Content warning: This post mentions themes of eating disorders and mental health some readers may find triggering. Please call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you or someone you know needs assistance.
‘You said you wanted salmon, so we bought you salmon? Why does it matter if it’s cooked in oil? A teaspoon of olive oil won’t make you fat.’
At 15, I couldn’t believe the logic my parents tried to rationalise to me about my food. And on one particular night almost ten years ago, this disconnect between their reality and mine resulted in one of the worst fights we’ve ever had.
We’ve always eaten a lot of meat at our dinner table, but meat has fat on it, which would make me fat, I thought. So I’d request salmon or fish or chicken. A lean protein. Sometimes I would even insist on preparing the fillet myself, to make sure every tiny piece of what I thought was fat was removed.
Most of the time, it was just a discoloured part of the meat. My Dad knew that, and deep down, I knew that too.
On this particular evening, I saw my precisely prepared fillet of salmon on a plate and being walked towards the barbecue where the lamb chops would also be cooked. My heart raced. I needed it to be baked in a dish lined with baking paper. And no oil. The baking paper was there so it wouldn’t stick, you see.
And so we fought. At the time, it felt like my parents were trying to force me to eat fat. Why couldn’t they understand what I was trying to achieve? Didn’t they see I needed to lose weight?
By the time it got to that stage, I didn’t need to lose weight anymore. But the voices in my mind and the perfectly healthy girl glaring back at me in the mirror told me I did. I had been a chubbier kid who could’ve benefited from less processed snacks and playing more sport, but it had gone too far.
Thankfully I was able to silence those voices with professional help and an overseas exchange that gave me the confidence to eat all of the pastries.
Chloe Tonner, and her mum, Anne, weren't so lucky. When her 13-year-old daughter told her she wouldn't drink water because she thought it would make her fat, Anne knew she was facing the frightening reality of anorexia.
"The penny dropped when I tried to get her to drink water she said ‘no’...it will make me fat. And it was just the illogicality of it," Anne, a lawyer, told Mia Freedman in a frank and honest conversation about her daughter's eating disorder on the No Filter podcast.
"I said, 'why can't you [drink water]? Of course, I tried all weekend to reason with her and eventually, I rang my sister who's a nurse and she said if she won't have water, you'll have to take her to causality.
"The disease had been developing slowly. I think the secretive eating - a lot of what she was doing was restricting her food intake - she wouldn’t want to eat with us, she’d want to go and eat in her room. As the disease takes hold they go along on an even keel for a while, then it’s boom, this huge dip and it can be very dangerous."
Over a decade on, Chloe has 'recovered' from the eating disorder that almost killed her - if it is ever possible to fully recover from the disease. She's now a happy and healthy 27-year-old with a stable job she loves and a wonderful man in her life.
But during the times Anne and her family would sit around the dinner table, refusing to leave until Chloe would "just eat a meal", it didn't always feel like they would reach this day. Way back when Chloe first refused to drink water, Anne had no idea of the excruciating battle they were in for.
"Our jobs [as lawyers] were about taking people's problems and fixing them up, but with anorexia for so long we just couldn’t find a solution," she said.
"I was in the house alone with a child who was rapidly getting sicker... I was thinking she’ll be fine tomorrow if I could just get her to eat something. But my fear was when she was diagnosed was - what had I done to cause this? Or what had I done to not prevent it?"
LISTEN: Anne Tonner tells Mia Freedman about the moment she knew her daughter was very, very sick... (post continues after audio...)
The answer, of course, is nothing. In most cases, with the exception of extreme instances of neglect or abuse, it's rare a parent is the cause of their child's eating disorder.
"The majority of parents are doing the absolute best they can," the Butterfly Foundation's Rachel Simeone told Mamamia.
"These behaviours are often hidden from parents for a lot of reasons - I don't want to worry them, or I don't want them to make me stop doing these things - lots of the behaviours could be risk factors they do for a short period of time, and then they got back to normal.
"We're all exposed to comments about our bodies and food, and our parents and peers contribute to that, but they don't do it maliciously, that's a part of life. For most people that's perfectly harmless, but people who develop eating disorders, they latch onto these things. There's no way that a parent could know that that's going to happen."
In cases like Chloe's, it's often only in the later stages of the disease parents start to notice their child is unwell. This is because the physical symptoms, like malnutrition and weight loss, are only noticeable well after the disease has taken hold, Simeone said.
