I am the mother of a daughter who has survived anorexia. She’s in recovery now, at a healthy weight, with relatively good mental health, but I will always be the mother of an anorexic. Even in my sleep.
I imagine it must be somewhat like being mother to a child with an addiction. I use this analogy because more people are aware of addiction than anorexia. The child may take a break, seek help, and enter a clean phase of living, but at the back of your mind you’re still watching and waiting. You’re triggered by every little thing, you’re watching them like a hawk, constantly alert for signs of a relapse.
I fought hard to get here. I put up the fight of my life in fact, because I’ve never encountered anything as insidious as an anorexia. Something that masquerades as your child’s friend, whilst it steals their very soul before your eyes. Something so deranged that when you try to interrupt it, it gets stronger, fiercer, angrier, and it all but takes over like some kind of demonic possession.
I’ve gone back over the last couple of years with a fine tooth comb and there’s a few things I know I did pretty badly. Maybe I should have contacted a health care provider sooner, maybe I should have seen the signs sooner, maybe I should have put more barriers up with the eating disorder to evict it sooner, maybe I should have been more patient when I was tearing my hair out, mothering three other kids too (one with ADHD). But maybe I did some stuff well, and I should give myself credit for that. It’s not like I had an instruction manual or anything, I really was winging it. Maybe, given my time again, I would make more of an effort to recognise the small successes.
I took no hostages
I did take hostages sometimes. It was easier to provide “the right food” according to whatever ridiculous fad we were in that week. Be it vegan, raw foodism, fruitarianism, or carnivorous – all real fads she did by the way. It was easier to cook her a separate meal than to say to my daughter who was desperate to be vegan, “Tonight we are having meat for dinner, eat it or go hungry”. Telling someone with an eating disorder to go hungry …… you can only imagine the torturous fear that would breed if you’ve been in my shoes. It was HARD. It was like sending her on a date with Ted Bundy when I finally decided to do it. But when I did, when I finally decided that the hostages (namely ME!!!) had been languishing in the kitchen for long enough and it was white bread sandwiches and pre-sliced cheese for lunch or nothing, she just ate.
Would I have done this when she was in the very early stages of treatment, in the pleasantly named “re-feeding” phase? Not a hope in hell. I pandered then (to a degree, but we’ll discuss that later). I picked and chose fights, and sometimes I picked the wrong ones ….. But when I decided to throw the hostages over board? That was the day things started taking a turn for the better.
I called her bluff
The first day of “re-feeding” I presented my seriously undernourished teen with a teeny tiny slice of artisan raisin toast. She’d had breakfast only an hour and a half earlier. She announced in no uncertain terms that if she had to eat THIS MUCH she would slit her wrists. She would rather suicide than eat a piece of raisin toast.
Your kid with anorexia threatens suicide and you don’t giggle, let me assure you. But in the back of my mind I kind of knew she was just testing my mettle. I wasn’t truly confident of course, you’d be mad to ooze confidence in that situation that wouldn’t you? But I was pretty comfortable in the assertion that she just didn’t want the toast, and she thought I’d meekly take it away and feed it to the chooks.
Which is exactly what I did. But then I bundled her and the other three kids into the car and went straight to emergency. An hour long drive. Because if you’re contemplating suicide that’s where you need to be!
We spent an uncomfortable six hours in emergency, where she shamefacedly admitted (in angry whispering tones to the duty psychiatrist) that she wasn’t really suicidal, she just didn’t want toast. But just to be sure the hospital very thoughtfully insisted that she eat before leaving. And they took no hostages. It was what they had, no short order chef came by the bedside, she was given horrible fake yogurt, and a sandwich. Both foods that were NOT on her approved list of foods.
The next time I gave her a piece of lovingly handmade (for discerning people) raisin toast, she ate it without complaint. Without audible complaint anyway. There was plenty body language, but the toast got eaten.
I didn’t make empty threats
After her second appointment with her treatment team at the hospital she was devastated to learn that her three meal, three snack a day regimen wasn’t going away any time soon. She was certain that she’d prove to them all that I was neurotic, and she had a good grasp on food, nutrition, and health. It didn’t go like that though. They told her that I was the boss and she had to do what I instructed her to do. When she begged them to listen to how much I was feeding her they said “That’s tough! Mum knows best, when in doubt defer to Mum.”
