I’m watching her through the kitchen window. A curious zoo-goer observing a young bear cub perched on a tall branch. So innocent, so vulnerable, so ignorant to the dangers of the world outside its shelter. She looks serene in this moment with her nose buried in a book, eyebrows slightly pinched in concentration. Her golden locks tumble over thin shoulders that are perpetually shrouded under baggy clothing.
I’ve made her favorite dinner tonight. Or, at least, it used to be her favorite dinner. At fifteen she seems lifetimes away from the ten-year-old who used to ask me to make homemade chicken nuggets with wild rice. But it was her favorite at a time. Maybe it will spark something?
The timer for the rice starts beeping, but I drink in the picture of her calm and content for one more moment before moving to shut it off. Though she looks composed now, I know she is full of torment. What I would give to take it away, ease her pain, but how can I when I’m unable to grasp what is going on inside her? I’m trying to understand. I really am. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, attended support groups. I’ve soaked up all the information there is to know about eating disorders. But it’s one thing to know the facts, and quite another to understand the beast itself. Some days it takes everything in me to keep from screaming “just eat!”
Instead, I call out “dinner!” Loud enough for Lilli to hear through the screened window, as well as my husband and youngest daughter to hear from the living room. I always try to announce mealtime in a cheery voice. See? It’s not a punishment. It’s a happy time. Let’s talk, laugh, and eat. Let’s enjoy this time together!
Except Lilli never sees it that way. I can tell by the way she hunches her shoulders and silently joins us at the table, averting her eyes, pursing her lips as if to block any piece of food from inadvertently entering her mouth. Tonight, she slumps into the chair across from mine, examining an invisible stain on her sweatshirt. I catch a glimpse of her eyes and they look tired. I am almost certain she hasn’t eaten since the banana I’d begged her to eat before school this morning, and a jolt of anxiety pulsates within me. But I must stay calm. I know from experience that getting upset will only make things worse.
Michael and Julie come bouncing into the kitchen singing a song from the Disney movie they’ve put on pause in the next room. A take a moment to breathe in their joy, missing the days when Lilly exuded a similar energy.
“Lilly, want me to scoop you some rice?” I offer after filling up Julie’s plate. Michael’s is already piled high, and I see Lilly eye it with disgust. She shakes her head, mumbles that she will get it herself, and drains her glass of water before getting up to refill it. I’ve observed her behavior long enough to know that she is stalling.
When she returns to the table, she places a single chicken nugget on her plate, then fills the rest with salad. No dressing. Shit, why did I put salad on the table? I shouldn’t have given her that option. I bite my lip, willing myself not to start an argument.
Trying not to stare too noticeably, which may cause her to lash out, I flash a bright smile and ask about everyone’s day. Julie dives right into a play by play of gym class. Something about Charlie Gibbons dropping a ball and Mr. Feinstein spitting while he shouted orders from the bleachers. I’m listening, but not. Lilly’s protruding collar bone and sunken cheeks demand my attention. A mother’s instinct. She is in danger and my whole being aches with a need to protect her, to save her from this invisible enemy.
Julie and Michael are both laughing now. I chuckle along with them, not knowing what is funny, but wanting to give the illusion that I was listening.
I eye Lilly’s plate once more as she pokes at her food with a fork like it’s contaminated. When Michael and Julie get up to search the freezer for ice cream, Lilly rises too. She brings her plate to the sink, begins scraping her food into the garbage disposal. I take a moment to collect my thoughts before moving toward her.
“Lilly, you need to eat more than that.” I’m towing the line between what I learned in support group and my instincts as a mother who doesn’t want to watch her child die.
“Mom, I’m good. I’m just not hungry right now, okay?” I inhale sharply.
“What else have you eaten today?” She huffs and I grimace. She used to like talking to me, but these days she seems repulsed by my very presence, let alone my voice.
“What, you want me to write you a list or something? I ate enough today, okay? Just leave me alone.”
Leave me alone. Those three words she says all too often. Does she really want to be alone, or does she want any other company but my own?
“Lilly, I’m sorry but no, I am not going to leave you alone.” I’m speaking softly but I feel the rise of panic in my throat. I’m losing this battle. Will I ever be able to break into the hard shell she has surrounded herself with?
“Whatever, mom. I’m done with dinner and I’m going to my room.”
Against all my better judgement I grab her wrist as she turns to walk away.
“No, you’re not done. We are not done here.”
“What the hell, mom?” She’s quickly moved from annoyed to angry and I mirror the shock in her eyes at the physical contact. “Are you going to shove food down my throat or something? Let me go!”
She yanks her boney wrist, and just as I look down to let go, say I’m sorry, I notice the cuts peeking out from under her sweatshirt sleeve. At first, I don’t react, not realizing what I’m seeing. She goes to tug her sleeve down with the other hand. But then it clicks.
“Wait, wait!” My grasp slides down and latches onto her thin fingers, but she turns away and crossed her arms as if to block me out for good. “Wait, Lilly, what was that?”
I hear a sniffle, but then she swings back to face me.
“What was what? I’m going upstairs.”
“Lilly, no, get back here. We need to talk about this!” I’m shouting now, choking back a torrent of emotions. Why? How? How long? What kind of mother allows this to happen to her daughter?
Before I can stop myself, I’m shouting after her, on the heels of her angry footsteps. Michael joins us now, asking what is going on, and I shut him out. I can’t think straight. We are upstairs now, and Lilly moves to close her bedroom door behind her. But I block it with a knee, sending a shooting pain down my leg.
“God damnit, Lilly! What the hell is wrong with you?” She looks at me, alarmed. “Wait, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –“
“Leave me alone!” She yells louder than I’ve ever heard her yell before. Tears are streaming down my face now-whether from the emotions or the pain, I am not sure-but I can’t control it. She is crying too, face down on her bed, still shouting for me to close her door.
“Lilly, please talk to me. Please!” I’m begging. I’m literally begging for her to let me in. “We need to get you help, sweetie. We can’t go on like this.”
“I’m not going to a shrink, mom! I’m fine. Just-“
“Just what? Leave you alone? No, Lilly. No, I will not leave you alone. You are going to kill yourself at this rate. Don’t you understand that?”
“Maybe that’s what I want! Everyone would be a lot better off if I was gone, anyway!”
At that, I am at a loss for words. I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me, and my mind goes blank. This can’t be real. My daughter cannot be suicidal. This is someone else’s life. Some poor family you hear about on the news. Not us.
Michael intervenes now and gentle moves me back from the door.
“Let me talk to her for a bit, honey. Take a break. Take a breath. We are going to figure this out.” I realize that my tears have stopped, and I am a statue, staring at our daughter in shock. With shaky footing, I let him guide me away to sit down on the steps and I stay put as he makes his way back to Lilly’s room.
As I sit here in silence, the evening replays through my mind like a bad movie. It’s sinking in now that I may never succeed in my desperate attempts to empathize with my daughter’s pain. I may never understand what it’s like to see the world through her eyes. But I’ll be damned if I ever stop trying.