Every Dad, Every Day

by  Rick Deise, Past President/Board Member of The Eating Disorder Network of Maryland

I love Father’s Day because my father loved me every day. Growing up, there was never a doubt in my mind that my dad loved me wholeheartedly and unconditionally. Sure, there were moments when we disagreed but there was always a connection that seemed bendable and yet, unbreakable. He was my Hero – from his larger-than-life stories as a combat medic in the South Pacific Campaigns of World War II to the simple, humble way he served family and friends as the “handyman”. Preparing for this Father’s Day, my memory of his life and influence intersects with my memory as a father of two amazing young women; one who faced enormous challenges in a 4-year battle with an eating disorder.

Last month I had the opportunity and privilege to speak to the wonderful participants of the Rock Recovery “Building Bridges, Breaking Bread” event. That message was about my role as a dad who struggled to understand how this thing called Anorexia Nervosa had seemingly taken over my daughter Kristen’s life at the precious age of 15. And I spoke of my “natural instinct” to “fix” this problem because that’s just what dads do – we fix things. Well, clearly, that was one of many early mistakes that I made along the journey of the eating disorder (ED).

So, my story ultimately shifted to what I believe I did to make a positive difference in Kristen’s recovery. The essence of that story was about accepting that the eating disorder was bigger than any problem I had ever faced and required a set of solutions (and tools) that were greater than my understanding of the problem. The solution set really came down to remembering what life lessons my dad had given to me (be kind and gentle, help others whenever you can, always use the right tool for the task, and if you’re going to fix something, do it to the best of your abilities or get help – don’t half-a** the work). Renewing my courage through the memory of my dad led me to discern that his strengths were also my most dependable strengths: LOVE, HOPE, and FAITH.

Give LOVE. And not just any love – unconditional love! Love without any strings or condition is the most powerful antidote to the intolerable suffering imposed by ED. Your loved one has an eating disorder – she is not the eating disorder. Love them to reach tomorrow and give them a reason to love themselves even more. When you give love, you create the fertile space to receive love.

Give HOPE. Once you lay the groundwork of love, you can plant the seeds of hope. Those seeds have names like “Possibility”, “Opportunity”, and “Tomorrow”. They speak of what’s next and they can grow inside your loved one as they work their way to recovery. When you hold hope, you bring light into the dark spaces and that light can help guide your loved one even when she is not really sure how to take the next step.

Give FAITH. At its most fundamental meaning, faith simply believes without seeing. It does not matter what form it takes or what religion you practice, faith is about connecting that which is the greatest within you to something even greater outside of you. When you have faith, you create the sacred space where love and hope can grow.

Today, Kristen is a very healthy and vibrant 27-year old who is in her third year as a Registered Nurse with the University of Maryland Hospital System! As a dad of someone who has recovered from her eating disorder, I marvel how life had taken on new meaning and direction as I continued to “pay it forward” through my volunteer work with the Eating Disorder Network of Maryland and now in support of Rock Recovery.

So, I offer some additional words of wisdom to the dad and moms and siblings and supporters of someone who is currently struggling with an eating disorder. Even though my perspective is one from a dad’s point of view, I believe every heart has the capability to teach and connect with another heart that has the capacity to learn and grow and change the story:

Every heart is a mere 12-15 inches south of the brain so help your loved one keep the two connected by inspiring their thoughts with the safe feelings generated by love, hope, and faith.

Every heart relies on trust in a relationship; build that trust with your loved one by offering to share the truth in exchange for receiving the truth (because we know that eating disorders tell lies).

Every heart has the power to generate an attitude of gratitude; start today, share your gratitude right now. Build rituals that promote an attitude of gratitude at your waking, throughout your day, and at the closing of your evening.

Every heart has a capacity to hold hope – hope is a psychological investment in the future. The future is where your greatest life purpose unfolds. Hold fast to hope and hold hope up to your loved one every moment of every single day.

Every heart holds a story and the most important story you will ever tell about yourself is the story you tell to yourself: be courageous – it’s time to change your story to hope and recovery! 

In closing, I offer to you my Prayer for Recovery:

Have FAITH that your LOVE will sustain the HOPE in your loved one’s recovery. AMEN!

One Father’s Fight to Help His Daughter Heal

I remember the first meal I ate at Rock Recovery with my daughter.  It had been some time since I learned she had an eating disorder, and by now the illness was not as completely baffling to me as it had been at first.  I had started off as the Classic Clueless Dad, wondering what the problem could be, probably hurting more than helping with awkward comments and reactions.  At one level, I knew that eating disorders could be serious, even fatal:  Before any of our kids were born, my wife and I had known a woman who literally starved herself to death (massive kidney failure was the proximate cause) through anorexia.  But that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my daughter.

For one thing, life couldn’t be that unfair.  It had hit her with leukemia when she was only four years old.  It had made her endure childhood trauma that we didn’t find out about for years afterward.  In her freshman year of college, fibromyalgia literally left her walking with a cane.

So when the reality was undeniable, I was angry, I was resentful, and I was probably very little help.

The meal was not, to be honest, the most comfortable experience I had ever had.  I was conscious that everyone was conscious of how everyone else was eating.  I was not sure how to proceed.  I slowed down, made vacuous comments about how good the food was, felt my face flush.

It was a little awkward.  And yet I was participating in a healing, through food.

