The Path of Healing: My Daughters Journey
There is a photograph that sits on my desk, of my daughter Taryn and myself that was taken during one of our visits to my parent's home in Florida fifteen years ago. I was 25 years old holding my six-month old daughter, both of us gazing out to sea. Although I was at the time still married and living within a family unit, this image seemed to convey a whisper of a journey that my daughter and I were destined to embark upon one day. "Each child enters our life with its individual troubles, difficulties, stubbornness and temperamental challenges in order to help us become aware of how much we have yet to grow. The reason this works is that our children are able to take us in to the remnants of our emotional past and evoke deeply unconscious feelings. Consequently, to understand where our internal landscape needs to develop, we need look no further than our children's gaze." ~ Shefali Tsabury* And now, here we are. My girl is going to be sixteen years old in just two months. We have traversed some shadowy, dark valleys and thankfully some beautifully bright peaks along the way as well. However, the last two years were by far the deepest and darkest of valleys and there were moments when it seemed there was almost no hope in sight. I felt as though I was walking in circles through a barren land with vultures flying overhead just ready to pounce on what remained of my sanity. Yet somehow, through all of it, there was a sense that we were in a way destined for this journey, she and I. The beautiful thing is that I can tell this story from a place more hopeful and bright than I've known in such a long time. Not only have I been on a healing journey, but also my daughter Taryn has been navigating her own healing journey from an eating disorder. But it didn't start out that way.
At first she just wanted to make some positive changes in her life. I had watched my daughter struggle for most of her life, never quite comfortable in her own skin, never at ease in her body.
In school Taryn's teachers noticed early on she was very bright and by middle school they were intent on putting her in to advanced classes. She enjoyed math and art and generally loved learning, but the homework pressure strangled her. She didn't need anyone to push her; for she did that well enough on her own and worked incredibly hard at her work. However, the school environment has always been an abrasive trigger to her psyche and once she reached 8th grade it became apparent that she was suffering profoundly beyond the school walls. She had never been bullied; the teachers did their best to be flexible within a system that allows anything but. Still, something was deeply amiss.
"The key spiritual lesson for parents during these years is that we must reorient our relationship with our teens to one of true kinship and partnership. The key is trust. They will only come to you when they are able to sit in your presence and feel your unconditional faith in their ability to handle their life. To trust them is our spiritual discipline."
It was her 8th grade year and I watched as she slowly began to slip away beneath down cast eyes, sullen expression and little interest in life. It wasn't the black eyeliner, Goth clothes and metal core music that concerned me. After all, I had gone through a similar phase during my teen years complete with shaved head, piercings and doc martins. I get it, teenagers need to explore who they are, try on different identities as they evolve through one of the most challenging stages of a human life. In fact I would later learn that music was one of the few things that helped her climb out of her emotional darkness.
At this time, my concern was the increase in full-blown emotional breakdowns before school each morning. We had the same school routine for years but now instead of waking and getting dressed, my daughter woke with tears. These tears quickly turned to sobs as she exclaimed "I can't do this anymore! I just want everything to go away!" She would end up in a ball of tears and deep, guttural sobs squished in to the corner of her bed, desperate to not feel this way. Desperate to "be normal". "Why can't I just be normal mom?! Why can't I just get up and go to school like everyone else?!" I don't know, dear one. I don't know. My energy began to seize up in desperation as the clock ticked and I got ready for work while also trying to soothe and reassure Taryn and get her to school on time. For some of the 8th grade year I managed to get her out the door but gradually the sobs grew louder and the stress of the situation intensified. After waking up to this scenario day in and day out I began to lose my ability to soothe and just became frustrated, resentful and stressed out. Desperate to help her I could feel my body bearing the impact of this turmoil leaving me depleted. Eventually my ability to get her out the door and to school was compromised and it was all I could do to get myself to work on time. Eventually I left for work in sheer frustration and exhaustion, while my little girl wept and I put on a brave face to get through the workday.
By this point a lot of parents would, out of desperation to ease the situation, put their kid on medication. This was the most frequent suggestion I got from doctors, other parents and articles I read. But I knew this was not ultimately a solution. This is what we do in our western society- treat the symptoms and avert the long, perilous journey to the root cause. I knew that medications with a grocery list of side effects would not bring my daughter back to wellness; it would merely get her into a vicious cycle and hijack her body's natural healing mechanisms. With that said, there were days when I wished I could just give her a pill and make it all go away. "Our tendency is to reprimand our children when they are in the grip of strong emotion. Hoping that through the power of our wanting, our children's emotions will magically disappear so we won't have to deal with their rawness, even ugliness, we counsel, "Don't be so angry," or "Snap out of feeling depressed!". By making such statements, we seek to banish our children's shadowy emotions to the recesses of their mind. Consequently, our children grow up disconnected from their emotions." ~Shefali Tsabury
Instead, I searched the entire east coast for the right therapist, hoping that if she made a connection, maybe we could salvage some remnants of recovery from which to rebuild. We met with several exceptional therapists but it quickly became clear Taryn would not be able to talk her way to healing. Around this time we had gone to the doctor for headaches that were growing in intensity and frequency. As part of the routine check up they happened to weigh her and this would mark the beginning of our descent to rock bottom. A switch went off in Taryn's mind that day and she described feeling disgusted at how much she weighed. Later that day she came to me and said she wanted to make some healthy changes in her diet. This was around January of her 8th grade year (2014) and in the months to come Taryn would begin to talk about how she had been emotionally eating so much of her life and in this recognition I saw a shimmer of a light begin to spark. I tasted a morsel of hope.
