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Surviving Ophelia
by Cheryl Dellasega
Perseus, 2001

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When your children are toddlers, there are no "taboo" topics. Mothers will discuss anything from diaper rash, sore nipples, and temper tantrums to first smiles, kindergarten friends, and participation in sports. The ultimate source of parenting wisdom and support seems to be other women who are sharing your experiences.

All that changes in adolescence. Only success and accomplishments are spoken about when moms happen to meet in the grocery store or at high school activities. Crises such as depression, anorexia, drug abuse, pregnancy, bullying, or other issues that face an alarming number of young women are hushed and hidden. Mothers of girls who struggle with these problems are often invisible, grieving silently and alone.

I know. I was one of them.

To return to the tradition of sharing wisdom and support among mothers on similar parenting journeys, I wrote Surviving Ophelia--a book that contains stories from women across the United States and Canada, as well as my own. I share it with you now in the hopes it will offer the comfort, insight, and connection with others you need if your life involves a teenage girl, like mine, who is struggling.

There are no pictures of me cuddling Ellen to my heart for the first time in the delivery room, but it doesn't matter. Every detail is clear in my mind: her perfect, round face, the fuzz of soft gold hair crowning the very top of her head, and her dazed dark eyes, squinting against the glare of the bright, sterile lights. "You are the daughter I have always dreamed of," I whispered, resting my cheek against the smooth skin of her forehead. Lying there with her on my chest, I had a vision of the future and all the things she would accomplish. Like a movie on fast forward, I saw images of her doing well in school, having loyal friends, and being a kind person. She would go to a good college, and would someday make a positive difference in this world. Mostly, I pictured all the good times we would have together. The year after her birth, 1984, was probably the happiest one of my life. I had a five-year-old son, Matt from my first marriage, who readily adapted to his role as "big brother," a great second husband, a job teaching at a small university that I liked, and Ellen. When our youngest son, Joe, was born eighteen months after her, I rejoiced again, thrilled she would have a sibling close to her age. "What a pleasant baby!" was the most frequent comment I heard during Ellen's early years. It was true-she rarely cried, and had an unusual laugh that would start deep in her throat and bubble out, drawing smiles from everyone around her. When I cuddled her, she would often pat my back while I patted hers. The developmental tasks I labored over with Joe and Matt came easy to her: she even decided to stop sucking her thumb on her own, and did so in a few weeks. My prediction about her academic abilities proved right. She loved math, ("there are always right answers") and brought home A's in that and other major subjects. All the sports her brothers tried, she tried, as well as dance lessons. Swimming was the activity that stuck, partly because it helped her asthma, and partly because she was good at it. When her arm was broken in third grade, she wore a waterproof sleeve, still competed, and even finished near the top. What touched me most about Ellen was her kindness. She (and her brothers) had a special sensitivity for kids who were handicapped or didn't quite fit in for some reason. When holidays rolled around, no one saved their money as carefully or thought more diligently about the gifts they would buy than Ellen. My husband and I followed all the "rules" for parenting we'd learned, providing lots of love, appropriate discipline, spiritual grounding, and security for all three children. When they were old enough, they were encouraged to be independent through summer camp experiences, and flying to Chicago to visit their grandparents. They got allowances for jobs they did around the house to promote a sense of responsibility, and we had family traditions for Christmas and Thanksgiving we looked forward to. We went to church together on Sundays so faithfully our absence was noted by the other members. I wouldn't say I was smug, but, until adolescence, I thought Ellen was going to turn out exactly as I imagined she would right after her birth. Unfortunately, most of the dreams I had as I cradled her on the delivery room table got shoved aside when she hit her teens and the first of many crises began. She had barely turned fourteen when an eating disorder put a sudden end to the joyful shopping trips, meals out, and lazy evenings of watching videos at home. As her condition worsened, we stopped going to the pool to swim laps, rarely laughed together, and her grades plummeted. I was in a constant state of panic, desperate for reassurance, and afraid to face the future, searching everywhere for answers to the questions that plagued me. What had gone wrong with Ellen? How had I failed her? Would things ever return to "normal?"

Excerpted from Surviving Ophelia by Cheryl Dellasega. Copyright © 2001 by Cheryl Dellasega. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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