One family’s fight against childhood anorexia
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” That rhyme has chimed out across playgrounds for decades, but it’s rarely true. Sometimes, the words of others and what we tell ourselves can cut deeply, leaving lasting scars. For thirteen-year-old Michelle Crockett and her parents, Alfonso and Mayra, words and thoughts catapulted them into a battle for Michelle’s life.
Michelle’s early childhood was filled with creating art, playing with her baby doll, Emma, and dressing up. “Everything was rainbows and unicorns. I grew up as a tomboy, so to have a girlie-girl was different for me,” Mayra says. Michelle’s interests didn’t end there. Doing well in sports, with friendships, or in the classroom was important to Michelle to the point that perfection was the goal. What her friends and classmates thought of her meant a lot— especially when it involved how she looked. “If people talked about my weight or commented about my appearance, I got really down,” Michelle recalls. “I took it really hard when I was little.”
Those comments and her own negative thoughts about her body percolated under the surface of her daily life until the summer before sixth grade.
In May 2015, Michelle expressed an interest in losing weight. Four months prior, at her annual check-up, then ten-year-old Michelle weighed 106 pounds. Mayra encouraged Michelle, knowing that a summer spent swimming at the pool, playing softball, and playing with friends would be a natural, healthy way for her to lose a little weight.
Michelle’s weight loss picked up steam as sixth grade started. Transitioning to middle school, losing half her friends to another school, and having more people to impress honed her focus. “I was only thinking about my appearance and what people thought about me,” Michelle says.
But such a narrow focus wasn’t healthy, and she couldn’t maintain it without going further down a destructive path. “When I saw myself losing weight, I was really happy for about an hour or maybe the rest of the day,” Michelle explains. “But when I got up the next morning, I would look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘Look at all the weight you still need to lose.'”
By October 5, eleven-year-old Michelle was down to 87 pounds. Eighteen days later, she weighed 74 pounds. Michelle’s parents took her to Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, desperate for answers. “I’d heard about anorexia, but it never crossed my mind, ever,” Mayra says.
The diagnosis came the next day: anorexia nervosa, a life-threatening eating disorder that causes sufferers to self-starve and experience excessive weight loss. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia nervosa has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition.
Over the next few months, Michelle yo-yoed between long hospital stays during which doctors helped restore her weight and time at home under the care of her parents and health professionals. But her anorexia, or “Anna,” as they called her, was in full control. Michelle barely ate 300 calories a day and drank very little when she was home. Her house became a prison devoid of mirrors so she wouldn’t obsess about the reflection of her body. Her parents removed interior doors so they could monitor her. But despite Michelle’s parents’ desperate support, despite outpatient therapy, Anna was winning the battle for Michelle’s life.
Determined not to lose her daughter, Mayra talked with doctors and scoured the internet looking for intensive residential treatment facilities that took children. She found the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. Michelle entered the program in January 2016 weighing only 63 pounds. “Denver was the hardest for me. We were going through this journey on our own, and then suddenly they were taking her from me,” Mayra says.
But that nine-week program and the months of rigorous therapy that followed are what kicked Anna out and brought Michelle back to herself.
Walking the road
Today, Michelle’s back in school and finishing up seventh grade. She’s taken up running and, thanks to some of her free time back at ERC (between school, counseling sessions, and other structured activities), Michelle can knit like a pro. When it comes to food, her focus now is on healthy eating to support a healthy lifestyle. When she grows up, Michelle plans on heading into the mental health field.
Michelle isn’t ashamed of the last two years. “If someone asks me about the eating disorder, what happened to me, and why I was at the hospital last year, I tell them,” she explains. “I’m actually very proud of what I went through. It brought my family closer together and made me experience stuff most kids wouldn’t experience at my age. It also brought me peace and brought me closer to God.”
She’s determined to spread awareness that eating disorders can happen in children and young teens by sharing her story and by getting books like Life Without ED by Jenni Schaefer into her school’s reading program. Anorexia tried to isolate Michelle and her family, making them feel like there was no hope. “It wasn’t until Michelle met people [at Denver ERC] that were going through the same thing she was that it finally started feeling like everything was going to be okay,” Mayra says.
There’s no cure for anorexia, only a daily choice to walk toward life and to intentionally silence negative thoughts. “Recovery is a long process and, at the end of the day, think about how you should be grateful,” Michelle advises. “There are people out there who love and support you.”
For more information about eating disorders or to seek help, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) website at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.