real life

A son reveals what it's like to grow up with an anorexic mum.

Damian Cooper grew up in the shadow of his mother’s battle with Anorexia Nervosa. A single mother, they formed  a close bond. In his memoir Angela’s Anorexia Damian writes about his boyhood, a time set against the poignant parallel story of his mother’s excessive focus on body image, food, diet and exercise.

At the end of the school year, Damian, almost 7, is flown from Auckland to his mother’s new home on the Sunshine Coast, arriving at Brisbane international airport where his mother is to collect him.

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As I rounded the corner into the public arrivals lounge, a bobbing sea of unfamiliar faces confronted me. I stared at the faces before me, watching as individuals randomly sprang forward from the mob to embrace loved ones from among the rest of the passengers behind me.

For a moment I was struck with a fear that I had been on the wrong plane or that no one would be there to meet me. My fears were not so much allayed, but redirected when I finally spotted Angie tentatively emerge from the crowd. My hands tightened around the handle of my trolley bag as I developed a sickening feeling, first of sadness and then embarrassment, as the skeletal form that was now my mother moved slowly toward me.

Damian and his mother in the '70s. Image supplied.

Angie was dangerously emaciated. Her hair, although dyed auburn red, was brittle and straw-like. The twinkle of delight that would normally shine in her crystal green eyes on seeing me was lost in the dark, sunken recesses of her face. The dimensions of her skull were striking; her cheek bones were ledges above the gaping depressions of her face; her jaw seemed suspended like a science classroom model skeleton. Her gums, which were a patchy dark purple, had receded, exposing her teeth above the enamel and causing them to decay. Her skin was paper-thin and covered in abrasions from minor accidents.

A thick pasty sort of smell hung in the air, which I found out later was cod liver oil. A thin coat of oil lathered her skin, its rank smell intensified by the humidity, making it inescapable. Her skin hung loosely on her frame, revealing the contours of her bones where normally flesh would hide the inner workings of the body. She hugged me in an insubstantial embrace. I held her as tightly as I dared and imagined that I was holding the body of a dying alien, prematurely hatched from its cocoon, which I had just seen on the flight movie.

Nothing was said as we made our way from the airport terminal to the car, under a blistering sun. The awkwardness was palpable. I sat in the passenger seat with my knees closed together and pulled up against my chest while I stared out of the window, trying to understand who this thing was that sat next to me.

‘Did you have a good flight?’ Her question cut into my thoughts as a far off reminder of something very familiar.

‘Yes, thank you,’ I dutifully replied.

‘Well, that’s good. It was right on time which is always nice.’ She was making an effort, her soft clear voice catching my attention. ‘And there’s not a cloud in the sky today, which is what it’s like here most of the time, not like back in old NZ’

She spoke with what seemed like a sense of growing hope in her voice.

New Zealand. Image: @ocean.

‘Mind you, you’re probably going to feel the heat for the first little while. It gets hot enough to fry an egg on the bonnet here, but the beach isn’t far away.’

Slowly, as I listened, I began to realise that buried somewhere beneath that hellish façade was the soft kind mother of my memories, and with every word her voice – which was unchanged – drew me back in.

‘I have gotten us a lovely little place right by the beach, which you’re just going to love. And, sweetie, I think we are really going to be able to stay here together this time.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

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I spent my seventh birthday playing in the sand at a beach on the Sunshine Coast. True to her word Mum, was renting a small fibro home flat close to the ocean while she looked around for somewhere better to buy. Having already been there for close to a year she’d made some friends through a small church group that she had become involved with, and she was particularly friendly with another single mother, Leanne, who lived a few streets away.

Leanne was an attractive young woman with dark hair and big, dairy cow, brown eyes. She had two children, both a few years younger than me. I liked Leanne and she liked me, always giving me a huge welcoming smile whenever I saw her. If I wasn’t at Leanne’s playing with her kids, I was riding my bike around to explore my new world, a world that felt a million miles away from the cold stone walls of Southwell. I learnt to boogie board and fumbled around with surfboards whenever I could get someone to lend me one. I knew all the short cuts through backyards to the beach, and which take-away shops had the best video game machines.

I was stupidly happy – but Mum was not.

One night while we were still in our little white-washed beach flat watching television, Mum told me that she was going to bed because she was tired and that I shouldn’t bother waking her in the morning as she intended to sleep in. She was normally up with the sunrise and out the door to walk along the beach before it became crowded. I wondered about it for a few moments then slipped back into watching television.

The night wore on and I put myself to bed without thinking any more about it. In the morning I diligently obeyed her command and did not attempt to wake her while I made myself some breakfast. Then I rode my bike for hours to pass the time. It must have been mid-morning when I returned and found her still in bed.

I decided to wake her. By that time in the morning the closed bedroom had become stuffy and humid and the curtains were still drawn. I crept into the dark private chamber. She lay motionless on the bed, still covered by her doona.

‘Mum?’ I whispered into the darkness. ‘Mum, it’s nearly lunch time …’ She made no indication of having heard me.

‘Mum?’ I said again, this time a bit louder. ‘Mum, it’s time to get up.’

I reached down to touch her gently on the shoulder. She felt cold. I had had no experience with death. I didn’t know the signs to look for, but at that moment I instinctively knew something was wrong.

‘Mum!’ I called with a panicked edge in my voice, no longer whispering at all.

‘Mum, Mum, you have to get up … please, Mum.’

I started to shake her by the shoulder, but her head just seemed to loll on the pillow as if she wasn’t there. I called to her but she was far, far away, down the other end of the beach on a windy day.

Something was terribly wrong. I checked and saw that she was still breathing though only ever so lightly so I ran out of our front door and down the walkway to our neighbour’s flat. I pounded on the door with my fists, screaming for the neighbours to come out and help me. When the old man finally came to the door, tears were streaming down my face as I blurted out what I could.

Back at our place, I dragged him down the hall into our flat and then into Mum’s room. He looked shocked as he made some futile attempts to wake her, then quickly retreated to our telephone to call an ambulance.

Damian Cooper lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, with his wife and daughter.  He is the manager of a social welfare agency providing care and support services to vulnerable and disadvantaged youth. This is an extract from his book Angela's Anorexia, available now from www.ssoa.com.au as well as Amazon Books, in Kindle and print.