The Angst of Separation
One cause of my anorexia was my anxiety about separation and individuation.
Posted Jun 15, 2011
As the school year winds down and summer begins I hear children talking with excitement and eager anticipation about going away to camp. This makes me think about my own experience at
a sailing camp on Cape Cod.
The summer after sixth grade I was eleven years old, and told my parents that I wanted to go to a sleep-away camp for a month. Many of my peers went away to camp and I wanted to go too. My family had a summer house on Cape Cod and I had often seen the campers learning to sail on the bay. My father often told me stories about his sailing camp experience at a camp on the Cape as well.
Throughout my childhood I had great difficulty being away from my parents. When they traveled on business trips I cried hysterically on the phone, begging them to come home early. When I was nine years old, I went to a two week girl scout camp. I was so homesick that my parents brought me home after a week. Once I tried to get up the courage to throw myself off a swing, thinking that I would break my arm which would force my parents to cut a trip short. I was not brave enough to try this.
Even with this history I still wanted to go to sleep-away camp. I felt excited as I left with my big black trunk and name tags sewn on all my clothes. We never talked about the possibility that I might feel homesick. Maybe my parents thought I had outgrown it as I was the one to ask to go away and I was going to a camp on Cape Cod, a place where I had spent every summer since I was an infant.
The first few days of camp I felt extremely homesick, spending much of every day crying and trying to muffle my sobs in my pillow each night. We were not allowed to call home so I wrote my parents tear-streaked letters telling them how I felt. The counselors assured me that I would get over these feelings. Even with seven bunkmates and days filled with sailing, swimming, crafts, archery, and horseback riding, I was miserable. All I could think about was my family. I felt isolated and alone. I remember feeling a sense of urgent panic and frantic anxiety. I felt like part of me was missing and that without my parents I could not survive. It also seemed like no one at camp heard me or understood how desperate I felt.
Four days after I arrived at camp I ran away. I chose a Saturday afternoon when no one was in the cabin. Into the pocket of my iridescent green rain slicker, I put my flashlight, a small doll, and a picture of my family. It took me two hours to walk the fifteen miles to my family's summer home. The house was empty so I went to a neighbor's home and called my parents in New York. Sobbing hysterically on the phone, I told them that I had run away from camp and that I needed them to come get me and bring me home.
My parents immediately made the four and a half hour car trip and arrived on the Cape around midnight. I was sure that seeing how much I missed them, they would take me back to New York. The next morning I sat on my father's lap in the breezeway weeping, telling him that I could not bear to go back. "I am miserable. I hate it," I cried. I begged him. I pleaded with him. "Please! Please! I'm begging you." "You need to give camp more of a chance," he said. It seemed like the more I pleaded with my father, the sterner he sounded. I was talking to an impenetrable steel wall. In the next room, my mother was silent.
I did not have a choice. My parents drove me back to camp. My father made a deal with me, which he believed would help. I was allowed to call him every night at 6 pm and he and my mother would visit me every weekend. I never adjusted to camp and to being away from my family. Each day I lived for the 6 pm phone calls and counted the days until I saw my parents on the weekends.
Some children do overcome homesickness and end up loving camp, returning summer after summer for many years. My father did and clearly thought I would too. In his mind, allowing me to come home after running away would not have helped me to resolve my separation anxiety. However, I might have felt that my feelings mattered and that my voice was heard.
A few months after my camp experience my parents sent me to see a therapist. They said it was "to talk to someone about my terror of being apart from them." I do not remember what I talked about with this therapist, a middle-aged woman who wore her hair in a tidy bun on top of her head and always dressed in brightly colored polyester pant suits with black pointy-toed high heel shoes. I do remember feeling ashamed and mortified about having to go to therapy. I felt stigmatized. There must be something wrong with me, I thought.
I am not sure how I understood the problem at that time. Whatever we discussed in individual treatment, it did not help. Family therapy was not a common treatment modality. As a clinician looking back on this experience now, I would have included my parents in the therapy.
At the age of eleven, I expressed my separation anxiety by running away from camp.
At seventeen, one of the contributants to my anorexia was my anxiety about separation and individuation. The two were variations on the same theme. My beliefs both times were similar. In therapy, I came to understand my fear and anxiety about separating from my parents. I was afraid that if I became more independent, my parents would forget about me and would abandon me.
Having this insight alone was not enough for me to stop starving myself. For many years I gained and lost the same weight, verbalizing my fear that my parents would forget about me if I became healthy. In family therapy my parents tried to reassure me that they would not forget about me. "Your brothers are independent and we don't forget about them. So why would we forget about you," they said. I nodded my head, yet somehow with me it felt different.
I cannot point to one specific moment when I finally believed that I could be more independent and still be part of my parents' lives. They would not forget about me nor abandon me. It was a gradual process, just as all my growth and recovery has been. It had to seep from my brain down into my heart before I truly believed it. Simply knowing it in my mind did not make it so in my heart and in my body.
Part of the process was learning not to think in what cognitive therapists call "black and white thinking." My parents and I did not have to be fully attached and enmeshed or completely separate. There could be shades of gray, which is what more healthy adult child - parent relationships are.
As I became healthier, my relationship with my parents changed. We learned to communicate differently. I learned to use my voice and they learned how to hear it. In place of arguing about weight and food, we could spend time doing more enjoyable activities. The times we spent together were more meaningful and less tense. We began to see each other as people, not just parent and child.
My relationship with my mother and father is a work in process. There are still times when I need to trust myself more and be more self-reliant. There are other times when I need to set firm boundaries and reassure my parents that I can take care of something myself, without their input. We are all getting better at this.