Life-saving letters from home
Daily missives from her mother helped keep Rachel Loewen afloat as she struggled with an eating disorder
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.
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.
Rachel Loewen’s moving story about her mother’s encouraging letters appears in "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom."