WARNING: This post contains discussions of eating disorders.
For the last three years, Chloe has been slowly dying. Although she is sixteen, she weighs as much as an eight-year-old. We have tried everything the medical system has to offer – psychologists, psychiatrists, family therapists, dieticians, drugs … but nothing has worked.
Anorexia is a difficult thing to get people to understand. Sometimes they will come right out and say what I know they are thinking: ‘Why can’t you just get her to eat?’
The hospital had told us Chloe should be supervised closely for the first few weeks at home, so we devised another system. One of us would stay at home with her while the other went to work. For the first few days, it was Ray’s turn.
I called him many times that first day. ‘How are things going?’
Anne Tonner talks to Mia Freedman about watching her daughter struggle from anorexia. Post continues after audio…
‘Fine. She’s fine.’
‘How did lunch go?’ I persisted. ‘Did you follow the meal plan?’
I could hear the rising tide of exasperation in his voice. ‘If you don’t think I’m capable of looking after her, why don’t you stay home,’ he said.
Chastened, I put down the phone. How had I turned into that sort of mother? Never trusting, always controlling – that had never been me. That night, I arrived home from work to find Ray sitting on the couch watching television with Alice and Jack.
‘Where’s Chloe?’ I asked him. ‘She’s in her room. We’ve all had dinner.’
I walked up the stairs to Chloe’s room. Something wasn’t right. It was all too easy. I opened her door to find her doing sit-ups. ‘What are you doing?’ I said. ‘They said no exercise until you reach your goal weight!’
‘Everyone does it – another patient in hospital used to do a thousand a night! It doesn’t make any difference to my weight. It just makes me feel better.’
I could have kept arguing about this, but then I noticed the smell. A strong, savory smell of food, festering. It didn’t take me long to find it – the stack of crumpled up tissues under her bed. I unwrapped one to find chunks of beef stir fry. In another, there were slices of ham and cheese from lunch.
I looked at Chloe and she looked at me. Then I took all the tissue-wrapped food downstairs and showed it to her father. He was crestfallen.
‘She lied to me! She said she’d eaten it!’
‘Did you watch her while she was eating?’ I asked him.
‘Not all the time – I was busy with the other kids and the builders.’
‘What’s she been doing all day?’
‘She’s been mostly in her room, reading.’
‘And exercising, and hiding food! You can’t just leave her in her room!’
‘Well you stay home tomorrow then, seeing you’re so much better at this than I am!’ he snapped.
‘Fine!’ I snapped back.
That was how I turned into that sort of mother. With anorexia, it seemed the only way to be.
It was time to face the issue of school. Chloe had been away for twelve weeks. Would she have to repeat Year 7? If not, how would she catch up? What support could they provide while she was still recovering from her illness? We hadn’t been altogether happy with the way Chloe’s school had dealt with her illness. We wanted to clear the air, to make them understand.
The head of pastoral care expressed concern about Chloe’s health, and asked politely how she was going – was she well yet? The head of curriculum and the Year 7 coordinator outlined the work that Chloe had missed and offered to provide us with learning resources so she could catch up in the holidays. They said all the right things, but I couldn’t help feeling that they were scrutinising us as though we were some unusual type of life form. We were specimens of parents for whom things had not worked out; parents to be pitied.
I produced Chloe’s last school report from my handbag and read out the comment that her tutor had made. ‘Chloe needs to learn to speak up, as it is sometimes impossible to have a conversation with her.’
I pointed out that at the time this comment was made, Chloe had been very unwell. I suggested that this was not a particularly helpful comment to make and that perhaps the teacher who made it could be educated about the symptoms of eating disorders. The head of pastoral care nailed me with a glacial stare.
‘Did you know?’ she asked. The counsellor leaned forward, her face a study in earnest sympathy very difficult to reconcile with the words that came out of her mouth.
‘If you didn’t know your daughter had an eating disorder at the time this report was written, then it would seem somewhat unreasonable to expect the school to know, don’t you think?’
