One of the first things Cathy Skinner felt when she learned that her daughter Ashley had an eating disorder was guilt.
"As soon as I heard about it I was like 'Oh, my God, I should have known,'" she says.
By the time Skinner found out, her daughter had been struggling for several years. She credits her daughter's friends for identifying the problem.
"They approached the guidance counsellor at her school (Booth Memorial)," Skinner said. "Ashley admitted to the counsellor that she was having trouble with eating."
And she gave the guidance counsellor permission to contact her parents.
At 17, she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
"When we found out it was like a light bulb went off," her mom recalled. "She was getting taller and slimming down. She wasn't eating with the family a lot anymore. I remember asking friends of mine about that and they'd say that their son or daughter didn't eat with them either."
Ashley was admitted to the Janeway several times and eventually left the province for Homewood, in Guelph, Ont. - a residential treatment centre that provides care to people with mental illnesses, addictions and eating disorders. By then, she was 18.
"She spent several months there and did very well," Skinner said. "But when she came back, she had a relapse because of the lack of services in this province."
Ashley returned to Homewood for a second round of therapy.
She's since moved permanently to Guelph to attend university and be able to access the supports she needs at Homewood.
Skinner said the treatment centre saved her daughter's life.
Ashley is now 25 and doing well.
"She's very involved with the Wellness Centre at the University of Guelph and she is a senior peer counsellor for other students with an eating disorder," her mother said.
Skinner said one of the hardest things for parents of children with eating disorders to come to terms with is the fact that their child has a mental illness.
Shortly after Ashley was diagnosed, Skinner turned to others for support.
"Like most parents I've met over the years, you're blindsided. I didn't know much about eating disorders and you go through the feelings of this can't be happening to my child, how did it happen?" she says.
She enrolled in an education and support program called Bridge to Hope, which is facilitated by social worker Nancy White of Eastern Health's Eating Disorder Day Treatment Program. It's open to parents and partners of people with eating disorders.
After completing the program, Skinner helped found a support group for parents called Parents of Hope, also facilitated by White. Completing the Bridge to Hope program is a prerequisite to joining the support group.
Parents of Hope has been holding monthly meetings for about six years.
"Our daughter was extremely ill," Skinner said. "You're afraid she's going to die and you're trying to cope with that. During our monthly meetings we talk about those feelings. And others understand because we are all in the same boat."
She said it's important that families have support to stay strong for the good of the entire family.
"We often see in our group that as the family receives support and gets strong, the person with the illness does better," she adds.
In addition to her volunteer role with Parents of Hope, Skinner serves on the board of directors of the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Withers family established the foundation after they lost their daughter, Renata, to an eating disorder.
"Vince (Withers) is tireless in what he does for the foundation," Skinner said.
The foundation estimates that 7,500 people over the age of 15 have eating disorders in this province.
The foundation works closely with the province's new day treatment program for people struggling with an eating disorder.
"You never know, but, I think if that was available when our daughter was first ill, we might not have had to make the choices of her going away for treatment," Skinner said of the program.
The Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador is holding several events are being held this week in recognition of Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
The foundation will hold its annual general meeting and open house today at its offices at 31 Peet St., St. John's. The agenda includes the announcement of the Renata Elizabeth Withers scholarship recipients.
A public meeting for men battling eating disorders will be held Thursday at 31 Peet St. at 7:30 p.m.
For more information on the Eating Disorder Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador visit website www.edfnl.ca, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (709) 722-0500.