Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia

When is it OK to enjoy eating?

Posted Aug 15, 2009

Lisa's Blood Glucose Diary: BINGED. One-half chocolate banana. One-third vegan apple nut pastry. Pita chips (about 10-12)

Sheila's workday: Taste-testing French fries at seven restaurants

On a postcard California spring afternoon, green hills going gold, I am driving around Silicon Valley to sample French fries. It is my job. In another universe, my daughter, Lisa, records each bite she takes in her Blood Glucose Diary, a booklet from her nutritionist. She is frantic about veering from anorexia to binge eating. We don't understand each other at all.

As the restaurant critic of the San Jose Mercury News, I had noticed French fries popping up on high-end menus, many more than the three instances needed to call it a trend. Another cheap thrill that posh restaurants in 2003 could overcharge for, or were these frites that much better than at McDonald's, where no less an authority than James Beard, the Dear Leader of foodies everywhere, approved the fries?

Food reporting's serious aspects concern safety, fraud and consumer protection, but this story was just fun. It was also an escape. While I was out judging America's favorite vegetable for flavor, texture and price, my daughter was home, starving herself. Lisa spent much of her nineteenth year in her room, like a child being punished. Her struggles with anorexia and bulimia had become apparent two years earlier, starting with an interest in diet, nutrition and exercise that was healthful before going very wrong.

Lisa grew up with a lusty appreciation of food. My husband, Ned, is an excellent cook. When we get together with friends, it's in a kitchen or a restaurant. Our vacations are food pilgrimages. Food to us is home, health, family, fantasy, entertainment, education and employment. Heart disease in the family, yes. Anorexia, never. Bulimia? What was that?

We had experienced none of the common triggers often associated with eating disorders: divorce, death, job loss, sexual abuse. As for the anorexic family stereotype-domineering mother, distant father, perfectionist daughter-um, no. We come closer to the opposite--quietly supportive mother, loving father who cries easily, creatively disorganized daughter. We forced the kids to visit distant relatives and always to write thank-you notes, but when they tired of piano lessons and soccer we didn't argue about jeopardizing Ivy League prospects.
After a very bad senior year in high school, Lisa got well enough to go to college. There she soon relapsed, but came out of it and had three very good years before crashing in an even worse way, just shy of graduation. Now twenty-four, she is coming back to life, and again we all have hope. But the past six years brought police cars and emergency rooms into our life, and phrases like "seventy-two-hour hold" and "danger to yourself or others" into our everyday conversation.

As a newspaper writer and editor, I used to love irony. It made for the best stories, especially when they involved an apple falling far from the tree, or at least a little oddly. Such as: "Liberal, Matriarchal Family Spawns Pro-life Leader." And: "Anti-gay Vice President's Lesbian Daughter Says ..." What fun when it's someone else! How to explain the intergenerational drama? Too often, the shortcut answer was: Blame the mother! "She's so controlling." "She's too lax." "She's distant." "She works too much." "She's always home, interfering in everyone's life." When we need someone to pin to the wall, Domineering Mom is so convenient. I have to admit I did it too, although I was just as quick to blame the distant Dad in those deliciously ironic situations. As in: "Newspaper Heiress Patty Hearst Robs Bank." Extrapolating, I wasn't the only one imaging a love-deprived child of privilege, rattling around the mansion by herself.

I didn't love irony when it happened to me: Food writer, in the public eye, has an anorexic daughter. Our life was like a movie in which the audience understands what's going on but the main characters are clueless. And I certainly didn't appreciate the armchair psychologists, real and imagined, pointing the finger at me as the cause of my daughter's eating disorder. Our family went into a triage mode, trying to help Lisa.

The upside of irony, when it happens to you, is that you have to learn something.

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