Although she made some positive changes in her diet, the emotional turmoil continued and Taryn was missing a lot of school. During this time I was working and also making my way through a year long yoga teacher training program and in many ways the group of women I gathered with each Thursday evening helped keep me sane. However, it was equally a challenge some weeks to dig myself out of the trenches and just show up. By March of that year I decided it was time to step way out of the box and try something new. I took Taryn out of school and enrolled her in VLACS which is an online public school program designed for students like Taryn, who simply aren't well suited to the conventional structure of public school. Again, it seemed hopeful at first, but it wasn't long before Taryn's emotional anxiety and depression took over and she began to wilt under the pressure of an even heavier schoolwork load. She managed to complete the year and I thanked God for summer's arrival. I imagined we would take the summer and she could enjoy the ease of no schedule, focus on therapy and start the next year with a fresh start. Yes, that's what we needed. A fresh start.
As the summer progressed and I walked the tightrope between work, yoga teacher training and managing the situation at home I kept a solid eye on my girl, watching as her body transformed. At first she appeared healthier, lighter maybe even a bit happier in her new more slender frame and there was a new aspect to her personality I had not previously seen. I didn't mind my daughter exploring a healthier lifestyle, but as the summer progressed it became clear to me that she had passed a threshold that I felt uncomfortable with. Her food portions became smaller and smaller and she created more and more dietary restrictions, examining the nutrition facts on all the jars and cans of food we bought, scrutinizing calorie count and fat content. I suppose there was a part of me that didn't want to believe my daughter was developing an eating disorder and yet, deep inside I sensed this was happening. Unfortunately by this time I simply did not have the emotional reserves to gather up and take action.
By August of 2014 my girl, my sweet baby girl whom I held in my arms all those years ago looking out to sea, was a mere 74 pounds and my heart ached. I was teaching her some gentle yoga during this time and as she bended and twisted through the postures I felt my stomach drop as the edges of her bones protruded from each angle of her small frame. How did we get here?? How will we get through this?? I cried myself to sleep many nights, wishing and praying for an answer, something- anything to end this madness. I read books, researched and it seemed the only solutions were to literally force her to eat. I still felt there must be something more I could do, as I knew in my heart you cannot force someone in to healing. They must realize the need to heal on their own and take the painful, difficult but empowering steps to get there. Still, I was willing to try pretty much anything by now. So, I got angry. I found an edge and pushed through.
I began weighing her each week and demanding she eat more. I bought protein shakes and avocadoes and practically begged her to eat, conjuring an urgency I was praying she wouldn't ignore. After days and weeks of this, she agreed to increase her calories a little more and for a short time this provided some reassurance. As we prepared for the school year to begin I felt hopeful that high school would bring positive changes for her. She got a fresh haircut, new clothes and I became hopeful during a time when she couldn't be. The classes seemed promising and I was excited for all the possibility that awaited her; maybe she would meet some kids she connected with, perhaps a teacher or a class would help uncover a new interest. I remember that first day, dropping her off and watching my daughter's emaciated frame as she made her way toward the doors of the school amidst throngs of teenagers, catching a few of them looking at her confused and shocked. She lasted 4 weeks.
By the second week the morning melt downs returned but she was so frail the sobs simply didn't hold the same intensity as the previous year. One morning I reached my own breaking point as I watched my daughter collapse in tears with a raw grief that poured from her through desperate sobs, her bones protruding and suddenly emotion took over me; I sat beside her and let the tears flow. *Please. God. Please help my girl. Help her find her way. * I decided that it was time. I was out of options. I would have to call the eating disorder clinic in Portland and send her away to the in-patient recovery program. I was numb and feeling everything all at once. My heart was breaking and I was dissolving inside. I wanted to scream and rage and cry at the world. I just let go and decided this is what I needed to do. I got on the phone and called the eating disorder clinic in Portland. Upon hearing my conversation with the nurse, my daughter came running out of her room in desperate cries begging me "Please don't send me away! Please, I will eat more I promise, please don't send me away, I can't go there, I know I won't survive it!" To be honest, our insurance didn't cover it, which would have required out-of-pocket fees to the tune of $750 per week. I would give her until January to implement real changes, increase her food intake and go back to therapy.
