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. Some words have the power to heal, while others—spoken aloud or told to ourselves—can cut deeply, leaving lasting scars. Thoughts and spoken words play a big part in the story of thirteen-year-old Michelle Crockett and her parents, Alfonso and Mayra, for it was her thoughts and spoken words that 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,” says Michelle’s mother, Mayra. “I grew up as a tomboy, so to have a girlie-girl was different for me.”
Michelle’s interests didn’t end there. Doing well in sports, with friendships, or in the classroom was important to Michelle, and perfection was always her goal. What her friends and classmates thought of her meant a lot—especially when it involved her appearance. “If people talked about my weight or commented on 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 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 daughter to lose a little weight.
Sure enough, as the months passed, Michelle started dropping weight. Outwardly, nothing shouted, “Danger!” Michelle was active and looked healthy—although she picked at her food more often than not. But inwardly, Michelle’s thoughts were beginning to spiral out of control. Years of internalizing small criticisms, seeking perfection, and having unrealistic expectations of herself and others created the right scenario for an enemy to move in.
“At that time, I felt like I couldn’t control anything in my life, and I wished I could—so that’s how I approached food,” Michelle explains. “I’d think, ‘I can control this. This is my way of coping with my feelings.’”
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 farther 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.
Michelle didn’t go quietly. She physically fought her parents getting there, fought the IVs by tearing out the tubing, and was eventually put in restraints. “At that point, my husband and I were almost in a state of shock. I felt like she was possessed,” Mayra remembers. “This was not my sweet girl. I didn’t understand it. That night was the roughest night out of all of them.”
Michelle’s 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 to 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 still in full control. Michelle struggled to eat 300 calories a day, and she 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. And yet, 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,” says Mayra. “We were going through this journey on our own, and then suddenly they were taking her from me.” Fortunately, that nine-week program and the months of rigorous therapy that followed was the much-needed catalyst Alfonso and Mayra had been praying for; it 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 between school, counseling sessions, and other structured activities during her stay at ERC, Michelle can knit like a pro. When it comes to food, she now focuses on healthy eating to support a healthy lifestyle, and she’s decided that she wants to pursue a career in the mental health field when she grows up.
“If someone asks me about the eating disorder, what happened to me, and why I was at the hospital last year, I tell them,” explains Michelle. “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.”
Today, she’s determined to spread awareness that eating disorders can happen in children and young teens by sharing her story and by advocating for books like Life Without ED by Jenni Schaefer to be added into her school’s reading program. Michelle knows firsthand how isolating anorexia can be and feels strongly in spreading awareness so that others with the eating disorder know they aren’t alone.
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, it helps to think about how you can 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.