Then, I went home and ate dinner with my family. I worked out in my room, and almost immediately after, I threw up everything I had eaten. The next day, I did it all over again. That continued for two years.
I was very strategic about my eating disorder, so much so that I could hide it from my younger siblings, my friends, my boyfriend, and my parents, whom I talked to about absolutely everything else in my life. People would tell me that I was starting to look thin, but because of the muscle I had from dancing so much, I never looked as malnourished as I was.
I kept up my daily routine until I graduated and left for college. I started as a dance major, and without the toxic, self-loathing environment from my high-school dance studio, I actually liked going to rehearsal again. The schedule was tough, and I danced for up to eight hours every day.
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I slowly started eating more because I knew I was burning it off with my new, intense schedule. Because I shared a bathroom with a residence hall full of girls, purging every day wasn’t really possible, so I started throwing up less than I used to. I told myself I was getting better, but now I see that my "recovery" had more to do with the obstacles in my way than it did with me actually getting better.
I still wasn’t eating nearly enough, and I was still throwing up when I had the chance. I was smart enough to know that this couldn’t last. I had goals for myself that I knew I would never be able to achieve if I was treating my body this way. Eventually, I knew I’d have to tell my parents. It was obvious to me, three years after my first purge, that I couldn’t get through this alone. I needed them, as hard as that was to admit to myself.
Finally, sophomore year of college, I took the first step and told my mom my eating disorder story. She had gone through it herself, and I knew that she would be able to relate in a judgment-free way. She told me what I needed to hear: that she was there for me, she always would be, and she knew I was strong enough to put this in my past, like she did. I was so thankful that she didn’t respond with a lecture or a “how could you not tell me?” I felt a weight off my shoulders, but I knew I still had to tell my dad.
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And telling my dad? That would be even tougher. After all, since I left for college, my relationship with my dad had really grown. He had always been a great father, but now he'd started becoming a friend. He frequently visited me at college, sometimes just to hang out and tailgate football games with me. That made it even more difficult to let him into this years-long secret.
“All these kids are out here puking and rallying,” he said, jokingly, while we were sitting in traffic that day. And then, for some reason, I just said it.
“You know, that’s something I kind of do sometimes, too. After eating,” I said. “Bulimia is a funny thing like that.”
It sounded like any other sarcastic comment I’d ever made to him, but we both knew it was so much more. For a second, his face flushed. He took a breath, and he nodded his head as he tried to process what I had just said. I feared what would come next, but what happened was just so… my dad.
He snapped his fingers and made finger-guns as he said, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.” Emphasis on the “we.”
Of course, he had a lot of questions, like how long this had been going on, why I was doing it if I knew how unhealthy it was, and what he could do to help. I was completely honest with him. I told him how it started at the dance studio, and how I had grown to hate the way I looked so much. I told him about the starving and purging routine I had in high school. I told him that I had started to gain control of it, but I admitted that I still had a long way to go. I told him that I wanted to get better, and I meant it. He let me speak, and he listened.
Knowing how independent I was, he told me that if I ever started to feel like I was losing control, I had to tell him or my mom. He made sure I understood they would be there if and when I needed them. With that, I knew that my parents were in my corner, where they would have been years earlier, if only I had let them be. For the first time, I felt strong enough to fight. So I did.
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It’s been almost a year since that post-game conversation, and I’d be lying if I said my relationship with my parents hasn’t changed some. They definitely ask me more questions than before, like if I’ve gone grocery shopping that week or what I’ve had to eat that day. They also ask me how I’mfeeling, with a different tone than they used to. We both know they’re talking about my eating disorder without having to say it.
Something else has changed, too. Because I know I have the support of my parents, and some of the close friends I’ve told about my struggle since, I have a newfound strength to say "no" to myself when I think about purging.
Instead, I say yes to going out to eat with my friends, and I say yes to eating enough to get through dance rehearsals, my work schedule, and my classes without feeling constantly hungry. I don’t want my support system to be disappointed, so I choose not to disappoint myself either.
I’m not perfect, and there are days that I slip up. With eating disorders, recovery isn't easy. Since telling my parents, though, I’ve seen a counselor and I’m planning to see a nutritionist who works with people with eating disorders.
I’ve learned that I’m a really strong person, sometimes to a fault. I thought I could get through this alone, but I’ve finally, thankfully, realized that I don’t have to. I’m proud of myself for telling my dad about my eating disorder, and I’m so lucky to have him by my side, finger-guns and all.
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