by Christina Leigh
It is hard not to love that little Easter Bunny. He is cute, cuddly, and so full of goodies. He makes you think of Spring, and he makes you think chocolate. It really makes one feel a bit antisocial not to love him. When you are the parent of a child with an eating disorder, the Easter Bunny seems a bit more sinister. I find myself annoyed at his constant presence on my TV, radio, and computer. I cannot go into a single store without seeing that rabbit! The unchanging reality is that I will encounter that rabbit every year at approximately this time and so will my son.
I remember that first year when Easter became something that I feared rather than looked forward to. Our son had just come out of the hospital several weeks before we were getting ready to go into Lent. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t just the Easter Bunny that I was afraid of. It was suddenly a fear of a season that was traditionally very beautiful to me. The season of Lent, in my faith, was a time of preparation for the Easter season, which would be a time of rebirth and joy. Now, suddenly I looked at both with anxiety and uncertainty. What would all that chocolate and candy talk do to my son? How would we handle the issue of Easter baskets and Easter egg hunts? We have several other children. Would they have to give up their Easter celebration because their brother had an eating disorder? Even before we get to the Easter celebration, what would we do about Lent?
Lent, for us, is a time of preparation and penance. This is the case with many of the Christian religions. It is typically a time when you hear people “giving up” something that is either very pleasurable or a temptation to them. This usually involves sweets or food of some sort or some activity such as watching TV. For many religions, it involves some sort of fasting. This was the case for us. Fasting did not mean not eating; it meant cutting back on the portion sizes at meals and not eating between meals. Obviously, most, if not all of this, involved food or eating in some way or other. So now what were we going to do?
This post is not intended to spark a debate about religious customs as no one’s mind is very likely to be changed one way or the other. Having said that; how was our family going to incorporate our religious beliefs within the framework of our son’s eating disorder? Did this mean that we stopped the practice of Lent and Easter altogether? Did it mean that we ignored the needs of our son and risk a major decompensation? The answer to both was no.
The first thing that I needed to do personally was to take my fear and panic and, instead of allowing it to paralyze me, turn it into something more productive like a plan of action. This wasn’t easy! Fear and panic very quickly paralyze me and it takes a lot of my energy to turn them around.
The first step was honesty. We had a family meeting and we all talked openly about our feelings related to Lent and Easter. Our son had a chance to tell us what would be a trigger to him. He was able to discuss his feelings of guilt surrounding the impact of his eating disorder on the rest of the family and his brothers and sisters were able to express feelings about the impact of his eating disorder on this holiday. Everyone had a chance to speak with the goal of expressing themselves and then of brainstorming about what to do. This holiday would be different because of the eating disorder, but it didn’t mean it had to be unpleasant or adversarial.
The first big hurdle for us was Lent. Obviously, the idea of fasting was a huge problem. Our faith does not teach us that we cause harm to our bodies. It does not teach us that we make ourselves sick or that the only form of penance is food. Making food the focus of our Lent would not have been in the best interest of our son. The idea is that we prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming Easter season. We could find things that were not food related that we could use for Lent. That was not a problem. If my husband and I chose to cut sweets from our diet during this period, it could be done discreetly.
Our son wanted to participate in Lent as well and during this family meeting came up with a rather creative strategy. For him, giving up food was a bit like telling his brothers and sisters that they could give up homework for Lent. Our son was to be eating three meals per day with three snacks and this was very difficult for him at times. He was also restricted from exercise, something even more difficult for him to observe. He would, at times, exercise even though he was not supposed to and his weight was not moving very much during this period. He proposed that since giving up food was not only easy, but life threatening, he would choose to add a supplement to his diet and refrain from all forms of exercise during this Lenten period. He felt that he would be participating in a meaningful way, something that was very important to him. This was done with the caveat of no guilt if there was a setback or hiccup along the way. An inability to carry out the plan at any given time was not a failure.
The discussion of Easter baskets also was creative. Our children decided that there could be some candy in the baskets, but reduced from previous years. Other items like small toys for younger children or gloves, hair ribbons, funny “gag” items, and such could be added to the baskets taking the place of additional chocolate and candy. Since our son was older, his basket could easily be filled with non-food items, which is what he requested. The Easter eggs for the Easter egg hunt would not be filled with jelly beans and M & M’s that year. Instead they were filled with pieces of paper with “prizes” that included things such as a trip to the store alone with mom or dad. They could be “redeemed” for such things as a coloring book, a pack of colored pencils or crayons, a game at the arcade, etc. Everyone got to suggest something they would like to see as a prize.
Our family has kept the changes that we made that first Easter season after our son was in recovery. We have modified them over the years to reflect the ages and different needs of the family. We begin every year with a family meeting just before Ash Wednesday to discuss what our plan will be for that year.
I would not have a complete post if I didn’t include the importance of including your child’s treatment team in the plan. All of our ideas were run by our treatment team so that any problems or concerns could be addressed and our plan modified. My son’s desire to do something healthy for himself was encouraged with the hope that in seeing some measure of success, even if not perfect, he could carry this forward.
I will always remember that first year because I was proud of my son and of our family. We worked together. It wasn’t idyllic, it wasn’t a fairytale, and it certainly wasn’t without some bumps in the road. All of those things were expected and it was OK because we continued to move forward. We will never escape the commercialism of Easter. The bunny, the chocolate, and the emphasis on food will always be there. Before our son got sick, we loved those things too, but it didn’t define Easter for us. It was a part of the Easter celebration for our family, but Easter was so much more to us. Now, we put less emphasis on the food and candy end of things. We don’t eliminate them entirely, but we don’t run them up the flagpole either. I am sure that over the coming years we will continue to adjust and change with the needs of our son and the rest of the family. What I hope never changes, though, is the collaboration.
Those family meetings are important. They contain their share of griping, complaining, and even finger pointing at times. In the end though, they have brought forth a great deal of creativity and have helped us all to work hard not to be defined by this wretched illness.