When Erin was 12 and I was 15, she began to starve herself. She had been experimenting with being a bad-girl for the past year. She got caught smoking and shoplifting. But when she found anorexia, she found her true passion. She is 4'11" and managed to get herself down under 70 pounds. I honestly can't remember the exact number at this point, but the first digit was 6. Needless to say, she was hospitalized. She was placed in the psychiatric unit because she refused to follow the doctor's orders. They had to immobilize her and use an IV to give her calories. Their goal was to put enough weight on her that her menstrual cycle would return. Apparently, that's the body's reaction when it is severely underweight. Your cycle stops because your body cannot support a pregnancy. So the bar for getting out of the hospital became periods. Meanwhile she was going through individual psycho-therapy and once a week we all had to do family therapy. At the time this made absolutely NO SENSE to me and I was pretty uncooperative about it.
I really thought it was black and white; either she's mentally ill or she isn't. If she's insane, then no amount of family therapy is going to do anything. If she's not insane, which frankly, I don't know how you could do that to your body and not be full-blown nuts, then she's in control of her actions and she's choosing to do this. Again, why would family therapy make her choose something else? If she's doing it on purpose for attention, then don't give her the attention. If she's mentally ill, then accept that and get her treatment. Somehow, I'm sure because of my inability to articulate much at 15, this got translated to, "Why don't you just punish her?" To this day, when Erin does something stupid like steal food from the house and I chime in with an opinion, my parents mock me by saying, "Just punish her."
But I digress. After spending most of her 8th grade year in the psychotic unit, Erin got smart. She realized that she could control her weight and keep herself at the magic number that would keep her out of the hospital by being bulimic. This number is somewhere in the 90s. Although, her periods never really returned to a regular, monthly normalcy. The doctors let her come home with the agreement that individual and family therapy would continue.
I thought things were really bad for those months that she was in the hospital. Mom and Dad were never home. I came home from school by myself, ate dinner in front of the TV, and went to bed. I didn't see my parents much as all. It turned out that these were the golden days of the "Erin Years" as we now call them. It was the quiet before the storm. When Erin moved back home, her bulimia encompassed our lives.
I need to dispel a common myth about bulimia. It's not that someone will eat a regular meal and then go throw up out of guilt. I've never seen that, except for in the movies. Real bulimics ritualize food and then the process of purging is a ritual too. First, Erin would go into the kitchen and cook elaborate quantities of food. She'd take a whole loaf of bread and turn it into French toast. Then maybe she'd eat a whole box of crackers with cheese. Then she might eat a whole box of cereal with milk. Then she'd bake a batch of cookies and eat them all. She would literally clean out the cupboards. This process could take up to two hours. Then she would wait for some internally prescribed time to let her body digest a portion of the food. Finally, she would lock herself in the bathroom and take an hour-long shower so that she could vomit in the tub. This process would happen twice a day. And in this manner she was able to keep herself just at that magic number that would keep her out of the hospital.
The first practical problem was that Mom and Dad couldn't keep food in the house. There were three other people who needed to eat. After a whole bunch of stupid strategies, they decided the only thing left to do was to lock the food up. They put a heavy duty bolt on the refrigerator and they moved all the dry goods into a hall closet, which they bolted as well. Then they hid the keys. That was somewhat successful in reducing their skyrocketing food bills.
The other practical problem was that there was often splatters of vomit in the bathtub and also, anyone who was home had to listen to her puking. It was simply gross. At one point, the people running family therapy (we needed 2 therapists) suggested that Erin could have a bucket in her room so that only she had to deal with the results of the puking. That idea didn't last very long because since Erin didn't clean up after herself in the public space, she sure as hell didn't clean up well in her own bedroom. Mom got disgusted and the bucket went away. Ultimately, they decided that the puking was just something that we all had to live with.
And now I'm emotionally tired and need to stop this for today.