I glared at her.
Anne and Mia in the podcast studio.
‘We’re not blaming the school,’ Ray said, hastily. ‘I think my wife’s point is that it might be helpful for the school generally, if there was more awareness of eating disorders and their symptoms.’
They looked at each other, eyebrows raised, as if this was a highly unusual request. ‘We would have to discuss that,’ said the counsellor ‘with the head of risk management.’ The following day I rang the school counsellor to tell her that we had decided to remove Chloe from the school.
‘Oh dear. I am so disappointed,’ she gushed. ‘But do wish her all the best for the future.’
‘F**k off,’ I said, after hanging up the phone.
After a few [family therapy] sessions it became clear to [our counsellor] Matthew that Ray and I had conflicting approaches to the disease. I was the no-holds-barred warrior woman, prepared to fight it bare fisted in the trenches. Ray hated conflict and confrontation. He preferred a gentler, more conciliatory approach. Our different approaches were causing us to argue, which upset Chloe and the other children, and also allowed the disease to wreak havoc.
‘Anorexia thrives on divide and conquer,’ Matthew said.
Gradually, with Matthew’s help, Ray and I began to work as a team. We stood firm about the food choices we made for Chloe. There was no backing down, no negotiating. If meals took several hours, that was tough. She just had to finish them. Anorexia didn’t like this one bit. Cornered and snarling, it began to fight back.
30 December 2003
When people say ‘Happy New Year’ to me, I feel like saying, ‘I bloody hope so.’ The idea of ever being happy again seems remote. In my better moments, I tell myself not to be so pessimistic. Life goes on…
6 January 2004
Another bad attack today, again when Ray was out. This time it was all about the butter on her sandwich, which was deemed ‘too much’. More shouting and screaming. Jack went around the house closing all the doors and windows so no-one would hear the fighting. Alice later said that she felt as though anorexia was ‘shaking the house’.
One good thing is that the attacks are becoming more predictable. A certain look comes into Chloe’s eyes. It’s a look of unadulterated hatred and fury, as though she’s looking up from the depths of hell. There’s nothing of Chloe in that look at all – only the anorexic monster. When, eventually, it backs off, Chloe reappears, crumpled and sobbing – a frightened little girl.
3 January 2004
Yesterday morning, when Ray was out, I became suspicious. Chloe was in her room with the door shut. I opened it to find her looking very guilty. There were blankets and quilts strewn on the floor. She claimed she was making her bed, but I am sure she was doing sit-ups. Last week I saw that she had grazes up and down her backbone, a sure sign that she had been exercising. She must have worked out that if she lies on something soft while she exercises, she won’t get marks.
Listen to Anne's full interview with Mia Freedman here:
When I accused her of exercising, she shrieked at me furiously. She swore ‘on the Holy Bible’ that she hadn’t been exercising. We insist that she keep her bedroom door open at all times. If she won’t do that, we have said we will take it off its hinges. Matthew says the disease thrives behind closed doors. ‘Swear on the Holy Bible’ is not something that she would normally say. I’ve never heard her use this expression before. When she says it, her voice seems like that of an alien – a weird imposter.
Gradually, meals became easier. Jack stopped closing the doors and windows at dinner time. One weekend was actually almost enjoyable. We all went out to a movie, and had a roast dinner on the Sunday night. For once, I went into work on Monday morning not feeling as though I’d done ten rounds in a boxing ring.
One morning I took Chloe to the hospital for a physical checkup. Sitting there with her, I could hardly believe she was the same girl I had almost carried in nine months ago, close to death. She was smiling, happy, more concerned about the schoolwork she was missing than what she would have to eat for morning tea that day.
‘Take that, you bitch!’ I hissed at anorexia as I drove across the Harbour Bridge under the vast blue sky.
This is an edited extract from Cold Vein by Anne Tonner, published by Finch Publishing, 2017.
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