Why I’m now grateful for Family Based Treatment...even though I hated it

Author: Maris Degener

Maris Degener is Equip’s lead peer mentor. She was diagnosed with anorexia at age fourteen, and with the support of her parents and community, fully recovered. Maris studied psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is now passionate about spreading the hopeful message that full recovery is possible. Maris shares her story of illness, recovery, and life beyond an eating disorder in the documentary I Am Maris, available on Netflix.

I remember my life immediately after my diagnosis of anorexia nervosa as a time filled with challenging emotions: fear, shame, frustration, and even grief. As a fourteen-year-old, I felt unprepared to have my life turned upside down by a diagnosis that I didn’t even fully understand. Anorexia? Wasn’t that something ballerinas and models got? Did that mean I was vain? Did I do something wrong? More challenging than untangling myself from the untrue and unfair stereotypes and stigma associated with eating disorders, though, was coming to terms with what needed to be done for me to heal.

My parents, still working through their own confusion and shame around my sudden diagnosis, took me home from the Stanford Eating Disorders Program with a plan to do everything they could to support my recovery. Neither of them had undergone any kind of mental health education before my hospitalization, but they were willing to embark on a crash course in it in order to help their daughter. 

At the time, still present in a persistent eating disorder, I focused mostly on their slips along the way: the times they didn’t say exactly the right thing, the times they repeated stereotypes about eating disorders unknowingly, the times they snapped at me out of frustration and fear. But today, as a recovered adult supporting others in their recovery journeys, I feel immense gratitude for their willingness to learn, adapt, and help me fight an eating disorder when I simply couldn’t do it alone.

To be fully honest, I hated Family Based Treatment (or, more accurately, my eating disorder hated it). I was asked, if not commanded, to relinquish all of the control my eating disorder demanded. No more choosing my own meals. No more choosing when or how I ate. No more eating unsupervised. No more exercise. No more freedom. 

At first, I was fully consumed by the fear-response this evoked: the eating disorder voice grew louder and angrier, resulting in outbursts, food thrown, and mean words tossed at my parents. The eating disorder knew exactly what to say to hurt my parents and hopefully wear them down enough to surrender power back to the disorder that raged at them. There were many times that I told my parents I hated them, that if they loved me, they would let me go back to living the life I thought I wanted, alone with the eating disorder. 

And yet, as challenging as it must have been for them, they pressed on. They sat with me at the kitchen table until each bite was taken. They took me to each and every therapy session and doctor’s appointment. They sacrificed much of their lives to spend time with their child who, gripped by an eating disorder, hurled insults and hateful words their way. All the while they held onto the hope that someday, things would improve.

As challenging as this process was, a tiny part of me slowly began to surrender to the relief I felt inside. At first it was a small voice that my eating disorder labeled as a “weakness” or “lack of self-discipline.” But over time, this tiny voice grew louder and delivered a message of comfort: the battle against my eating disorder was no longer a burden I had to carry on my own. Each meal wasn’t a fight with the rules and restrictions of the disorder, because I had no power to decide what was on my plate. 

As much as the eating disorder hated Family Based Treatment, the wise-minded Maris that was always within me found relief in no longer feeling fully responsible for challenging the disorder at every meal. Having no freedom, in a way, meant feeling more freedom from the disorder.

Many parents struggle with the challenges of family-based treatment. Eating disorders are invested in sticking around and will say and do very hurtful things to try and do so. Watching your child gripped by an illness that demands full control react to the changes of you taking back control can be heartbreaking, frustrating, and confusing. There are many parents who tell me they’ve had many moments of saying: “Is this really the best thing I can do for my child? Is this really worth it?”

As someone who now reaps the benefits of Family Based Treatment, I can say whole-heartedly that every challenging meal and fight over food was worth it. We didn’t do everything “perfectly,” but that’s not what’s expected of anyone in recovery. My parents sometimes said hurtful things back or doubted themselves in the process, but we still learned from these instances and moved forward. In doing so, I was able to begin my healing process and get my body back to a stable state, strong enough to support me as I navigated all the deep-digging and personal exploration that comes with recovery.

Today, I see myself as proof that full recovery is possible, and that it’s entirely worth the challenges that arise along the way. If I could send one message to parents supporting their children in this journey, it’s that the disorder gets louder, meaner, and angrier when it feels threatened: and that can be a sign that you’re truly helping your child break free from its grasp. Despite all the hurtful things I said and did at the hands of my eating disorder, I still love my parents. And yes, I am grateful for the time they took control away from the disorder to give me space to breathe and heal - even if I couldn’t express it at the time.