Is This How Eating Disorders are Born?

On Dementia and mind loops and my teenage daughter.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

My mother-in-law, Carole, has mind loops. Her dementia presents as a series of stories that she tells over and over and over — until something happens that hitches her to the next loop.

Most of her loops are benign. She lived six blocks from Lake Erie. She chased her husband for months at the skating rink until he caught her. She wanted to have a second baby, but her doctor told her she shouldn’t. She fixates on how my older daughter doesn’t like bacon.

Some are more disturbing. Like the one about how she’s going to miss my dog when she dies. Or the one where she asks me over and over whether I still get my period.

And then she has two loops that involve my fourteen-year-old daughter.

In one, she talks about Ruby’s figure and how pretty it is, especially her legs. And how she’s got such a pretty figure because she’s so athletic.

I’ve had to physically stop her from talking to strangers — the mailman, dads at soccer games — about my daughter’s body, asking them to notice her shape. It’s always men.

This loop was actually the first inkling that something was wrong with Carole. It’s also why Ruby hasn’t been allowed to be in public alone with her grandma since she was eight or nine years old.

And the other is sort of connected. She’ll comment on how Ruby eats — look how much you’re eating, you’re such a good eater. Ruby can eat so much because she’s so athletic. Isn’t her figure pretty?

And then sometimes her husband, George, will pipe in. Look at you, you’re eating more than I am. And he laughs, so good-natured. He has this booming, Santa Claus laugh, that doesn’t have an ounce of malice in it.

As George has fallen deeper into Alzheimer’s he doesn’t add to the problem much anymore. Small blessings.

“She’s eating as much as she’s hungry for,” I say, trying to derail the loop. And because I can see the discomfort on Ruby’s face. Her fork held halfway to her mouth, unsure suddenly whether or not she really wants or needs another bite. Her eyes cutting to me.

“Oh, never mind!” Carole says and she gets up and starts to clear the table, banging dishes around and stomping her feet on our hardwood floors. Dementia has, in many ways, been a reversion to childhood. “I’m just going to stop talking, then no one can get mad at me.”

And is that better or worse? For Ruby.

Does it help for me to try to steer her grandmother away from the topic of her body and how much food she eats? Does it shore her up to hear me say How about if we all just focus on our own plates?

Or am I doing the wrong thing? Does seeing her grandmother get angry gel in Ruby into some idea that she eats too much, that there’s something wrong with how hungry she is?

How delicate is a fourteen-year-old’s mental health anyway?

It’s much more clear to me when food isn’t involved. I can say No, Ma’am, you may not talk about my teenage daughter’s beautiful legs to a random soccer dad. Ever. And I can say it without any pangs of guilt, even if she does huff and say she’s never speaking again.

(That threat is so hollow — she never stops talking, even for a few minutes after she makes it.)

But at the dinner table, when Carole starts to talk about how much Ruby eats, it triggers something in me that I have a hard time separating from my response on my daughter’s behalf.

Every once in a while, starting when I was about ten, my step-mother would sit me down at the dining room table. She’d look across at me with such concern and earnestness in her face.

You’re not fat yet, Shaunta. Because you’re so athletic. But if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up like your mother.

It’s been thirty-five years and I can still hear it. Still feel the shame and mortification that started in the pit of my stomach, turning what ever I’d eaten last into a sold rock.

I can still remember laying on my stomach on my bed afterward, scribbling some elaborate plan about how I was not going to be like my mother.

Fat. I was not going to be fat like my mother.

No one ever stepped in to say — hey, that’s not okay.

Would it mattered if someone had? If I’d told my mom, or if my dad had walked in and heard it as it happened — if one of them had said, Jesus, Kathy, she’s just eating. Leave her alone.

Would I have never become fixated on food, eating in secret so that no one knew what an out-of-control monster I was?

Would I have avoided developing an eating disorder?

Would I have been able to see my body the way it was, instead of something I was too weak and stupid to shrink?

I don’t know.

Sometimes it seems like dementia has forced everything in our house to center around food. Carole and George don’t eat well. They’ve lost the taste for almost everything except the most highly-processed, sugary crap you can imagine.

George has always been a fussy eater. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that the best food he’s ever eaten was in the Marines. Mess hall food. Also? He really loved the food that was served in his high school cafeteria. His preference, since forever, is for bland, soft, over-processed food.

But now, on top of having — shall we call it a seriously unrefined palate — he just isn’t hungry. Ever. Alzheimer’s has taken away the connection between his stomach and his brain or something. If he’s not told to eat, he just won’t.

I spend a significant part of every day trying to get them to eat something that isn’t total garbage. Or, really, anything at all.

This is the thing, I often think, that will eventually cause them to need to be in a nursing home. They won’t eat. And I don’t want my kid to develop an eating disorder.

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.