This is a powerful article that asks ‘how mindful can you really be with an anorexic child?’ Working mindfully with anorexia written by Hector, a client I coached a while back. Hector’s daughter wasn’t diagnosed at the time we worked together so this is a real-life story of how mindfulness can be a much needed support in times of intense challenge. Thank you Hector for allowing me to post it here.
“Pause, and take a deep breath”
“Always put your own oxygen mask on first”
You hear this quote a lot if you have an anorexic child. Just surviving the unimaginable reality of this illness is often the best we parents can hope for. The importance of “self care” is constantly emphasised by the experts, and “mindfulness” is often suggested as one of the ways to maintain some sanity and hope.
But pausing and taking a deep breath can seem impossible when faced with the often violent resistance parents face. So finding the time, and peace of mind, to regularly meditate may seem faintly ridiculous to some of you.
I have to confess that I started doing mindfulness meditation a year or so before my daughter was diagnosed. I started with the Headspace app and then was coached by Simon Barnes. So it was easier for me to stick with it while in the trenches with the bullets flying overhead.
If you are new to it, hopefully I can give you some useful pointers to get you started. Guided meditations are an “easy in” to mindfulness. I will tell you about ones which are very specific to the emotions you face caring for a loved one with such a tough illness.
I won’t promise that you will float through this long and difficult struggle in a zen-like trance. But mindfulness meditation has helped calm me when completely overwhelmed. Also I do believe the cumulative effect of regular practice means those moments of overwhelm happen less often.
“When the sh!t hits the fan”
In the heat of a difficult exchange, I do find it very hard to take the advice of pausing, breathing deeply, and making tactical retreat. More often I tend to rhino it out, leading to the inevitable blow up. After these incidents I can also find it very difficult to calm down, and feel normal again so I can function properly.
In these situations I have found Eva Musby’s longer meditations very useful. They can be a little too intense for everyday use, but when you’ve been through something only a parent of an anorexic would, they really resonate. They make you feel less alone, and help you realise you are not the first parent to feel so powerless and overwhelmed. In fact she reassures you that this is pretty inevitable with the illness.
There are lots of generic guided meditations that deal with overwhelm too. They teach you to turn your focus to your body; to feel the weight of your feet on the ground; or the weight of your body on a chair or bed; to start to breathe slowly and deeply. These are all useful skills, but Eva incorporates them in her meditation, while also understanding why you are in the state you are in.
Her meditations are free to download but her book is also worthwhile reading. I daresay you will also have been referred to her Youtube videos.
Meditations to help you sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is hard to come by when your child has anorexia. Guided meditations are excellent for this and there are lots of free versions online. One of Eva Musby’s meditations is aimed at getting you to sleep, but as I said I find it a little too intense for everyday use.
I really like the work of Oren Jay Sofer, as he has a really calming voice and rhythm. There are some free meditations on his website and specific ones for sleep online. I actually came across him on the Ten Percent Happier mindfulness app, but you do have to pay for that after the trial period.
Meditation to manage anger
If your child is anorexic there will be many times when you feel angry. You may feel anger at your child for not eating; at the clinicians for not having a cure; at yourself for letting it happen in the first place; at your spouse for approaching it differently. Or you could just be angry at life in general for creating so much pain and suffering.
The righteousness of anger can be very powerful and seductive, but sadly the more you indulge in it the more the feeling grows. Unfortunately anger is not a very constructive emotion when dealing with anorexia, so learning to manage it and let it go is a very healthy skill.
I found Oren Jay Sofer’s work on anger also very useful. He has that lovely calming voice but his meditation does not try to get rid of the anger. Instead it helps you recognise the angry thoughts and feelings. By recognising them, you objectify them, and therefore you create a tiny sliver of distance between you and them. This in turn helps to reduce how much you are consumed by them, and gradually releases you from them.
Meditations specifically about caring for someone
On the Ten Percent Happier app I also found a really good meditation about caring for someone in need. It is by Sharon Salzberg and it helps you maintain resilience and avoid compassion fatigue. Her meditation repeats three phrases:
“May I offer my care and presence without conditions, knowing they may be met by gratitude, anger or indifference.”
I like this one as it recognises that caring for someone with anorexia can be thankless, and more often met with anger and aggression rather than gratitude.
“May I see my limits compassionately, just as I view the limitations of others”
I like this phrase as it recognises that often you will feel overwhelmed and out of your depth. It reminds you that you wouldn’t expect more from someone else in your position.
“May I offer love, knowing I can’t control the course of life, suffering or death”
This phrase recognises how powerless we are against the illness, so we don’t expect too much and exhaust our compassion and love.
Caring for someone day after day, month after month, year after year, is a lot easier if you can manage your expectations and maintain self-compassion.
You may not have heard of the term “self-compassion”. In fact it may feel like an indulgent and self-pitying concept. Even when life is going well, instinctively most of our inner dialogue is self critical and focused on our weaknesses. Having an anorexic child is inherently stressful, and the more stressed we are, the louder that dialogue becomes. It is very easy to fall into a martyred spiral of self blame and laceration for finding everything so hard.
Dr Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology, was the first person to research self-compassion empirically. She discovered that constantly expecting more from ourselves neither improves how we do in life, nor makes us feel better. She found that is is healthier to say to ourselves:
“Yes it is very difficult what I’m going through right now, but it’s normal and natural for human beings to struggle at times. I’m not alone …”
Rather than encourage self-pity, self-compassion helps you get perspective on your suffering. So instead of mercilessly criticising yourself for how hard caring for your child is, you realise that any parent would struggle in your situation, and they would probably act in the same way.
Rather than encourage self-indulgence, self-compassion is a powerful motivator for growth and change. It enables you to rationalise your limitations without self condemnation, and therefore work patiently to learn to cope better.
It sounds very wishy-washy, but I have found practising self compassion meditation has enabled me to not only feel more compassion for myself, but also for my child, and the rest of humanity. Self-compassion is a major strand of mindfulness and is the foundation of a lot of guided meditation.
Kristin Neff has done many talks and written many books on the subject. Her work is very accessible and a good place to start are the free meditations on her website.
A chance to experience mindfulness and see if it works for you
I hope you have found this article a practical help in getting into mindfulness. I have covered meditation for:
You will feel loads of difficult emotions when looking after an anorexic child, but hopefully these will give you a chance to experience mindfulness and see if it works for you.
Sadly mindfulness doesn’t cure your child, or make the struggle go away. But I have found refuge in it, a chance to get some calm and perspective. I like to finish my meditations with the words:
“May I feel 1 or 2 percent more at ease today”
That might not sound much, but it feels achievable in the circumstances. Also I hope that cumulatively it helps my child and I to get through this tough time as peacefully as possible.
If you would like to explore mindfulness further, please get in touch.