teens

"When my daughter was sixteen, she brought home her new best friend. She almost broke us."

Content warning: This post mentions themes of eating disorders and mental health issues some readers may find triggering. 

Three years ago, when my daughter was 16, she brought home her new best friend. Her name was Anorexia.

I had been feeling for a while that something was going on. Over the last few months, Emily had become sullen, withdrawn, secretive – especially around food.  At first, it didn’t make sense. How could a happy, beautiful, clever girl, change so quickly?  But, when I met Anorexia, it all made sense.

Anorexia put her arm through Emily’s and kept a tight hold. She skipped along and tricked her into thinking that she was a safe and supportive friend. If Emily did everything that Anorexia told her to do, she would feel more in control, less anxious, less worried. Truth was that if Emily did everything Anorexia told her to do, she would die.

Over the next six months, I tried many different tactics to get rid of Anorexia. As Paul Kelly would say – as a mother –  I did all the dumb things.  I tried to drag Emily onto the scales so she could see how much weight she was losing. I forced all family members to stay at the table until Emily’s meal was eaten. I bribed. I bargained. I begged. I threw things. I stormed out. I cried. I sobbed. I watched, helpless. And the whole time I was doing all these dumb things, Emily was becoming thinner and thinner and Anorexia was sitting there at the dining table, rubbing her hands with glee. She knew she had me beaten, because I didn’t understand her.

In May last year, Anorexia almost got her ultimate wish. In a week where all Emily had to eat was a couple of almonds and where she exercised so hard, she passed out on a treadmill, she was rushed to hospital, gravely ill. I felt relief. At last now she would be in the hands of people who knew what to do. But, as I sat in the Emergency Department of one of the largest teaching hospitals in Australia watching Anorexia run amok, my relief turned to disbelief.

I watched Anorexia jump for joy when, on admission to the emergency department, Emily was made nil by mouth for twenty four hours. I followed Anorexia as she danced excitedly around the emergency doctors for hours on end, while they tried to decide which department Emily should be admitted to. And when they finally found her a bed in the Endocrinology ward, I heard Anorexia guffaw when the head of the department came to Emily’s bedside and told her that in order to recover all she needed to do was eat. If only it was that simple! I looked at Anorexia snuggled up on the bed next to Emily – that familiar smug look on her face – and I knew she had these people beaten as well.  They didn’t understand her.

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Anne Tonner talks to Mia Freedman about watching her daughter struggle from anorexia. Post continues after audio…

For the two weeks Emily was in hospital, she had her own nurse, sitting bedside around the clock.  Some of them sat bored and disinterested. One of them had loads of advice – like how eliminating all foods starting with the letters B and P was the best way to lose weight. Some of them were my heroes. They understood Anorexia. Perhaps she had once been their best friend as well? They knew the right words to gently encourage Emily to have a mouthful or two of the hospital food that was served up at each meal – food that looked unappetising to a healthy person  – I can’t imagine how they did it!  When she was medically stable, Emily was discharged to a private clinic. I drove her there – almost praying aloud that this may be the answer. But Anorexia came too, and by the second day she was running the place.

During her stay, Emily hung out with twenty other females and males who had BFFs all with the surname Eating Disorder.  Some of them were very young. Some of them had parents over 500 km away. For some of them, this was their fourth or fifth stint. All of them had tricks (and sometimes food) up their sleeve. While she was there, Emily learnt how to hide a whole meal in your mouth so you could spit it in the bin later and how to do twenty sit ups in the back of a chemist shop without anyone noticing. Five weeks later, she left there with Anorexia well and truly by her side.

To say I am disillusioned with what our health system is currently offering people suffering a mental health illness that has the highest mortality rate (20 per cent of people with anorexia will die prematurely from medical associated medical complications) is an understatement. Where is the evidence based practice that other countries have shown within all of this?  I know that the majority of health professionals were genuinely concerned about Emily and they wanted her to get well, but they had no understanding of who they were dealing with.

Often times they treated Anorexia like a naughty friend. They ignored her. They punished her. They argued with her – all in the hope that this would make her go away.  But this only made her stronger and forged a deeper bond between my daughter and her best friend.  I’m no expert, but after three years of living day in day out with Anorexia, I know that none of those approaches work.

Kasey Chambers on suffering from anorexia at 30. Post continues after video…

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To loosen Anorexia’s grip, you need to be smarter than her. You need to get into her head. Get to know her. It’s only by understanding how she operates that you’ll be able to provide your loved one with the strength and courage they need to break up with her. Of course, Anorexia doesn’t want you to get to know her. She knows that this will weaken her grip. So I was sneaky. I pretended that I wanted to be best friends with Anorexia.  I made the most of those moments when Anorexia was taking a nap to gently question my daughter about what Anorexia thought about this and that. Why did she like watermelon but not pineapple? Why did she allow broccoli but not corn? I got into her head.

The other thing I did was to assemble a team of super heroes. For two years I had put up with a GP whose only response to my daughter’s condition was to up her anti depressant medication. He was sending Anorexia to a quiet and often times suicidal place. That was not the road to Recovery.

Emily now attends a different GP weekly- a GP that understands Anorexia. With this GP, Anorexia opts to sulk in the waiting room when she goes into her appointment. And often times, Anorexia is nowhere to be seen when Emily comes out from her visit. Emily also attends a dietician each week – someone who understands that you can’t give a prescriptive six meal plan to a perfectionist –  especially on those days when eating food feels like you’re eating cement. And we’ve found a psychologist who is helping Emily explore why she took on such a horrible friend.

I know the road ahead is long and full of bumps. I know that Anorexia has not let go of my daughter. But as I write this I know that taking the time to get to know Anorexia has given me the strength to provide Emily with the courage to try to break up with her.

As I write this, I am smiling. Emily is walking around the house in jeans. Anorexia doesn’t like her wearing jeans. I chalk one up for Recovery.

For free help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at [email protected] You can also contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you or someone you know needs assistance.

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