Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh was kind enough to join us for an in depth interview on Throwing Starfish Across the Sea: A pocket-sized care package for parents of someone with an eating disorder. What follows is our questions in italics, and Laura’s in depth responses.
Can you please share some background information about your relationship with your co-author, Charlotte Bevan?
Charlotte joined the parent advocacy world in 2010 when she and her daughter appeared on BBC talking about anorexia. We met in person soon after that when I was in London for a conference and were in nearly daily contact from then until she died. We got an amazing amount of work done together in that time and had a hell of a good time doing it. I loved her very much.
In your book, you state food is medicine. Please explain this from a parent’s perspective.
Parents are ideally suited to this message: “food is medicine.” We feel it instinctively as it has been our responsibility since we became parents to nourish and care for our babies. Learning that our sons and daughters have a brain disorder that needs nourishment to heal is a message filled with hope and with loving action – so different from the tiptoeing and distancing that used to be the norm. We have a job, we are part of the team, and our loved one needs us!
Parents of children with eating disorders encounter many forms of resistance from their children. Can you describe some of the challenges you experienced?
It was one of the hardest things to face, that resistance. All of a sudden you are faced with a loved one who is not on their own side any more. It took a real shift in thinking for us. We had to look at the big picture instead of the moment. We had to see the illness as a temporary but fixable situation where we were in between a terrible illness and our beloved child even if the child him or herself does not see it that way at the moment.
One piece of advice you suggest in your book is “Pretend you are a brick wall.” Will you please elaborate on this?
This was so helpful to us. It meant planting our feet and not being moved from that spot. No matter what the resistance, the pleading, or the exhaustion we had to remain calm and unmoved in order to make things safe for our loved one. We had to show that we were confident and strong enough. A brick wall doesn’t care about the moment or the noise: it can listen without being moved. It meant we could care, and be there, but not be deterred from doing what we needed to do.
You discuss the physical and emotional toll eating disorders place on parents. What has this taught you?
I learned that I am stronger than I would have thought. That my marriage is strong, and that my children and spouse can rely on me even under pressure. Not that I was perfect, but that I was good enough to face this situation. I’m proud of this. It taught me that an empowered parent can do amazing things and that other parents need to know this.
Can you offer some wisdom for parents on guilt and fear?
Guilt is a very self-centered state of mind. It is about us, and when a loved one is ill we need to focus on their needs. Fear, too, is very narrowing. It makes every moment difficult and gives too much influence to the present when we need to be thinking about the bigger picture. Guilt is inevitable, of course, as is fear, but they are indulgences that we cannot afford to spend much energy on if we expect to have the stamina it takes to face this kind of challenge. Guilt and fear undermine the parental stance our kids need us to have, and our partners need us to have.
What motivated you and Charlotte to write Throwing Starfish?
Charlotte was dying and I was putting my full-time advocacy aside to go back to writing full time. We had some things that we felt we wanted to leave people with, things that we found we said over and over to parents. We wanted it to be personal and intimate and have both our personalities in it. The book is a conversation between us, and with the reader. It goes on: I continue to edit the book over time adding more of our conversations and commentary. It’s an honor. We were also proud to create something that would benefit Charlotte’s Helix, a lasting legacy of commitment to science and to our daughters.
About the author –
My name is Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh. After my daughter recovered from life-threatening anorexia nervosa in 2002, I devoted myself to improving public understanding, treatment, and support for families. My book, “Eating With Your Anorexic” is my hopeful plea for better science and an end to blaming families and blaming patients for a treatable brain disorder. In 2004, I founded an online forum now called “Around the Dinner Table,” an international meeting place for parents.
To address the lack of good support and information for parents and caregivers, I and other parents created F.E.A.S.T. (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders) in early 2008. I served as Executive Director and then Policy Director until April of 2014.
In 2013, I became part of a project calledCharlotte’s Helix, an exciting crowd-funding initiative to add 1-4,000 DNA samples from the UK to the international AN25K challenge. Toward that effort, I gave away my 52nd birthday to my dear friend, Charlotte Bevan, whose advocacy for parents inspires me daily.
In March 2014 I received the AED Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy and retired from full-time advocacy to return to writing full time.
Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T. Founder