Our anorexia story began early in 2010, when our daughter was admitted to John Hunter Hospital by a specialist pediatrician. We did not know the illness had taken hold and when I was receiving phone calls in her first weeks of Year 7, it was very confusing. When you first meet anorexia, you don’t know what you’re up against. Anorexia in top gear is very dangerous, because it has your child.
Much of our story cannot be told, but it’s enough to say our daughter has sustained sixteen hospital admissions and has almost lost her life several times. The illness can run rings around hospital systems and those systems can end up making major mistakes, which again play into the hands of the illness itself. Anorexia changes your life, bends your world out of shape like a Salvador Dali painting.
Our family has experienced some truly terrifying times, critical incidents and dangerous events which were potentially fatal for our daughter. It’s a miracle she has survived to this day. The illness itself sees those who are trying to help our daughter as the chief enemies and main targets for attack. The illness will try to destroy your marriage and family, it is the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy at play. Some families don’t stay together and I can completely understand; the unrelenting pressure, the close supervision needed, the emotional exhaustion all take a toll.
Parents often feel guilty and responsible for their child’s anorexia. This only makes matters harder to bear.
Mums and Dads need to be complementary in their different strengths and gifts, to fight the common enemy. We all know of the forty hour famine, but not the 380 hour famine; our daughter once went without food for sixteen days and in that period, there was nothing we could do but wait for the next admission. It is a terrible thing to watch your daughter change before your eyes.
You almost forget what your beautiful child was like before the illness came into her life. Our daughter wants to recover, yet it is the illness which makes it so difficult to recover, as it has had a hold on her life for so long and in such deep ways, which only those who have had the illness understand. We have a younger daughter who has had to grow up very fast. At 13, she has been remarkable in her resilience and understanding of an experience which will probably shape the direction of her future life. We are very proud of her.
It is very important to see that the illness and your daughter are not the same thing. Michael White, who developed Narrative Therapy, created the line, “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.”It is vital not to confuse the person with the illness, though this is easier said than done. Think of someone who has cancer. It is much simpler to see the difference between the person and the cancer, but far harder when it is an Eating Disorder (ED), yet it makes a huge and positive difference when one sees this. Your daughter is not anorexia, your daughter has anorexia, or rather more accurately, anorexia has your daughter and is keeping her captive and you are left to fight for her life. Hopefully one day we will get our daughter back, we don’t know when.
We do know girls now who were in hospital with our daughter who have recovered very well. One said when she went to visit our daughter she felt triumphant because she had beaten the illness. It seems some girls have an epiphany which leads them to make decisions to slowly recover, over much time and with much support.
One of the myths about EDs is that people choose to have this illness. The illness is something which slowly takes control of a person’s life, like a giant strangling vine around a healthy tree.
The girls who end up in John Hunter Hospital with this illness are in many ways similar. They are sensitive, highly intelligent, artistic perfectionists and they have low self esteem; this is the common profile, which perhaps predisposes them to the illness. There is still much speculation, for anorexia is silent, powerful and eludes many categories in medicine and effective medical treatment, including therapy and medication.
There is no known cure. There are various treatments yet much remains in question. Often girls recover gradually and mysteriously, though not all recover. Early intervention is claimed as the key for the best chance of recovery.
An ED is a psychological condition which manifests physically, so it is an illness of mind and body. The core of an ED is a voice in the mind, which constantly accuses, condemns, mocks, tempts, lies and deceives. Many see EDs as a form of attention-seeking or a middle class illness for privileged white girls. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The writer’s recommendations for parents facing this ordeal are: