Life-sav­ing let­ters from home

Daily mis­sives from her mother helped keep Rachel Loewen afloat as she strug­gled with an eat­ing dis­or­der

Waterloo Region Record - - ETCETERA - Bar­bara Ag­ger­holm, Record staff bag­ger­holm@there­cord.com

KITCH­ENER — When she was sick and alone, thou­sands of miles from home, Rachel Loewen could count on one thing with cer­tainty. A let­ter from Mom. Ev­ery day, her mother, Techiya Loewen, got up early at their home in Kitch­ener and, be­fore leav­ing for work, sent an email to her bright, strong, strug­gling daugh­ter.

The hope­ful let­ters were printed by staff at the treat­ment cen­tre in the United States and given to Rachel, then 16 years old, who was fight­ing a life-threat­en­ing eat­ing dis­or­der.

Techiya’s mes­sage, along with sto­ries about fam­ily and events, was the same: “I know you’re work­ing hard. You will come home. You are beat­ing this.”

Those let­ters, ar­riv­ing as they did ev­ery day for 10 weeks in 2013, are at the cen­tre of a mov­ing story writ­ten by Rachel and pub­lished in a new “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book called “Thanks to My Mom.”

“She was throw­ing me a life­line, and it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to take hold and pull my­self out of the quick­sand of the last four years,” Rachel wrote in “Let­ters from Home.”

“Ev­ery day, an­other let­ter ar­rived, each one pre­vent­ing me from be­ing sucked back into the swirling vor­tex of my mind.”

To­day, Rachel is a friendly, 18-year-old with a 100-watt smile. She likes me­dieval his­tory, Arthurian leg­end and archery. She’s head­ing to uni­ver­sity in Septem­ber.

Rachel says she feels well and “men­tally re­cov­ered.”

Her body is get­ting there, too, she says, adding that it takes five years for a per­son’s body to re­cover from an eat­ing dis­or­der. “I’m two years in.”

Sit­ting in their living room, with their two cats, Boost and Sasha, rub­bing against their feet and their dog, Sneak­ers, snooz­ing on the floor, Rachel and Techiya de­scribed how their world was turned up­side down when Rachel was di­ag­nosed with an eat­ing dis­or­der, anx­i­ety and ob­ses­sive­com­pul­sive dis­or­der at age 12.

At one point, she was hos­pi­tal­ized at 77 pounds. “The hos­pi­tal re-fed me and got me back to nor­mal body weight but didn’t heal the men­tal ill­ness,” Rachel says.

Af­ter ex­haust­ing avail­able treat­ment op­tions in Canada, she says, a psy­chol­o­gist helped her fam­ily find a res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­tre in Utah where her care would be cov­ered by the On­tario gov­ern­ment.

It was too far away, but it was the only way, Rachel says. Though, “a lot of girls are forced into treat­ment, I signed my own pa­pers.”

Rachel says she can hardly re­mem­ber the first two weeks at the Utah cen­tre. “I was shell­shocked.” In early tele­phone calls, she begged her mother, fa­ther and older sis­ter to bring her home again. The calls were heartwrench­ing, Techiya says.

Af­ter a while, Rachel picked up the let­ters from her mother that had piled up un­opened, and be­gan to read.

She was sur­prised that some let­ters were 10 pages long. They were “mini-nov­els” com­pared to the brief notes that some teens re­ceived from fam­ily, she says.

She loved that ev­ery Wed­nes­day, her mother wrote her a funny story fea­tur­ing talk­ing an­i­mals that lived un­der a sky that was pink and pur­ple, her favourite colours.

They were like the sto­ries her mother had told Rachel when she was a child.

“I had not heard those sto­ries for many years,” Rachel says. “It was com­pletely ridicu­lous and made me laugh and I usu­ally did not laugh there.

“It hit me how much my mom was do­ing and how much she was putting into th­ese let­ters. I re­al­ized if I ever wanted to get back home, I needed to start work­ing harder.”

Her mother’s let­ters helped her turn a cor­ner. She started work­ing with her ther­a­pists and even ini­ti­ated a plan of her own to get bet­ter.

