Post by ATDT Parent, PsychoMom

         Gaaaaaaa……!!! That was pretty much the sound ricocheting around inside my scull when I first realized my daughter had anorexia. I woke in the night, my heart pounded erratically, nightmare rising in my throat, deafened by the silent primal scream. In the daytime my sweating hands slipped off the computer keys while I researched treatment centers, recovery rates, high calorie recipes, amenorrhea and perfectionism. Ironically, I couldn’t eat. I made appointments and yelled at a nurse, parked my car cattywampus in specialty grocery stores, and barely restrained myself from pulling my hair out in fistfuls. I didn’t know much yet about clinical diagnostic terminologies, and even less about what ailed my daughter, but I had a clue what to call my own state: panic.

         If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you as well, have a loved one threatened by a deadly, debilitating and supremely bewildering eating disorder; describing panic is probably redundant. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you find yourself reading this. I’m sorry you’re embarking on a journey that involves quiet screaming. Please let me tell you two things that I and my husband needed to know when we first started hearing gaaaaaaaa… our heads: First, recovery is possible. Our girl is nearly well now, three years later, and in fact has just headed out the door on an international trip. Next, the journey from diagnosis to wellness requires a boatload of things: food, patience, support, food, time, money, therapy, research, food, pets, patience, food, and more time.

         And panic.

         Panic is useful. It gives you energy to do nutty things like lift cars off squished people or put Nutella on an anorexic's toast. It keeps you reading ATDT forums late into the night, it helps the strength in your arms when your grocery bags are suddenly heavier, it makes overtime for one partner possible when the other has had to take work leave.

         It blocks prudence and politeness, so you can yell at the therapist who weighs on a broken scale or drop work clients without explanation or cancel dentist appointments without rescheduling or buy a calming, distracting funny-faced mutt even though you have easily scratchable floors and an aversion to dog hair in the butter.

         Panic is an excellent focuser. It jettisons everything in your complex existence that does not further your single immediate aim: get the food into the kid.  Just as everything else becomes irrelevant if a bus is about to splat your innards on the sidewalk, panic can help, easily and instantaneously, discern what is important and what can be put off until the bus has rumbled on by. (The dentist? It’s been three years, maybe I should go….)

         Panic is also heck on perfectionism. I remember early in refeeding, serving unannounced mac and cheese to my daughter. She argued and swore and negotiated and counted each noodle, pausing to insult each one individually. I used all my energy to kept my mouth shut for fear the change in my head pressure would cause an explosion--the way they tell you never to take the cap off an overheated radiator. We got through the meal, she yelled I was mean and unsympathetic and stomped off to her room.

         “Probably there was a better way to do that,” I apologized to my husband (and poured myself Vodka).
         But he said, in a perfect example of the quiet way he supported our noisy progress, “She ate.”

         There’s no elegant way to refeed, there’s no best way, there’s often no quiet way or nice way, and there may not be a way that saves your family from nightmares. But the single-minded energy of contained panic can help you keep your resolve, get the food into the kid, raise the number on the scale and allow the synapses to regrow. In other words there’s no right way to avoid an oncoming train; there’s only the way that works.

         Perhaps most importantly, my own panic gave me insight into the bizarre behavior of my daughter; a tiny glimpse into the nightmare she could never explain. The tightening muscles, the dry heat in the back of the throat, the sweating palms, the barely-caged impulses to run and to fight and to scream and to claw at a terrible tormenting thing--this is how she felt about food. Of course her fear wasn’t rational (whereas mine unfortunately was) and it was a thousand times more intense. But remembering panic, when I sat later watching her cut and recut a sandwich and hide cheese pieces under the lettuce, helped me keep patience. It helped me reassure, and helped me to know a bit how she felt when she was so sick she was convinced the meals I served her meant imminent death.

         So if you’re feeling a little panicky—don’t panic! It’s a normal, and necessary, response to an abnormal situation. If someone you love has just received an eating disorder diagnosis and you don’t feel panic, then that would worry me. If everything you do isn’t tinged with terror, if there isn’t a gnawing hysteria when you breathe, then man, you haven’t read the mortality and relapse rates, or the long list of ways malnutrition can cause debilitating physical and emotional damage, you haven't understood that this is a biological brain illness with measurable changes in brain capability and functioning, and I’m gonna guess you haven’t been reckless or nuts enough to serve the sufferer you know a plate of sizzling pizza, and seen her curl in a spitting, hyperventilating ball.

