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Sometimes an event occurs, a single event, and your life is changed forever. The funny thing is that you don’t always have a clue when it happens. It doesn’t have to be something inherently huge, although sometimes it is, and it doesn’t always appear to have monumental impact at the time, although sometimes it does. It just happens. And your world changes. Completely.
An event like this occurred to me on February 16, 2003, when I walked in on my sixteen-year-old daughter making herself throw up.
It was a night like most others—trying to fit the busy lives of three girls and two parents into one schedule while making sure there was a little family time thrown in for good measure. Sixteen-year-old Taryn, our oldest, was cheering at a basketball game. With a little maneuvering, the rest of us—Taryn’s almost fourteen-year-old sister, Taylor, her nine-year-old sister, Halli, and her dad and I—were all able to attend the game.
Afterward, we decided to go for dinner; Taryn chose the spot. She picked International House of Pancakes. Although we never ate there, we knew she and her friends frequented it, so we soon found ourselves enjoying platefuls of lingonberry, chocolate chip, potato, and other assorted pancakes.
Taryn cleaned her plate and then helped Halli with hers. I remember thinking, "That’s a switch," since Taryn was usually more about small portions, salads, and healthy eating, like so many body-conscious teenage girls were.
Taryn announced her departure, since she’d driven her own car to and from the game, and Taylor jumped up, declaring, “I’ll ride with Taryn!” Later, I would understand Taryn’s irritation and protest, but at that moment, we just cajoled her into taking her sister with her.
The rest of us headed home, just a few minutes after Taryn and Taylor. As I opened the door, I heard gagging sounds from the bathroom just inside. I walked the few steps to the closed door in slow motion. Although I knew what I was hearing, my brain couldn’t reconcile the meaning immediately. Who was it? Was she sick? Why the muffled gagging?
Long moments passed, waiting for something to happen, for something to be said. “I’m sick,” came her quiet response to my silence outside the door. Click, click, click: the snapshots from our dinner started coming into focus, fast and furious. After a moment frozen in time, I reacted, shrieking, “What are you doing in there? Open this door!”
Normally, my husband and I are careful, thoughtful parents. We don’t yell; we explain, we reason. That night, my fist hit the door. “Open the door,” I said, in a calmer, yet far more threatening voice. The door opened.
“What are you doing?” I repeated, knowing the answer, yet somehow hoping for a less horrible end to this scenario. Nothing. A blank stare, her eyes studying me for a clue. How much did I know? How much could I guess?
“I know what you’re doing,” I said, with conviction, because I did, very unfortunately, know what she was doing. As the former senior producer of a long-running talk show, I had done many shows on eating disorders, anorexia, and bulimia. “How long have you been doing this?”
This line of questioning continued until finally, when she ran out of excuses, Taryn started talking. “I haven’t been doing it that long” and “I hardly ever do it.” “It’s just something I’ve tried,” and “It’s not a big deal.” I listened, and in that moment, my relationship with my daughter changed forever, my trust in her crumbling.
When I insisted that she would have to talk to a therapist, she was incredulous. “Are you kidding?” she squealed. “Mom, you’re making way more of this than it really is.” But then, maybe too quickly, she acquiesced.