Af­ter 10 weeks less a day, Rachel was ready to be dis­charged. The av­er­age stay, she says, is six months. “I was re­leased with fly­ing colours and have not had a re­lapse since,” she wrote in her story.

“And it was all due to my mom’s per­se­ver­ance and her de­ter­mi­na­tion to never go a day with­out writ­ing me. Even though she was far away, her let­ters from home re­as­sured me that she was walk­ing be­side me ev­ery step of the way.”

On the day she left, Rachel said a spe­cial good­bye to the other young peo­ple at the treat­ment cen­tre.

“I wanted to try to bring them to­gether and not be up­set,” Rachel says. She tossed a ball of mul­ti­coloured yarn to the group. Each girl took hold of the string, and then threw the ball to the next girl who did the same. Laugh­ing, the group cre­ated what looked like a spi­der web.

A month af­ter she re­turned home, Rachel started tak­ing high school cor­re­spon­dence cour­ses. Af­ter al­most two years of hard work, she fin­ished in March.

In May, she and her older sis­ter, Kas­san­dra, are go­ing for a back­pack hol­i­day in Ire­land for which they’ve been sav­ing for two years.

In Septem­ber, Rachel is en­ter­ing first year at West­ern Uni­ver­sity in Lon­don, Ont., where Kas­san­dra is now in her fourth year. Rachel will study psy­chol­ogy at Bres­cia Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, a West­ern af­fil­i­ate and a women’s uni­ver­sity. She’ll take cre­ative writ­ing at West­ern cam­pus.

“I’m in love with Bres­cia,” Rachel says. “I love how much it ra­di­ates woman power and how women can take the lead.”

Re­cently, she placed third in a public speak­ing con­test at Bres­cia, where she talked about how girls can in­spire each other while fac­ing the chal­lenges of grow­ing up, in­clud­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their bod­ies.

“Ev­ery­one is an in­spi­ra­tion be­cause ev­ery­one has over­come th­ese fears,” she says.

“The first time, I cried all the way through it (the speech),” her mother says.

“You see some­one who had been so in­cred­i­bly ill and then, a year and a half later, she’s grad­u­at­ing and chang­ing to be the per­son that you knew she’d be, but which the ill­ness masked.”

The fu­ture is a bit nerve-rack­ing, Rachel says, just as it is for any first-year stu­dent start­ing uni­ver­sity in a city away from home. “Will I fit in and find my classes?” she says.

But she knows her trig­gers for anx­i­ety, how to head them off and how to get help if she needs it.

“My mom and I have a dream,” Rachel says. One day, they’d like to help cre­ate treat­ment houses in On­tario for girls with eat­ing dis­or­ders.

“In a per­fect world, I’d love to be a psy­chol­o­gist there; get my mas­ter’s and PhD in psy­chol­ogy.”

She’s cre­at­ing a web­site that she hopes will give men­tal ill­ness sur­vivors a chance to speak out.

“I want to ad­vo­cate and make speeches to break down the stigma and nor­mal­ize and talk about men­tal ill­ness so it’s out there,” Rachel says.

She and her mother are also work­ing with McMaster Hos­pi­tal in Hamil­ton, she says. With a fo­cus on the eat­ing dis­or­der unit, they’re com­ing up with ideas to pro­vide some fun for hos­pi­tal pa­tients and day pa­tients and in­for­ma­tion ses­sions for par­ents about eat­ing dis­or­ders.

Techiya says her daugh­ter “has sur­passed the strength I thought she had.”

“With ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing right now … in a lot of ways, it feels like the be­gin­ning of my life,” Rachel says.

PETER LEE, RECORD STAFF

Techiya Loewen hugs her daugh­ter, Rachel, who looked at her mother’s let­ters as ‘a life­line’ be­tween Kitch­ener and the Utah clinic where she re­ceived 10 weeks of treat­ment for an eat­ing dis­or­der two years ago.

PETER LEE, RECORD STAFF

Rachel Loewen’s mov­ing story about her mother’s en­cour­ag­ing let­ters ap­pears in "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom."

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