When we got home I prepared afternoon tea and presented it to her. By way of thanks she picked up a bar stool and threw it at my head. Was I scared? That would be an understatement. I was terrified! But I didn’t flinch. I looked her square in the eyes and without missing a beat I said “That will be The. Last. Time. You. are violent in this house. If you ever attempt to harm me or anyone else again I will have you arrested. Under no circumstances will I bail you out.”
Interestingly, and perhaps rather fortuitously, we had watched an entire show about prison food the night before. I use the word food in the loosest possible way.
After the fake yogurt incident she knew I was serious. She sat and ate. Angrily. Although I desperately wanted her to be safe, and having her living out of home was clearly one potential outcome of that conversation, it’s a basic human right that I live safely. If I was prepared to have bar stools thrown at me once, I had to be prepared to have them thrown twice. Maybe hitting a toddler, maybe hitting a pet. I wasn’t prepared for that so I drew a line in the sand and thankfully, she (or more precisely, her anorexia) never crossed it.
I hid nutrition in “approved food”
If you’ve care for someone with an eating disorder you’ll know all about “approved food”. There are foods that are perfect, and if anything else comes within a mile of your plate your anxiety goes through the roof. Non approved food should be viewed in the same light as arsenic.
Take porridge for example. I can’t remember which inane fad diet she was on, but porridge was a safe food. So I made porridge. In the porridge I put a teaspoon of coconut oil, a teaspoon of butter, and in the milk on top I mixed cream. Not because I believe that fat makes you fat, I know the latest science on that. I did it because fat feeds the brain, and if the brain isn’t feeding, the brain isn’t thinking, and if the brain isn’t thinking, the brain equates normal food with arsenic, and instructs the body to throw bar stools at the bringer of raisin toast.
I hid good fats and other essential nutrition in smoothies, soups, in EVERYTHING. Nothing was set before her unless I had added some kind of hidden nutrition. Chicken stock, butter, vegetable stock, salt, cream. ANYTHING that might have a vitamin, mineral, essential fatty acid etc that could be hidden? It went on her plate.
I gave up talking about health
My daughter’s eating disorder didn’t come about as the result of vanity – in fact eating disorders have nothing to do with vanity. Her anorexia was about being healthy. Not eating too much, not eating the wrong food, eating the perfect balance of everything …… often totally ridiculous things!
In the beginning I tried to get her to see reason. That if she REALLY wanted to be healthy, she’d see her mental health as a part of it all, and she’d fight the eating disorder.
But eating disorders are the epitome of cognitive dissonance. Someone who is living with one, won’t view it as unhealthy, they only view eating outside of their rules as unhealthy. I had to separate the eating disorder from my daughter, and just deal with my daughter. There was no point talking about health, nutrition, specific diets, or anything related, because her brain was in some kind of temporary receivership. So I provided food, and I talked about the weather. I provided more food and I talked about television shows. I provided food and I talked about anything I could think of, but I never talked about food.
I talked about the media, body image, and feminism
I took every opportunity to talk about how absurd the images of women in the media are. I mean every opportunity. She seemed to really embrace the idea that she was more than what she could see in the mirror. It didn’t impact on her behaviour around food, but it planted seeds.
As I continued to challenge the eating disorder in the ways I listed above, she began to take chances with food. At first it was just to get me off her case, but after a while she came to see that challenging the anxiety she had around food was the only way out. She began to work with her therapist rather than trying to get her therapist to see how insane I was. There are still challenges, but I do feel like she can see a little bit of the wood in the trees now. And I do think I helped!
I know full well that what worked on my daughter may not work on anyone else’s daughter, and I didn’t share this in the hopes of providing anything more than encouragement. The main reason this article exists, pure and simple, is because for so many nights I was critical of myself. I told myself it was hopeless, I had no hope of saving her, I’d failed miserably ….. She wouldn’t fight for herself so it was pointless for me to persist. You get the idea.
But even amongst my failures, there were successes. I couldn’t see them at the time, all I could see was every little failure, like a deep welt on my confidence. Like a blinding reminder of my unmitigated incompetence as a mother. But I didn’t fail, I’m not incompetent, I’m just human.
Relapse is incredibly common with anorexia, and of course other eating disorders. So I really don’t feel safe, or confident. What I do feel though, is like I’ve won the first battle. Will the war ever end? Not in my heart of hearts. I’ll be a mother until the day I die, and I will be the mother of an anorexic until the end of time. If I ever face anorexia again, the seemingly impregnable foe, the one thing I will remember is to be kind to myself. I have no idea whether these strategies will work again, but being kind to myself when the chips are down – that’s a pun and a half – is something vital that I overlooked entirely this time round.
FOR FURTHER READING