But if you’re waking up nightly with a scream in your head—good for you. You have understood the nature of the enemy. Embrace your panic and use the energy it gives, the focus and ruthlessness, the determination and empathy. Because on the long but very doable road that leads to a healthy life of recovery for your loved one, one of the first step sounds like this: gaaaaaaaa………

Psycho Mom lives on the west coast of the US with her husband, daughter, and their hairy, floor-scratching, totally-worth-it dog. Her daughter was diagnosed with EDNOS in May 2013 at age 15. Although she was refed quickly and never missed school, her recovery required a lot of effort, took for-effing ever, and is still ongoing. PM is a writer, homemaker and appreciative member of ATDT.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful post that captures the terror of getting an ED diagnosis for a loved one and the panic that can galvanize action, sprinkled with a liberal dose of humor....though a spoon full of sugar as Mary Poppins advised can also be seen as an adjunct strategy. Thanks for creating such an evocative picture of what refeeding can look like, and most importantly, thanks for the message of hope that parents can get through this, and their kids can recover.

  2. Oh I can so relate to this. When my 13 year old daughter was first diagnosed with anorexia, I was worried but I just didn't know how serious this was. She was one month into treatment and had continued to lose weight each week WHILE WE WERE GETTING PROFESSIONAL OUTPATIENT HELP and that's when her counselor looked at me and said that we needed to start researching inpatient facilities. That is the moment that I met Panic, embraced Panic and used it to push myself to face battle with my daughter each meal, every day. Panic was my constant companion when we were refeeding my daughter and it's probably the thing that kept her alive and kept me going. Panic served it's purpose but I do not miss it's constant presence! She's nearly 16 now and firmly in recovery. Psychomom, I have followed you for the last 3 years on ATDT forum and your words and experiences have helped my daughter and my family in ways you can't fathom. Your constant persistence, humor and great advice were life saving to us. You and others who contribute so much wisdom on the ATDT forum are true heroes. Thank you!

    1. To know that I have helped even a teeny bit really means the world to me. Thank you for saying so.

  3. This is SO right and great. When we were in the thick of refeeding I think I had panic about being panicked. I posted on ATDT and a bunch of people let me know it was totally normal to be unable to sleep, eat, not cry, and so on. I was so grateful to at least know that my own panic was "normal". I was already in therapy before RAN started and my therapist couldn't understand how Maudsley could expect me to do something so hard on myself. ATDT kept me afloat, including PsychoMom.

  4. What a beautifully written piece! It has evoked so many memories. That initial panic when we were first told the seriousness of our daughter's condition - I can feel my heart tightening now thinking about it. But panic led to action (like finding ATDT) and action led to strength and strength to healing. I've just returned from visiting my daughter at her out of state university where she is thriving. Yes, recovery is possible!

  5. I really enjoyed this blog. And, yes, gaaaaaaaa……… indeed. My head has that scream reverberating permanently at the moment. My daughter is struggling with a relapse, and believe me, the second time around is pretty much the same, minus the shock factor. The terror and panic are still very much there. I wonder if that sense of panic will ever ever leave me.


  6. I cried reading this. Not just because I can fully relate. I can. Not just because my girl is doing really well and the panic has subsided (for the most part). Because that's true, too. No -- I cried because you wrote you haven't been to the dentist in three years. I haven't either and my kids are about a year behind on their dental care, too. I didn't realize how guilty I've felt for all that fell apart, broke, fell behind, was forgotten when my girl got sick. And you just told me that this was normal. I'm normal. I'm not a bad mom. I'm just the mom of a girl who was diagnosed with the devil's disorder three years ago and is just now coming out of her fog. So, thanks for this brilliant writing. And thanks for letting me know it's okay to just now be catching up to life. :) Kyra'sMom

    1. It's wonderful to hear from you, and that your d is doing well.
      Shall we make a dental care pact? I will go if you will!

  7. Great post, can totally relate
    Yes panic got me to do things I never dreamed I could.
    It enable quiet reserved me to talk on a radio station, talk to newspaper reporters. Protest for treatment on the streets where thousands of people and car would be passing without reservation or shame.
    Panic is and has enabled me to fax, and write countless letter to demand treatment that my child needs that she is still not getting. It has enabled me to find support from some remarkable parents and research and educate myself to become the expert on ED in a country where very few exist.

    So you are so right psychomum (as I call you!!!) PANIC is absolutely 100% necessary on this journey to destroy the nasty monster that takes over our children's life

  8. Thank you for posting such an honest and heart-felt blog PM. I only wish you had written this 3 months ago when I was given my d's diagnosis and Panic gripped me by the throat and screamed "Do Something!". I wholeheartedly agree that all the little things in life (including teeth) can wait when you're in the business of saving a precious life.

  9. This is so very true! The part about the dentist cracked me up because I had already cancelled and rescheduled my dentist several times due to "events" with my d. I was driving from work to dentist when my phone rang. It was my d so I took call while driving....only to find out I needed to come right away...Mallory-Weiss Tear! Scream! No problem cancelling dentist YET AGAIN...with style... This illness is so crazy and so many of us have similar stories. Thanks for giving me a much needed boost today.


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