As a child, my daughter Hannah was a sweet and loving girl, some may say a high-achiever. During her pre-teen years we recognised her tendency towards perfectionism. It was this perfectionism which, at the age age of 14, lead her into the grasping tentacles of anorexia nervosa.
As anorexia took hold she refused to eat with the family, declined most family outings and became withdrawn to the point of reclusiveness. The treatment available at the time proved ineffective and then, at the age of 17, Hannah discovered alcohol.
The following years are a blur of negotiating with anorexia and Hannah’s growing dependence on alcohol. It felt to us, her family, as if she was slipping away. She found that alcohol helped her to cope with the eating disorder. She was sometimes able to eat more, she returned to a healthier weight and became a little more social, but we could see this improvement was fuelled by the alcohol and we soon realised there was a new demon to battle.
I found it difficult to find support for myself and felt I had failed my daughter by being unable to help her. The truth was she was simply not ready to get well. I joined a support group, and this was the first time I felt our family was not alone with our struggles.
Many years later, after two attempts to take her own life, two periods in alcohol rehab, two residential eating disorder treatment stays, several episodes in hospital medical and mental health wards, and finally, a two-year residential rehabilitation program in Ashburn Clinic, Dunedin, Hannah is now doing well and continues to rebuild and reclaim the life we thought she may never live to see. She is now in her mid-thirties.
I have spent the past 12 years supporting other families who love someone who has addiction issues. When I meet them for the first time, they are usually just as bewildered, mystified, exhausted, anxious and fearful as my family was all those years ago. They are all looking for solutions – how can they fix their person???
The things I learned along the journey with Hannah did not come naturally. I needed to learn how to love her unconditionally- just as she was, addiction, eating disorder and all, while showing her that I had faith in her ability to make positive change. I needed to learn how to let go (stop trying to control her) but never give up hope. I needed to learn who’s responsibility the addiction was and how to put boundaries in place so that I no longer enabled the addiction to continue. It was through learning from other families, reading and studying about addiction and the family journey, sharing and receiving compassion and support with my peers, that I learned how to support my daughter – but even more importantly, how to survive and move forward with my own life.
Families want to be part of the solution and we need support and education in order to be able to do that. Families Overcoming Addiction support group uses the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) model and other communication tools to assist families in their quest for change. We also learn about Mindfulness and self-care as valuable ways to restore and maintain our own well-being.
I am hugely proud of Hannah. Her continuing journey inspires me daily.