The Sunday Times – 12/03/06
How mum saved me from myself
Parents can play a vital role in helping a daughter fight anorexia — but they must act early, says Grace Bowman
It’s my mum’s face I remember, at first strong and questioning, then softening to the edge of tears, as she pulled into the car park, switched off the engine, and turned to face me. A teacher herself, she had spoken to a colleague who had experience of anorexia nervosa and she had confirmed that my symptoms — rapid weight loss, becoming secretive, dramatically cutting down food — were indicative of an eating disorder.
Mum asked me if I thought I had a problem. At that moment, an 18-year-old who had just got four A-grade A-levels, I didn’t have the strength to resist her question or to fight back. Although I was on the brink of going to university to study drama I was feeling more unstable than ever.
For the first time in months I dropped my resolve. I said that I was sorry but I wouldn’t be able to eat dinner. It was all that my mother needed to hear.
My parents had hoped that I was going through a teenage phase. But it carried on. A diet which at first appeared to make me confident had become deeply entrenched. I was obsessed with lowering my weight and with everything that I did or didn’t put into my mouth.
It’s sometimes hard for parents to talk to teenagers struggling with their feelings, as they are too involved. When I talked to my mum, I felt sensitive about her; I didn’t want her to be upset. But for parents, I think it’s critical to be informed; to be aware of the signs. To try and act quickly before a dangerous line gets crossed where an addiction takes over and it becomes so very difficult to turn back.
It is 10 years since I was diagnosed with anorexia. After that initial diagnosis it took me another year to reach university. It was a year of psychiatrists, nutritionists, obsessive dieting and exercise. For the first few months my weight plummeted, to just under 6st. But then in the new year, after applying for, and winning, a place at another university — at Cambridge to read English — things started to improve, though I battled throughout my undergraduate years with the aftermath of anorexia, what I can now name as an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.
My mum thinks my initial recovery was because my family, at the end of their tether, took me to visit a residential eating disorders clinic, an experience which so horrified me that I decided to mend myself.
I’m not sure. My perspective was so skewed, my anorexic world so self-absorbed, that I couldn’t engage with what my family might be feeling. I could barely interpret my own experience.
But now, at the age of 28, several years after making a full recovery, after a stint working in advertising and finally realising my childhood ambition of being a writer, I believe that our emotions were similar. I felt disempowered. They felt helpless. We all felt guilty.
My family memories of that lost year between school and university are hazy. I remember us sitting round a silent Christmas dinner table. I picked on my cottage cheese and sipped my Diet Coke, while the rest of the family got stuck into a turkey dinner. I forced myself to eat a roast potato to try and make my parents happy. I then spent the rest of the afternoon dancing frantically around the house. I pretended I was having fun playing and giggling with my sister, listening to new Christmas CDs but was secretly counting the calories I thought I would be losing dancing.
My 19th birthday was particularly distressing. I tried to smile and say thank you for my presents, but couldn’t contain my tears. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to give me anything.
I was the centre of the family’s attention on that day. The focus was unbearable, as I watched their saddened faces look on helplessly. Their eldest sister, their strong daughter was frail and broken.
“In retrospect,” my mum recalls, “we got you to the GP fairly quickly. Perhaps it could have been even quicker, but the speed at which it all happened was overwhelming and frightening. At first, the strategy was to try to encourage you to eat but that proved to be a futile exercise. It was a risk, but I felt that a supportive and non-confrontational route would work better.”
My mum took time off from work to watch me closely. My dad, a manager, looked on from afar; not knowing how to make an approach towards my now shut-down body. My twin sisters, aged 12, and my brother, 15, were confused.
“Our way of trying to do something was to find out everything we could about the illness,” she says. “We joined the Eating Disorders Association; we talked to everyone who would listen about it. We went to a parents’ support group. We saw your psychiatrist ourselves. In trying to work with the professionals we at least felt we were doing something proactive.”
Mum was desperate to understand what I was going through; all she wanted to do was help. But this was not like a childhood illness — there was no penicillin to administer. She had to watch me eat a carefully weighed tomato for tea and not know what to do.
My parents tried talking to me, and not. They brought home special low-calorie meals, thinking it would be the kind of thing I would eat. I turned away. “Please don’t feed me like a child,” I said. “I am an adult.” But I was an adult who was less than 6st and no longer had a sense of who she was.
My mum’s perseverance paid off and I became an outpatient at an eating disorders unit. Although this was useful it was not the reason for my recovery. I started to fight my anorexia in order that my family could recover too; I wanted to make them like me again. I told myself I had to eat more. And so I did.
My parents were suspicious at first. They were still unsure until I made substantial weight gain and was officially allowed to go to Cambridge. They were right to be cautious. Anorexia is not mended just because the body conforms to a certain weight. It has deeper roots. It has been linked to certain traits such as high academic achievement, perfectionism, low self esteem and a desire to be liked.
However, I claimed to be “absolutely fine”. And to outward appearance I seemed fine. Going to university was the start of my recovery. But in fact I buffered any comment about my weight or my eating habits for years, channelling my anxiety into food and exercise, blocking conversation, especially with those I saw as most closely connected to me — my family.