This month’s Thriving Campus feature is Isabeau Iqbal, an educational developer in the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. Isabeau is also the mother of a teenager with an eating disorder. The following interview and information are being shared with permission from Isabeau and her daughter.
Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Can you please tell us how you became aware of your daughter’s eating disorder?
I first became aware of the eating disorder in the summer of 2018. It took being off work and spending holiday time with my daughter to realize how bad it was. At first, it just looked like healthy eating and living (exercise, being cautious about eating foods we typically label as healthy – i.e. lots of fruit and vegetables). Then, I started to notice unusual behaviour around food, especially excessive planning and control. Once I realized how far along and how bad it was, I started looking for resources.
That process of finding resources was surprisingly difficult given the prevalence of eating disorders — trying to figure out who could offer what, and the fastest route [to treatment] was challenging. Early on, I realized I couldn’t just rely on the “free to me” resources in the external community: because the demand is so high, places like the Eating Disorder Clinic only see people who are advanced in their disorder. By coincidence, one of my colleagues from Alberta had presented at a conference I attended, where he shared his experience with his own daughter having an eating disorder. He was the first person I reached out to and he was able to connect me with the Looking Glass Foundation.
How has this impacted your work life?
For a number of months, I was like a deer in headlights, trying to figure out what was going on. Unless you’ve been through the experience, it’s hard to know [what it’s like]. I had never had any experience with mental illness before, so it was a really foreign experience for me. At first, I didn’t tell people what was going on because I was hanging on and trying to understand. I was so lost and trying to figure out what resources might be available to us – all this takes time.
I was receiving multiple calls a day from a highly distressed teenager. I cancelled a conference presentation and a few other significant commitments in order to be more available to my daughter. Thankfully, I work part-time and have a lot of autonomy and flexibility in my work. Eventually, I started telling a few close colleagues and my manager. I had understanding colleagues and collaborators which was really great.
Did you access any UBC specific resources during this time?
The mindfulness challenge. I had done it before, but maybe because of the situation, I felt it was more helpful this time around and I was more into it. That was probably the most helpful resource that I was able to access and make use of.
How are you and your daughter doing at this time?
She’s doing much, much better. She still experiences anxiety, which I think is the normal course of affairs, but she’s transformed. I see her smile, she has energy. I look into her face and it’s a different person. Our relationship is back to what it was.
The amount of crying and the amount of distress I felt in the fall was unlike anything I’ve experienced before, so the fact that she’s better, I’m better. I feel so lucky to have found a great therapist and nutritionist who have been able to support us. And I’m grateful for the support that we have at UBC in terms of benefits. In terms of flexibility and financial supports, it’s big.
Recognizing that eating disorders can have life-long implications, what are you doing to stay resilient and support your continued health and wellbeing?
The ability for me to be present for my daughter has been very important. I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness for a while, and I would say this [experience] really required me to be present. Because when she needed me, I had to let everything else go and be with her. Now, when my head starts to worry that this could come back, what if it happens when she’s not under my care and things like that, I try and bring myself to the now and let go of the worry. It’s too easy to slip into the what-if’s. I subscribe to the Headspace app which helps me keep up my mindfulness practice.
What does being a member of the UBC community mean to you in light of your recent challenges?
I have a supportive manager, as well as fabulous colleagues: they are good friends and people that I trust to be myself around. To be able to speak with colleagues and to let them know this is what’s going on for me has been important.
If you could offer advice to managers or supervisors on campus who don’t have experience in supporting their staff members in a time like this, what would you tell them?
Try and learn a little bit more about the experience that the person [staff member] is going through. I was able to tell my manager that my daughter has an eating disorder and that it is stressful, and it might have been helpful for me to say what that meant for me day-to-day. Ask the person, “What is important for me to know about [what you’re going through]?”
Do you have any suggestions or advice to offer to those who may be experiencing a similar challenge?
Do not suffer alone and do not wait. Access [available] help and resources as soon as possible. The change that we started to see as soon as my daughter started eating was encouragement enough to keep going. I started to see glimmers of recovery. Eating disorders are under the big umbrella of ‘mental health’, but it really is a specific area that needs specialized support. The most important thing is to find the support you need to get your child eating, and for us that was an amazing nutritionist. We are lucky, in this big city, that there are some fabulous and specialized therapists as well as other resources. Consider joining an online support network for people caring for someone with an eating disorder (FEAST-ED).
Why did you want to share this story with us and our Healthy UBC readers?
If this story can help one person, I will be happy. This is the hardest experience I’ve ever lived through. I felt so lost and so alone and so sad. My daughter and I want to share our experience to help others who may be going through something similar. During the fall, when my daughter was struggling through her recovery, I thought, many times, of how much easier it would be to be gone from this earth. I want people to know that getting help for an eating disorder is not easy, but there are ways forward.
To learn more or to support a person struggling with an eating disorder, please access the following resources:
- Employee and Family Assistance Program: Naturopath, dietitian, health coaching and family counselling services; confidential and available 24/7
- Extended Health Benefits: Coverage for naturopath and /or dietitian services
In the community
- Kelty Eating Disorders – BC support and resources
- Dietitians of Canada – Find a Dietitian Service
- Canadian Benefits for Caregivers
Photo credit: Isabeau Iqbal