Distorted: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Eating Disorder
Five years ago, Lorri Benson heard muffled gagging coming from the downstairs bathroom in her home. Once she pounded on the door and her sixteen-year-old daughter Taryn opened it, the excuses that spilled from her mouth ranged from denial (“I haven’t been doing it that long”) to shame (“It’s not a big deal”) and stopped nowhere in between. For the next three years, Taryn struggled with bulimia and through two rehabilitation facilities while her mother and family reached out from the sidelines in an effort to save her.
But as Lorri told me in a phone interview from her home in Naples, Florida, her role as Taryn’s mother had to be redefined, the main lesson that Taryn and Lorri hope to pass on to other families through their co-written book, Distorted.
Since one in five women now struggle with an eating disorder and 90 percent of women with eating disorders are between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, their shared story is necessary. Taryn became one of those statistics while pinching her sides at thirteen.
Taryn shares her first journal entries in the book with words of self-loathing: “Fat. Awful. Gross. I hate my body,” which Taryn said stemmed not only from a complete lack of self-esteem, but also from a society that pushed perfection.
“I hated myself and the levels I was willing to go through to [perfect] my body and society breeds that. Even if you don’t count the weight loss and diet pills and obsession with weight, we’re obsessed with appearance and girls who will do everything to get it.”
Lorri reiterated it’s about attaining the impossible.
“Nobody tells these thirteen to fourteen year old girls about digital reproduction, and they think, ‘How come I still have this?’ They are trying to attain something that is out of their reach.”
In Distorted, Lorri and Taryn trade chapters, writing about the typical mother-teenager emotion-filled dance. But in this story, there’s lying and hiding which Lorri thought was normal behavior for most teenage girls and for which she saw no red flags until she noticed her weight loss and heard the sound on the other side of the bathroom door. As a former producer of Donahue, she figured she knew all she needed to know about eating disorders.
“With my own kids, I said, ‘I’m going to do this right.’ We knew how to build self-esteem and how to praise and as a parent, you may see your kid as moody, but kids do that, so it’s hard to know when it’s a problem and when it’s a phase. You have to look at other things, and once we started looking, there were a lot of different things [going on with Taryn.]”
Outside the self-esteem issues and normal middle school mean-girl behavior, it was jealousy over a friend who stopped eating that got Taryn started. But it was also the thrill of manipulation that kept her indebted to her own disorder.
“I really loved the manipulation part of it, but once she [Lorri] knew, then it was this game. It was me hiding this from her. It gave me attention and it was a crisis. It was all the attention I had been craving from my friends, and hiding it and playing the game became more intense once she found out.”
In hindsight, Lorri believes it was her daughter’s particular make-up that helped the disorder to sustain itself.
“Part of Taryn’s personality traits and experiences were typical teenage dramas, but they were coupled with her perfectionist and sensitive sides. Plus, the teenage brain chemistry, depression, and moodiness.”
This led to one pivotal moment after her release from her first stay at an eating disorder rehab facility. Taryn’s parents found her in the middle of a kitchen filled with food, and had to walk away while she binged, which is part of what Lorri and her family learned was the best thing to do in a such a heated moment.
“It was like she was taken over by evil while caught in a binge now and again. It was not our daughter.”
Taryn finally received the help she needed after her second stay in rehab, discovering that only she could be the solution to her own salvation.
“You really need to be committed to recovery in order to recover. Nothing anyone else does will matter, and in-patient [facilities] will help if you apply everything you experience while you’re there.”
For Lorri, she watched while her daughter gathered tools for a successful future, but she also warns parents and loved ones that recovery works one day at a time.
“Taryn did get through the centers, and she did get tools and coping skills and insights into things. Recovery takes time. They go forward a few steps and then back a few steps. Nobody’s perfect and is going to fix it the first time.”
And for Taryn, this might be more validation from the mother who loves her most who brought her to where she is today: twenty-one years old, healthy, she’s a new mother with a two-month-old baby boy.
“I’ve learned to surround myself with people who really care about me, friends, and relationships. Once I knew I wanted to recover, therapy helped, but it was later that I reaped the benefits.”
Sharing their story with the world might be one of those benefits.
“We have a different relationship today.” Lorri said. “By writing this book together, we’ve analyzed this more than most people, but we have a strong, close, trusting relationship. There was a time when trust was not possible, and I wondered if it ever would be.”
To get back to that place of trust, Lorri has a few tips for parents.
- Know your role and limits. “Your role up to this point has been to fix things. You kiss the ‘boo boos’ and make the bad things go away and now you’re up to something that you can’t fix. Their journey is about the disorder. You can totally lose yourself in your child’s disorder, but it’s not your eating disorder. Separate your journey from your child’s, which for a mother, is hard to do. And there is a limit to solving another’s problems. A doctor said to another relative of mine, ‘I don’t understand why she doesn’t just make her eat.’ Sure, I can force feed her, but unless she solves the problems herself, there’s nothing I can do to change that.”
- Be patient. “I kept thinking if I could just find the one thing that was going to work for her, then this was all going to go away. I sent her to the best place in the country. I kept getting devastated. I kept getting let down by the process. You have to have patience. You have to realize that there is not a magic bullet for this. What works for one woman is not going to work for the next.”
- Take care of yourself. “When your kid has an eating disorder everything is focused on her, it has to be. But the whole family is taken hostage. There is not a lot out there for the family. It helps to hear other people’s stories, see how other people have responded. See your own therapist; turn to your own faith, whatever works for you. There are message boards on the internet, which is a way to reach out and communicate with others.”
- Take care of your family. “Both of my daughters were impacted with sadness that their sister wasn’t better. My middle daughter was talking about suicide with friends and my youngest was hitting kids on the playground out of anger. Everyone was so sad and devastated and in their own ways, acting it out. Everyone went into therapy. I want to say to the girls that it’s impacting everyone around you, but that’s difficult as a parent because you know how these kids are beating themselves up every day. They cocoon themselves and don’t realize what happens to their family.”
- We don’t hold ourselves up. “We don’t say, ‘Hey, we did everything right.’ We are not the poster children to beat this. There isn’t one way to do this. It is a process. Each person will find something different to decide on recovery. Try not to lose hope. You do the best you can.”
Distorted may be one valuable tool that can help families do just that.
For more information on Lorri and Taryn’s Distorted, visit them here.
Related Story: Body Drama: A Women’s Story