How I Supported My Daughter When Her Sexual Assault Led to an Eating Disorder and PTSD

A mom shares her family's difficult journey helping their daughter through an eating disorder that developed after a sexual assault. In the age of the Me Too movement, it's more important than ever to talk about. Here's what helped this family heal.

plate and fork
Photo: Kailey Whitman

My daughter, son, husband, and I sat wedged in our seats in New York's Mount Sinai feeding lab, as the pregnant psychology graduate student across from us rubbed and patted her round belly. During this appointment, we had to lay out a family meal and consume it without feeling self-conscious while the therapist tried to elicit what our daughter was feeling and why she avoided eating.

My daughter was only 13.

I begged her to be tempted by her favorite snack, Nutella grissini. The thick, rich cocoa-hazelnut spread from Ferrero paired with thin breadsticks is in almost every cupboard in Italy. The therapist said it and smiled, "Nutella grissini...that sounds soooo good!"

But now my daughter wouldn't eat it. Oh, to have her ask me for Nutella grissini. Tears would fall without forewarning. I armed myself with tissues and convinced the people at work that I had allergies. All year. For years.

At that point in time, I finally understood what was going on with her. When my daughter was in middle school, she was sexually assaulted by a student a year older. It took years of her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showing up in the form of eating disorders for us to understand the truth along with all the accompanying stages of grief.

It wasn't always this way. When my daughter was younger, all she ever seemed to think about was dance, music, taekwondo, and food. She also kept a journal with a "birthday snack list" entry, even when her birthday was months away.

"Mom, what's that round brownie with the liquid middle?"

"Lava cake," I tell her.

"Can we make lava cake for my birthday?"


"Whipped cream too?"

It wasn't easy to accept the reason my daughter had stopped eating and developed both anorexia and exercise bulimia (setting alarms in the middle of the night to exercise "off" unwanted weight from eating as little as possible during the day). But the reality was that she had endured a sexual assault and that led to her eating disorder. Research shows that women who are victims of assault are almost twice as likely to develop eating disorders than those who had not been victimized.

Fighting Together

My daughter's struggle affected our entire family. We had to remove the doors from the hinges to the bedrooms and bathroom and make our daughter sleep on a mattress on the floor of our room. This arrangement made us feel safer on one hand, but also more anxious on the other. My husband and I sadly recalled a time when she slept in our room to nurse, when we really could keep her safe. Now, it seemed we no longer could.

My son, who has autism, felt he "should have" been able to protect his sister, and carried guilt over not being able to "make that guy get away from her." Yet, he was never present at the times the perpetrator assaulted our daughter. My husband, who I consider my rock, grew angry at the perpetrator and developed depression. I started having panic attacks, especially after our daughter's inpatient treatment stretched from weeks into months.

Of course, it was a nightmare for our daughter too. She endured hospital stays where she was forced to be fed through feeding tubes. She was angry, but at least she was getting nutrition—eight bottles or more of Ensure each day, poured into the tube feeder directly into her stomach. Our daughter glared at therapists, in denial about the extent of her PTSD.

The hardest part of coping with her ordeal and recovery journey for a total of four years was not knowing what would actually put her on a true path to a somewhat normal life. The long wait was excruciating.

The Road to Healing

Every family and every situation is different, but our experience with our son's autism had prepared us to be patient and try many different approaches. The trial and error showed us what didn't work for our daughter. This was valuable as we worked our way together to what did finally work: animal therapy.

We already had a fluffy toy poodle who was bossy and moody. We adopted a second poodle, an undersized standard who had been neglected in a puppy mill and had multiple health issues. We stayed up with her many nights and nursed her back from a pitiful state. We took turns caring for her and took great satisfaction from her state of health, which improved along with our daughter's. Patients in many treatment centers report the comfort they get from therapy dogs, and we feel lucky to have dogs at home.

My daughter also spent one whole summer interning at a horse farm in Sullivan County, New York. As one of the nurses she had become closest with said, "She can't think dark thoughts about self-harm while hanging on for dear life to the neck of a cantering horse." Research does in fact show that horseback riding can lead to a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms as can animal therapy in general. So there, after every early morning silent ride over green hills, my daughter bounded to the barn door, ready to see these gentle, non-judgmental creatures.

When I picked her up each day, I could see she was tired, but happy and fulfilled. By the end of that summer, something in her demeanor had changed. I would let other families know, if I could, that progress can be made step by step if you offer up a total change of scene after so many months of therapy. Animals and their non-verbal support can help some struggling individuals turn the corner.

A New Beginning

We survived and have some emotional distance now. Enough to wish to get a message to men in power who wield it to terrorize and torture women—#MeToo will go on and empower lives.

And looking back, it's hard to believe where we are now. My now 20-year-old daughter helps produce a monetized YouTube cooking show hosted by my mother, who taught at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) for 10 years up until the pandemic.

I watched my daughter handwrite recipes in her perfected lefty script. Tap tap. Fingers flying, she would text me Instagram posts about vegan cheeses and protein sources. She'd ask me to repost her video premieres on my social media. As the red hearts and blue "likes" piled up, I eventually joined in on the fun too.

We made vegan treats together: nut "milks," Bolognese sauce, sesame peanut noodles, and empanadas. We rolled the pastry dough, pinching ragged edges together, chatting. Heads together, temples touching, we laughed and spilled tangy tomatoey filling on the counter, the delicious counter. We learned not to overfill them with filling, fat raisins and sliced manzanilla olives in the sauce. We brushed them with oat milk "cream" and baked till the shiny tops and rounded crescent edges were a golden brown. A perfect treat we would both enjoy together.

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