Are you or someone you love dealing with an eating disorder? Robin Henderson, Psy.D., understands—because she’s been there, too. She encourages families to:
- Find help from a healthcare team you trust
- Expect setbacks and know how to cope with them
- Choose hope, even when you’re afraid
- Reach out for support—you’re not alone!
[8 MIN READ]
What happens when a psychologist who specializes in treating young people with eating disorders realizes her own child has anorexia? Robin Henderson, Psy.D., faced this very crisis in her own life not too long ago. She and her child, Billie, hope that their family’s experience will inspire people to seek help if they find themselves in a similar situation. In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we are sharing their story.
“People don’t talk a whole lot about eating disorders, because there is still a stigma surrounding them,” says Dr. Henderson, who is also Chief Executive, Behavioral Health at Providence Oregon. “We want people to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of if your child has an eating disorder. It’s very scary, but there are resources available to help.”
“We want people to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of if your child has an eating disorder. It’s very scary, but there are resources available to help," says Dr. Henderson.
Recognize that eating disorders can happen to anyone
Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, races, religions, ethnicities and body shapes. For Billie, who is transgender, and uses “they/them/their” pronouns, the experience began in the fall of 2017. At that time, Billie was a sophomore in high school, an honor roll student and nationally ranked video game player. But Billie also was struggling with anxiety and depression.
On New Year’s Eve, Billie opened up. “When Billie told us how depressed they were and that they thought they didn’t deserve to eat, I was shocked,” says Dr. Henderson. “So, like any mom, there I am at 2 a.m., making Billie a plate of eggs and encouraging them to eat. We agreed that Billie needed to get into therapy.”
Billie began seeing a psychologist, but even with regular sessions the eating disorder continued to take hold. Billie imposed strict diet rules and by the summer, had dropped 15 pounds from an already small frame. Billie became more withdrawn at home and at school.
Three months after that, Billie had lost 10 more pounds, and was below the 15th percentile for weight. The therapist recommended assessment for an eating disorder, and Billie was soon diagnosed with anorexia.
“Having a child with an eating disorder was a humbling experience for me as a psychologist and a mom,” Dr. Henderson says. “But I learned to accept that even if I was the best psychologist in the world, even if I had done everything ‘right’ with Billie, this still would have happened.”
Listen to your instincts
Dr. Henderson remembers being thankful for the diagnosis, and for the opportunity to get Billie into the Partial Hospitalization Treatment Program at Providence St. Vincent’s Medical Center. But she was also frustrated.
“I wish I had trusted my instincts as a mom, because if I had, we probably would have gotten Billie into the treatment program sooner,” says Dr. Henderson.
“I wish I had trusted my instincts as a mom, because if I had, we probably would have gotten Billie into the treatment program sooner,” she says. “Eating disorders are complex, and not every provider is going to recognize the signs. I had been raising concerns about the weight loss with Billie’s doctors for six months, but they didn’t see it as a big problem. But I know my kid, and I know what’s not normal.”
It might get worse before it gets better
With the help of the program, Dr. Henderson soon realized that the entire family would need to participate in treatment in order for Billie to heal. This meant attending family therapy sessions, eating meals together at the hospital, interacting with other families in the program and preparing special foods for Billie at home.
Treatment in the program meant attending family therapy sessions, eating meals together at the hospital, interacting with other families in the program and preparing special foods for Billie at home.
“For the first several weeks of treatment, Billie tried every trick to avoid following the treatment plan,” Dr. Henderson says. “We had to negotiate at mealtime and it was nearly impossible to have a sit-down dinner at the table. I let Billie take meals upstairs, and one day I discovered a week’s worth of food that was hidden under the bed. Another time I found out Billie was ordering diet pills on Amazon. All of these nightmare things that you aren’t prepared for as a parent were happening to us.”
Soon after graduating from the treatment program in early 2018, Billie intentionally overdosed on anti-depressant medication. After the immediate crisis passed, the Henderson family checked Billie back in to the program.
As much as Dr. Henderson and her husband were relying on treatment to help Billie, they also recognized that Billie needed to envision a normal life in order to recover. “We wanted to keep Billie safe but also give hope,” Dr. Henderson says. “During the second stint with the program, we let Billie go to junior prom, and it was fabulous. A few months later, we gave permission for them to go to an overnight camp they had really been looking forward to. When Billie got back two weeks later, what we saw was a newfound confidence, an ‘I’ve got this’ attitude.”
Today, Billie is a senior in high school excited about going to college and hoping to be a family practice physician someday. Billie is still in therapy, and struggles from time to time with anxiety and depression. But weight is in a healthy range, and Billie is back to doing enjoyable hobbies like playing video games, trying out new makeup styles and scarfing down hot Cheetos with friends.
Recognize the warning signs and take action
Billie wants to share this story with others who are struggling with an eating disorder so that they don’t feel so alone. As a podcaster for #Talk2BeWell, the podcast hosted by the #Work2BeWell student advisory council, Billie can spread the message of hope. Work2BeWell is a youth-driven, grassroots movement that empowers students to take action and increase awareness around emotional and mental well-being. Some of Billie’s best pieces of advice include:
- Don’t be ashamed if you have an eating disorder. It can be hard to reach out, but if you do, it’ll be the most important step of your life.
- Life is too short to count your calories! They are simply the fuel you need to do what you love, and they won’t hurt you.
- If you relapse, don’t give up. Just keep trying and trying.
Life is too short to count your calories! They are simply the fuel you need to do what you love, and they won’t hurt you.
“When people like Billie speak out, it breaks down the stigma and shame around eating disorders, which are pretty common in our society,” Dr. Henderson says. “Help is out there for those who need it.”
Dr. Henderson says that the warning signs of an eating disorder vary but can include:
- Routinely skipping meals
- Extreme dieting
- Self-induced vomiting
- Use of laxatives, stimulants or diuretics
- Extended fasting
If that describes behavior you or someone you care about engages in regularly, it’s time to seek professional assistance. The Providence eating disorder programs for adolescents and adults offers diagnostic evaluation, informational meetings and treatment.
Find a doctor
Concerned about yourself or a loved one who may be struggling with an eating disorder? A Providence provider can help. Search our provider directory to find a mental health professional or nutritionist in your area.
How do you support a loved one who has an eating disorder? Share your experiences with #supportinthestruggle @psjh. Also catch up on recent podcasts on eating disorders and youth mental health at #Work2BeWell
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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