“I Couldn’t Make it Okay” — Two Stories from Parents of Teens with BDD

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) can be an incredibly isolating disorder not just for the individual who has been diagnosed, but also for families who are trying to make sense of what is happening to their loved one. An adolescent who may have been excelling in school and friendships is now self-conscious, secretive, and isolating. Below are two stories from different families who have been impacted by BDD and what their journey’s looked like.

Mrs. A.

I thought it was very low self esteem. Her father thought she was way too preoccupied with the mirror and her physical appearance.  Social media has been exploding with images of how girls (and boys) should look. Was this just what teenagers are going through now?  Although, this had a different dimension, an excessiveness and compulsiveness that was undeniable.  Any attempt I made to draw her away from this self pre-occupation was only short-lived.  There was also anxiety, sadness and depression. It interfered with her ability to participate in activities at school, with friends and sometimes even with family. Her academics continually dropped. School brought on additional anxiety, as she perceived that people were always looking at her and judging her for her perceived flaws.  As the years passed, I watched her daily try to create some way to cover her “flaws”.  She would zero in and lock on.  One day her nose, another her hair, or skin, eyes or tummy, and so on.  There was my 17 year-old daughter, and then there was something else that took over her thoughts creating some form of ugliness or distortion.

As her mother, these years have been very difficult and extremely painful for me to observe and know that other than being a “safe” person for my daughter, I couldn’t make it okay.  We tried traditional therapy for years, changing clinicians, trying to find the right one to relieve her.

My daughter has lived day-to-day for many years struggling, yet also knowing that what she was experiencing wasn’t normal.  She actually researched on her own and felt that she had this disorder, which I and many professionals hadn’t even heard of.  Her pediatrician listened to her carefully and gave us some direction, which ultimately led us to the right treatment.

From the very first appointment, my daughter was able to have dialogue with someone who actually understood her, the pain and the disruption in her life. She no longer felt shame for behaviors of the past, such as excessive preoccupation with physical self, constant mirror checking and the unquenchable need for reassurance/compliments.  She had a diagnosis and was ready to move forward.  She experienced some relief immediately and did her homework diligently.  The program has taught my daughter how to recognize the onset and triggers of episodes, and has given her new insight to this disorder. She now has the tools to manage BDD.  Her grades are good and she freely participates in activities.  Her life is so much brighter now.

Mr. and Mrs. B.

If you are reading this you probably already know how devastating BDD can be for the sufferers and their families.  Our world fell apart when my daughter was in eighth grade.  She clearly was having a very hard time and she confided in me with her concerns.  I was sure it was adolescent related and I kept talking to her figuring that I would eventually say those magic words that would make her all better.  When that did not happen we found a local therapist for her to talk to.  The sessions were not helping but the therapist did have a diagnosis.  As soon as I got online and read about BDD I knew that this is what she had.

I went and bought The Broken Mirror by Katharine Phillips and read it in a day.  I read that BDD patients need to be treated by professionals trained in helping those with BDD. When we were finally able to locate a BDD clinic, I remember crying on the phone with them begging for their help because there weren’t any other options. Once she did start Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) treatment, I remember the first three months being very difficult.  She would cry most of the way home.  It was hard work. Then things started to get better.  At about four months she was really improving and I remember her agonizing over what will happen to her when the therapy ends.  By the end of the trial she was doing amazingly well!!  She even said that she thought she would be fine once the therapy ended.

Things were pretty good for about nine months.  Then I noticed that the rituals that she worked so hard in therapy to control were creeping back into our lives.  She was spending more and more time in the mirror and I knew we were in trouble.  She had a relapse that was so bad she was unable to function in school.  We tried a number of other therapists in our area that were not specialists in BDD since we could not find any that were.  They could not help her.  Because she was so depressed we decided to put her on Lexapro. Her depression lifted but the BDD wasn’t getting any better.  We went back to the BDD clinic to get specialized CBT for BDD.  She started practicing her skills and started to get better again.  She still sees her CBT therapist whenever she really needs to. She is in college now and functioning quite well although the ups and downs are still there.  Transitions can be tough, but she knows her triggers and how to get through them using her CBT skills.

Our road has been long and exhausting but I know one thing for sure.  Our daughter would have no quality of life if it weren’t for the amazing people at the BDD clinic.  She is happy most of the time, functions very well in college, and handles most of her BDD issues on her own now.  She is maintaining good grades, a member of several clubs, and a leader on her residence hall. When I think about how she was and where she is today it makes me so hopeful for her future.

I think that the medicine has been extremely helpful in keeping her more steady and helps her to be able to practice her CBT on her own.  The most important advice I could give to a parent is to find experts to help your child. I also believe that CBT is amazingly effective if you and your child are willing to do the work.

Our lives are as close to normal as they have ever been since this all started six years ago and that is all thanks to her CBT therapist’s amazing dedication and expertise and my daughter’s willingness to work hard to fight back against the thoughts that constantly invade her life.  We are so incredibly proud of her!!