By this point I opted to take Taryn out of school and focus solely on getting her strong and well again. At a mere 72 pounds by now she was in no condition to be running to class and dealing with the pressure and demands of school. My daughter's health mattered far more to me than her GPA. January rolled around and she had put on a small bit of weight, just enough that I felt perhaps we were beginning to make progress. I had found and enrolled her in an out-patient intensive therapy program that provided her with peer support as well as focused individual therapy to address anxiety and depression issues.
I still remember the day the therapists on staff called me in for a meeting. I had just received news that morning that my biopsy revealed breast cancer and I was reeling from the news.
I arrived at the meeting where the therapist informed me that Taryn would not be able to continue attending this program, as they believed until she acknowledged she had an eating disorder, they could not help her.
We went home that day, each of us in our own daze. We were both quiet and retreated to bed early that night. I cried and I prayed. Prayed for guidance and clarity to see the next step and have the courage to walk the path that would unfold. I knew then that everything needed to change.
"So invested are we in being "good" parents that we would be embarrassed to share our feelings with friends and family. Because of our fear of being judged, we tend to hide the degree to which we feel torn asunder, shredded, and psychically distorted by the demands of our children." ~ Shefali Tsabury
I eventually told my daughter the news about my biopsy results and by that point I had already decided my treatment path and was beginning to feel empowered and rooted in faith around my decision. I knew in my heart that the stress from our journey the previous couple years played a role in my body's deep imbalance and that it was time I find ways to begin coping and healing myself. So I surrendered it all. I just let go and trusted that we would find our way.
I could no longer bend and conform my every waking moment around my daughter, I now had to heal myself and I let her know of the changes we needed to implement. Those first days and weeks were deeply raw and surreal.
I began my immersion in to researching healing and learning about all the ways our medical system was broken. The more I learned the more empowered I became and this led to frequent discussions with my daughter, around healing and lifestyle and the exquisite gift that this life truly is and how many of us allow this profound truth to become lost in the blur of our busy every day lives.
Then one day something happened.
It was late June of this year and my daughter had texted me at work to say we needed to talk--it was serious. I took some breaths and prepared to hear her out. I walked in the door and took note of the heavy stillness in the room, my daughter sat curled up on the couch, I dropped my bags and went to her and sat. deep breath
She looked at me, pools of tears welling up in her eyes, "I need help mom, I have an eating disorder and I want to heal." I took her in my arms and just held her. The floodgates opened and we just let the tears roll. Release it all and let that shit fly. It was as though I felt layers of old grief dissolve that day, washed away by the salt of so many tears. What a long road it had been and I knew in my heart this marked a vital breakthrough that was an essential piece, before any true healing could take root.
It’s been about 5 months since that day and through an unwavering commitment to a plant-based vegan diet Taryn has restored her weight to a perfectly healthy level. After 2 years her monthly cycle has returned and she let go of her excessive exercise routines and replaced that with daily walks in nature and occasionally some yoga at home. We have continued to homeschool/unschool and use every day as an opportunity to learn. Taryn has shared her journey through her popular Instagram account (Tarynthevegan) - which has grown to almost 5,000 followers - as well as YouTube. (See below to watch the video she made about her eating disorder journey). She is beginning to find her tribe through local and long distance connections that have been formed along the way. She has a gift for photography and vegan food art/recipe preparation; she has learned that food is medicine and when you provide your body with the proper nutrients and live enzymes and create a healthy lifestyle around that, healing can be the only result.
As for the future, Taryn is growing her own dreams and already understands that ultimately life can only be truly experienced right here, right now in this moment.
As a parent I recognize that ultimately this is her journey and it's not my job to control the navigation of that. I want her to go to college only if it’s her dream to go. Her ability to live a full, independent and productive life does not hinge on having a college degree unless she decides at some point that its an important piece for her life trajectory. It's my belief that this generation is paving a new road for success; no doubt many of the systems we have lived by are broken and in need of new vision and new leaders. We continue to homeschool as Taryn continues to heal. She plans to enroll in some online college courses next fall and aspires to become a holistic nutritionist one day and help others on their healing journey. Mostly, she wants to truly live life fully, enjoy the earth, explore the world, and learn every single day. For now we are recalibrating and revisioning as we each plant seeds for a fuller, more vibrant future. For this sweet moment, I am full with gratitude that my girl made her way through that darkness and is finally experience the beauty, magic and wonder of life and understanding that we are all a vital strand in the great web of life. XO *"I would rather know about my daughter's process in terams of living than her progress in terms of grades. I'm primarily interested in whether she's kind and compassionate, emotionally felxible and resilient, expressive and spontaneous and authentic. I know that if my daughter is successful as a person, she'll take care of the other aspects of her education in her own way and at her own pace." *~ Shefali Tsabury