"Parents might notice things like behavioural changes first. Often the behaviours are quite secretive -the nature of anorexia in particular is a secretive, shameful one - because they don't want to change them or they're ashamed, so it can be hard for parents to spot them."
However, she believes there are things to look out for.
"Other than things like dieting, cutting out food group and counting calories, there'd be things like avoiding meals, and social situations, isolating themselves, developing some obsessional behaviours like only sitting at a certain spot at the table or using only a certain set of cutlery, interest in food preparation, being in the kitchen a lot more, asking questions about how the food is being prepared, taking an interest in the groceries. That has to do with the anxiety, that I have to know and be involved, I can't leave [my food] up to other people.
"Drastic changes in what a child's usual personality and behaviours looks like [are also signs to watch out for], things like the rigidity of, say, an exercise routine. Being unable to exercise when they're injured or sick, or if it's raining would be distressing. There'd also be a lot of focus on body and weight, making comments about how they look."
Because the background of eating disorders is quite complex and research indicates they can be attributed to lots of different things - genetic vulnerabilities, personality traits, environment and learned behaviours - often a person's presentation is really different to someone else's.
The common thread is a simple one: They don't follow the rules of logic. Because it's not about the salmon or the water at all.
"It's not really about the food. When someone starts with these restrictive behaviours, it might be as a way to lose wight or become healthy, but it quickly becomes something very different to that," Simone explained.
"Each person it's different. For some people, those thoughts might be a part of a self-criticism, or low self-worth: 'I'm not good enough', 'I have to do things better than everyone else', 'the rules don't apply to me', 'while it's true for most people that it's nutritional to have all the food groups, that doesn't work for my body or me'. Maybe part of their personality is being a perfectionist and needing to push themselves further than others.
"Often it's starting with a small thing that advances into other things, a comment they read online about how carbohydrates cause weight gain. So they start restricting their carbohydrates, then extend that to restricting certain vegetables because they have carbohydrates, and other things contaminated by carbohydrates. The water thing I wonder could be, well, 'I don't know who might've gotten into the water or if it'd be contaminated'. "
"It's not about, say, the salmon. It's about the fear you're experiencing around it. It is based in something that's irrational, because nothing really bad is going to happen to you if you eat the salmon with oil, but for [the individual] it's, I'm very afraid of what might happen if I eat this."
The advice Simone and the Butterfly Foundation would give to any parents in Anne's position would be to first address the fear, not the food.
"You need to be responding as parents to the fear, rather than the specifics. There's no real point being logical about what oil and salmon does to your body, but rather responding to the fear. Like if I said, 'Stand in the street and let that car drive at you, I promise it's not going to hit you.' Even if you believed me, it would still be a fearful experience, and it's the same with the food. Even though they're in treatment, they still experience the fear.
"Sometimes logic isn't the way to make them feel better, it's about helping them calm down and respond to the fear, not the stimulus."
The Butterfly Foundation also stresses anorexia, like any eating disorder, isn't something that just goes away. Seeking professional help and treatment is vital in helping sufferers recover.
"Recognising a change in your child’s behaviour and subsequent tension within the home can be very stressful and concerning for parents. First up, I think parents should trust their instinct if they feel their child may be going through a tough time or experiencing disordered eating," their CEO, Christine Morgan she told Mamamia.
"Knowing how to address this or having a conversation with your child can be difficult, particularly if the behaviours are new. The best thing you can do is not wait for further confirmation that there is something amiss, but reach out for advice and support as soon as possible.
"Our National Helpline (1800 33 4673) talks to parents and siblings frequently and our counsellors are trained in walking through strategies to support your family and if needed providing referral to appropriate services."
Services include youth and adult treatments to support individuals and their families during recovery, free weekly online support groups for parents (which is a perfect space for them to connect with other parents and raise concerns as discussed) as well as support regarding how to engage in the initial conversation with a loved one about your concern are ones to note.
What the Butterfly Foundation wants parents to know, above all else, is that early intervention and treatment is the key to minimising the development of an eating disorder. That it's early intervention that helps avoid someone like me, who wouldn't eat oily salmon, become someone like Chloe, who wouldn't drink water.
"What we know about eating disorders is it's better to get help early. Often when people do things like wait and see, it's a case of we could have caught things earlier. It's much better to have extra support for a child who wasn't going to develop an eating disorder, than to miss early intervention for a child who is."
If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, Mamamia urges you to contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 000.
You can listen to Mia Freedman's full interview with Anne Tonner about her daughter's experience with anorexia (which she wrote about in her book, Cold Vein) on No Filter below...