By Chris Croll
This is an interview with the mother of a child who has anxiety-induced medical anorexia. It is one in a series that profiles children who have conditions, diagnoses or temperaments that require specialized support from parents, teachers, coaches, therapists, friends, family members and other influential people in their lives. The goal of these profiles is to elicit greater empathy from the community for these high-needs children and their families.
Croll: What does it mean to have anxiety-induced medical anorexia?
Julia: Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. For my son, his anxiety prevents him from eating. He gets nauseous before a meal and sick to his stomach after a meal. As a result, he is at a dangerously low weight. He does not have the body dysmorphic disorder where he thinks he’s fat that is typically associated with anorexia. He just finds eating to be an extremely unpleasant experience.
Croll: When did you realize this was an issue with your son?
Julia: The eating issues started in sixth grade after transitioning from a private school to public school. He was assigned to a lunch table without any of his friends. He felt so uncomfortable eating alone that he stopped eating lunch at school. His weight started to drop and soon he began not turning in work. It was obvious something was off.
Croll: How do his exceptionalities impact his ability to be successful academically and socially?
Julia: He has missed a lot of school because his anxiety didn’t allow him to get out of bed. It is impossible for me to drag a 5-foot, 9-inch 17-year old kid out of bed to go to school. The battling every morning only fueled his anxiety. Eventually he went on homebound and then I pulled him out of public school altogether. By that point he was very sick. When a child is malnourished, the nutrients they do take in go to support vital organs like heart, lungs and kidneys. The brain suffers as a result. When the brain is not adequately fed, cognitive function is impaired. Being anxious made my son not eat and him not eating made him even more anxious. It’s a vicious cycle.
When he got down to 92 pounds, his team of doctors insisted that he be admitted to an eating disorder clinic for inpatient services. Unfortunately, that was a horrible experience for him and created even more mental health challenges. He became suicidal. I finally took him out of there against medical orders after a nurse whispered to me that he didn’t belong there. I then had him at home with me and he promised to try harder to eat. He was still very unwell physically and mentally. He confided in a friend that he wanted to end his life. I was terrified every time I ran out to the store that I would come home and find him dead.
Croll: What are some of the unique parenting challenges you face with this condition?
Julia: Nonstop stress and worry! I am a single mom and I constantly wonder if there’s something I could have done differently. I never in a million years thought I would have a child with mental health issues and an eating disorder. I’m angry that there are not more readily available and affordable resources for children like my son.
Croll: What are some of the challenges your child faces?
Julia: Eating is still a huge challenge for him. Overcoming stress and anxiety to get out of bed in the morning is still a struggle. My son feels tremendous guilt for causing me to worry about him. He chokes down many supplements drinks every day, even though they taste terrible, and it is still hard for him to eat enough calories.
Croll: What type of education environment does your child attend?
Julia: He takes a few classes right now at a private school for kids who require a flexible education.
Croll: How do you think your child is perceived by others?
Julia: Adults perceive my son as very smart and interesting. Younger kids like him and go to him for advice. He always comes across as very level-headed and mature. He has a few close friends.
Croll: What would you like others to understand about your child and others like him?
Julia: If your child has mental health issues it doesn’t mean you are a bad parent. There is no shame in being honest and letting people know your kid isn’t perfect. My message to parents with children suffering from anxiety is this: It may take ten psychiatrists or counselors before you finally find one that fits. It may take ten medications before you find one that works. Keep pushing for your child and know that you are not alone out there. Many of us are going through the same struggle.
[Chris Croll is a parenting consultant specializing in educating and raising gifted and twice-exceptional children. She leads the National Center for Gifted Services and the nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students.]