My daughter’s bout with anorexia nervosa put a lot of my beliefs in doubt, but her recovery gave me a new one: family dinner.
Our dinner table, for some time, was a scene of sorrow and anger and hurt. But we are still here, around the same scarred wood frame, the same family.
It was once common, and in some circles still is, to point to parents – especially mothers – in causing an eating disorder or other mental illness in a child. That aspersion fades as the treatment world has begun to truly see anorexia as, in the words of the head of the NIHM, a “brain disorder.” We know now that certain genetic predispositions tip those who diet into a self-perpetuating spiral of malnutrition and irrational fears around weight. The treatment is food, and love, and time – and though she recovered we were all changed.
“What’s for dinner, mom?” is a question many parents in modern society must honestly answer “I don’t know.” But for families coping with a loved one phobic of food, the question of what’s for dinner is fraught. Even after recovery – which takes many months or even years – “what’s for dinner” seems an indictment, a battle cry, a practical quandary. Meals must be prepared. Food must be eaten.
Since anorexia is “anosognosic,” the patient generally does not realize they are ill, or appreciate the severity of the illness. Even as weight falls, hair falls, friends fall away: the patient truly believes all is well. To compound this, the world we live in seems caught up in a public form of anorexia: scared of fat, of weight, of bad foods, endlessly counting and measuring and guilt surrounding sustenance.
But eating, eating at the table, eating together: this is something ALL of us have lost. Activities are scheduled during dinnertimes, we consume foods as an afterthought, practices run late, commuting exhausts us, dad’s on a diet, no one wants the same thing. Dinnertime has been lost, and with it not only the shared food but the shared time, the shared experience of being a family.
We found recovery around the dinner table. It meant facing down fears together around the table and over utensils. There were tears and anger, and often the last place any of us wanted to be was around that $60 second-hand Queen Anne, staring at food and each other. But since malnutrition feeds eating disorder thoughts we made that trip together. Every day. Every meal.
And even after watching a younger child become nearly feral at the table in the stress and two parents undone by worry and a teenager who legitimately could call that table a sore spot, we believe in dinner. We believe in family and friends and inviting strangers. We believe in dessert and mom’s dry casserole and ordering out for Chinese. We trust in sitting in space and time and around food. We are not afraid of food. We believe in family dinners.