Food fills life’s meaningful moments.  The wedding cake, the Thanksgiving spread, the covered dishes after the funeral.  We eat together when it matters most.

The world’s great faith traditions see food as a point of contact with the infinite.  Whether Seder, Eucharist or breaking the Ramadan fast, food has always informed faith.

Food even helps guide life decisions.  I can honestly say that one of the things that convinced me I was meant to marry my wife of (now) 33 years, and not the woman I had been dating seriously before I met her, was that the woman I would marry loved and enjoyed food, and my other girlfriend didn’t.

So although my primary worry about my daughter’s eating disorder was its effect on her physical and mental health and her relationships, there was always another source of pain and anxiety, just beneath the surface:  How sad that she can’t enjoy one of life’s greatest graces!

Rock Recovery brought her that grace, and more.

It was not her first treatment for eating disorder.  She had sought help once she recognized she had a problem, and I think she benefited from therapy and the friends she made there.  But I noticed a difference once she got involved with Rock Recovery – maybe a renewed sense of purpose, maybe a stronger determination to finish the work, maybe a lot of things. But whatever it was, it took her to a good place.

I always had the feeling that the faith dimension of Rock Recovery was the most important part.  Not that the group insisted on a particular religious approach or orientation; as far as I could tell, they didn’t.  I never had the impression they were preaching or proselytizing.  They just seemed to be putting into practice what they believed, without pretense or self-righteousness.  (The scripturally-inclined may consult James 2:14-18 as a good description of how I perceived Rock Recovery’s approach.)

My daughter is now married, working in health care policy and the caregiver of a good-sized dog.  She loves food and cooking for others and herself.  One of this summer’s rituals is having her younger siblings, home from college, over for dinner.  Her husband has supported her through everything.  The change in her is amazing and wonderful, and life-affirming.  The fearful young woman who stirred her food around the plate but didn’t eat it now loves eating good food.  (I might add that the suffering young woman who walked with a cane now runs marathons, literally.)

Now back to that first Rock Recovery meal.  Eventually, some time before dessert, I realized:  It’s stupid for me to feel self-conscious about how I’m eating.  Get a grip:  For everyone else at this table, this is not just eating.  It is work.  It is hard and necessary work.  It is important.

And so it remains.

Make a donation this Father’s Day & save more fathers from the pain of seeing their child struggle with an eating disorder.


A Special Note From Our Chaplain: What is it About Forgiveness That Makes It So Vital to Recovery?

“We’re going to spend some time tonight talking about forgiveness,” I said to the clients at treatment group a few weeks ago. Eyes rolled—good-naturedly, I think—around the table. “Ugghh,” said one. “That’s what my therapist wants me to work on,” said another, as more heads nodded. The clients may not have been very excited about it, but at least I knew I’d hit on an important—and challenging—topic.

What is it about forgiveness that makes it so vital to recovery? I believe it’s so important because at its core, forgiveness is about freedom. It’s about the freedom that comes from not being bound by the harm that others have caused us. Disordered eating is in part a response to pain, an (ineffective) attempt to manage the hurt that we’ve experienced from the wrongs that others have done to us. As long as we hold onto those wrongs, we hold onto the pain as well. It isn’t until we let go of the wrongs that we can be let go of the pain and be free of the ineffective, harmful coping mechanisms we’ve used to try to deal with them.  

All of us—whether we struggle with disordered eating or not—have been hurt by someone else. That’s because we’re human, and humans are imperfect, and imperfection causes hurt, whether intended or unintended. No matter who we are or what our life has been like, we have all experienced being wronged by someone else. And when we’ve been wronged, we very naturally want the wrong to be rectified, to be made right. We feel the need for the harm that has been done to us to be accounted for, to be punished or at the very least to be acknowledged and apologized for.

We’re not wrong to feel that way; after all, justice is about the setting right of wrongs, and justice is a good thing. Ideally, wrongs should be set right. But often they aren’t, or they can’t be. And in those situations, if we continue to hold onto the wrong that’s been done to us, then we are in a way bound by it. If we can instead name the wrong and then choose to let it go, we can step into healing and freedom.

At treatment group that evening, we discussed some of the steps of forgiveness:

  1. Name the wrong that has been done. Acknowledge your pain and anger. Allow yourself to feel disrespected.
  2. Be specific about your future expectations and limits. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you’re giving that person permission to behave badly toward you.
  3. Let go of your right to “get even,” but insist on being treated better in the future.
  4. Work to let go of blame, resentment, and negativity toward the person who wronged you.
  5. If it is safe and appropriate to do so, communicate your act of forgiveness to the other person.
  6. If it is safe and appropriate to do so, work toward reconciliation with that person.

What we emphasized in our conversation that evening is true for all of us: that forgiveness is a process—one that takes time, and that we can only begin from where we actually are. For some of us, that means we’re just learning to embrace Step 1; we’re just beginning to be able to assert that what was done to us was wrong and to allow ourselves to feel angry about it. Or maybe we’re learning about Step 2 and how to set healthy boundaries with the person who’s hurt us. Whatever step we’re on, we need to give ourselves the time and grace to fully experience and work through that step.

Forgiveness is not something that can be rushed. Nor is it something that can be required or demanded. Forgiveness is real only when it is a gift that is freely offered. But the beautiful thing is that ultimately, forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves, as well—the gift of stepping into healing and freedom.

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