FAMILY ALMANAC

Can a damaged mother-daughter relationship be healed?

Posted Aug. 09, 2014, at 12:13 p.m.

Q. I honestly feel that I mothered my daughter as best I could, but she doesn’t agree with me at all.

The last time I saw her she told me that I had been a terrible mother and that she was too angry to see me anymore. That was a year ago and I haven’t heard from her since then. No Mother’s Day card, nothing.

I was divorced from her father when she was little but most of the misery came when she developed anorexia in high school. My daughter got so ill that she almost died and then she had to go to an eating disorders center for a while. I thought she was well when she came home but in time she became horribly bulimic and it was absolutely the worst.

She binged and she purged; she plowed through all of our food; she made horrible messes in the kitchen and she finally did so much damage to herself that she developed osteoporosis. I didn’t handle this behavior very well however and now she won’t forgive me. She even told me to my face that I was an awful mother.

This is how it stands for us now and any communicating I did in the past has been wasted. My daughter says that she doesn’t want me in her life anymore. I am devastated and terribly hurt; my worry and my anxiety never go away. What should I do?

A. It’s hard to know who carries a heavier load: you or your daughter. When the load got too heavy for her however, she had to share the blame. How else could she deal with her pain?

As much as your daughter has hurt you, try to forgive her for it. She’s doing the best she can.

You have to forgive yourself too. You may not have handled her eating disorder perfectly but you stood by and stood fast which is sometimes all that a parent can do. You watched your daughter’s hair grow thin and brittle, saw her skin get dry and yellow, smelled her breath turn sour and you dealt with her depression, her lethargy, her temper and her mood swings.

And you did that knowing — because you had to know — that the death rate for anorexia is higher than all other mental illnesses.

But is anorexia nervosa really a mental illness? Or is it a physical problem with behavioral symptoms? For years psychiatrists have said that people — especially teenage girls — succumb to it because they are trying to control some small part of their lives or because they were sexually abused in the past, which may be true, but they no longer think that parents can turn their children into anorectics. This should make you feel better if you ever thought that you caused your daughter’s eating disorder.

New discoveries in brain science are causing scientists to look for the physical cause of all mental illnesses and eating disorders. Although they don’t know why some people become anorectic, they do know that the illness often runs in families and that many of them are extreme perfectionists, have OCD, are low in potassium and zinc and if they’ve had the problem for a long time, many of them are on the autism spectrum.

Some think the problem occurs because of the hormones that are released between puberty and menopause; because the body gets addicted to the chemicals it produces when someone starves herself or exercises too much or because their mothers had prenatal problems.

Others, however, think that anorectics can’t absorb certain vitamins, minerals or amino acids or that they absorb too many, since those nutrients feed our neurotransmitters and our neurotransmitters decide how we behave.

You may never know the cause of your daughter’s anorexia or her bulimia, but you do know that she is in recovery and that you still have to stand by, stand fast and do a lot of praying too, in hopes that she will forgive herself so she can, in time, forgive you.

If she does, you and she would be wise to see a psychotherapist together because she can help you untangle your damaged relationship more quickly, more safely and more easily than you could do it alone. If your daughter won’t see you or a therapist, however, then go alone so you can release the pain that is burdening you so much.

You can help yourself even more if you also help others, whether it’s reading stories to toddlers at your children’s hospital, serving Meals on Wheels to the elderly or explaining the multiplication tables to a youngster who has no one to help him at home. The more you give, the less bereft you’ll feel.

Send questions to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

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