The Fox at Dawn


11.26.21 A Full Plate

It’s a sunny, cold morning, the day after Thanksgiving. I only have an armful of firewood left, so I’m sitting in the living room pretending that the fire is lit. It’s cozy anyway. We, my daughter Jess and I, took my mother and Jess’s boyfriend to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving yesterday. There were twelve of us, much larger than just the four of us last year at the height of the stay-at-home era. The year before that, we had travelled to Zionsville, Indiana to have Thanksgiving with my cousin and aunt. And the year before that, we were at my brother’s- a dreadful time I cannot remember without pain. Jess was in the full grip of her eating disorder and I was just beginning the long journey of seeking help for her, finding out what treatment options there were, trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with. I was plunged deep in darkness and fear and the agony of guilt. How could I have let this happen? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why did I take that second job that kept me from home so much? Why can’t I make more money? How am I going to pay for all of this? What can I do to help?  You dogpaddle, go under, sink down, fight your way back up for air. Over and over.

It was so very painful at home. Day after day, Jess closed herself up in her room, answered only in monosyllables or not at all, cut herself with blades she’d steal from my pencil sharpeners. She had nothing but contempt in her eyes for me as she fought all attempts to get nutrition into her before the silent, grim drive to school where I knew she’d eat nothing. Intake interviews, meetings with therapists and doctors, directions for what she should be eating, the endless looping fights, the ‘I’m fine, you’re the problem-leave me alone- I hate you-I wish you never adopted me- I wish you were dead’. No life partner to tag team with, no arms to shield me even a little from the attacks that seemed to come from an alien inside her. In the middle of this we had to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family and with new family from my brother’s recent marriage. What a trial it was. Walking on tightropes, on eggshells, on broken glass, on hot coals. Any of those, all of those. Some of the family knew what was going on, most didn’t. I didn’t have the language to talk about it, didn’t want to cause pain to Jess by talking about it to people she didn’t want to know. She was a long way from being able to talk about it herself, a long way from admitting that starving herself was wrong. She was a long way from even being herself. Mental illness is the devil.

Sitting here in the peace of this beautiful day, the panic and fear I felt then rise right back up as I write. Within a week or so of that dreadful holiday, it was clear that she needed to go into residential treatment. McCallum in St. Louis was recommended. It was a race against her 18th birthday- I had to get her well enough by her birthday in February to recognize the severity of her illness and the value of continuing treatment, or she would walk away from it all and cling fast to her anorexia, choosing it over life. I’d then be in the position of taking her to court to get medical guardianship. That Thanksgiving was the beginning of very dark months.

I’ve always been an intensely private person. Something I have always kept to myself was my pain. A lifelong habit, a reflex. Snapshot: My brother and I have spent the morning down the street in the tot lot, sent out to play because Daddy was ‘sick’ and needed a quiet house. I was six, maybe seven, my brother was four or five. Dad had come to get us, calling us when he was within earshot. We went to him and then walked toward the house. Out of habit, I reached out my hand to hold his as we crossed the street and met the lit end of his cigarette. The cherry ember lodged under my thumbnail. I whipped my hand away and held my fist behind my back. ‘Oh baby, are you alright?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine’ I lied. I remember feeling embarrassed. I remember feeling it was my fault. I remember not wanting to make my dad feel bad, even as my thumb burned.

That Thanksgiving, the dark months that followed, I let go of that silence. I let the people at my jobs know what I was dealing with. I knew I needed to talk about it, be open about her illness. For her sake and for mine. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of it I didn’t want her to blame herself. If she was going to get better, she would have to embrace it, accept help, talk about it. If I was going to keep myself from coming apart, I was going to have to do the same. I had just started sharing art again on this blog as a practice, as a source of fun. Those drawings reflected a little of that early pain. I didn’t start writing about J’s journey with Edie, the demon Eating Disorder, until her return from residential treatment. 

The writing helped, the talking about it helped, not having to pretend that everything was okay helped. My family was there for me. My friends were there. I was still falling through space, but not quite so afraid. There was so much to navigate- working with her high school, would she still graduate? What support could she get at school? Would they accommodate her half-day group therapy treatments? The looming 18th birthday- would Jess sign on to continue treatment? That was a terrifying day, skillfully handled by the doctor she loved. Jess signed the papers, she would continue therapy. My knees were literally weak as I walked out of the doctor’s office to drive to school. I was still working two jobs- full-time drama teacher at Walden School and part-time Director of Religious Exploration at 1st Unitarian Church. I was in the middle of directing Mary Poppins, for chrissakes, the all-school musical involving 85 K-12kids. I was told I should join a parent support group, should get therapy myself- but when? When? I wrote, I shared, I made art, I talked. It helped. 

It’s been three years. She is in college now, studying early childhood education. She has joined a sorority, has a part-time job. She has worked hard, very hard at her recovery. There have been trials, setbacks, additional diagnoses, medication changes, trips to the emergency room, progress, many tiny victories, several larger ones. After three years, we are back at Uncle Will’s, back with family after a long Covid separation. It is Thanksgiving and there she is- Jess, herself. Smiling. Cheerful. Helpful. Funny. Beautiful. Proud. Her plate is full. My plate is full. Thankful, so so thankful.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

So glad for you and your daughter, Loren xox

Comment by Gita Donovan

Thank you Gita, there’s never a finish line, but she’s in a great space right now. So grateful to look back and see how far she’s come.

Comment by Loren Crawford

Wow! I had no idea you were going through all this. So glad to hear Jess is doing well.

Comment by Sammie Wakefield

What a strong woman you’ve raised, and what a strong mama you are. I think being open about Jess’s eating disorder was such an important approach. Silence only enables the disease to continue … and to rear its ugliness again later knowing that it won’t be acknowledged.

Comment by Jen Goldberg




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