By Sarah, F.E.A.S.T. Parent Support Volunteer
Our journey began like most people, long before we knew it. My daughter had always struggled with anxiety. It started with the smallest of things. That parental spider-sense that told me ‘something was not quite right’ but not able to place exactly what ‘it’ was. Then one day, out of nowhere she announced, ‘I can’t get on the bus’. We were bemused. We have no cars where we live. Buses are a huge part of our lives and she has merrily traveled on them for years.
At first, we dismissed it. We decided if she wanted to walk to school, then fine. She’d soon get bored of that game. She didn’t, and then other things became an issue. Social events, enclosed spaces, panicking about exits in new rooms, and her much-loved sleepovers at friends. It was at this point we realized we had a problem and it was bigger than us. We needed professional help.
She started therapy and CBT when she was 8. It helped. She improved. We stopped the therapy when it seemed she was, for the most part, recovered. She still had an issue with sleepovers but her therapist decided that it was as far as she would go in therapy and hopefully with time it would fully resolve. It didn’t.
She must have been 15 when it struck again. We started with the therapist again. Only this time it didn’t work and she was far more resistant to help. We tried other therapists and she fought us. Hard. We lost patience. We told her if she thought she was okay then she could go ahead and deal with things on her own. Not my finest parenting moment. Of course, inevitably, as a child battling a mental health issue that neither she nor her parents understood, she got worse again. Only this time we noticed she stopped eating any treat foods. Cakes, biscuits, and chocolate were gone. She was eating huge amounts of fruit. I complained about the cost of my shopping bill. Again my (somewhat belated) spider senses told me ‘something is not right’. We looked for help.
For whatever reason, the idea of my child (who was eating a diet full of fruit and excluded foods and who was rapidly losing weight) having anorexia never even entered my head. To this day I don’t know why. Perhaps because the many medical professionals told us it was her anxiety. So anorexia I guess hid under that guise. We even had a psychiatrist tell us that we were ‘under no circumstances to force our child to eat’. It would make her anxiety worse. It made sense. What didn’t make sense was what exactly we were supposed to do. So we wandered around from therapist to therapist. No one mentioned the A-word. Well, not A for anorexia anyway. Eventually, we stumbled by pure chance upon our therapist who was to be our savior. She never actually said my daughter had anorexia because by this point it was blindingly obvious that she did.
So we started the process of refeeding. To say it was brutal would be an understatement. The fear, the hatred, the illogical conversations with my intelligent child, the depression, the mental and physical abuse almost broke me. Eventually, we started to get traction. We started to get weight gain. There was hope. We saw small glimpses of the child we once knew. We had a long road ahead of us filled with never-ending cycles of shopping, feeding, monitoring, therapy appointments, but it was finally paying off. We had given our lives over to treating this illness and it was worth it to see my daughter’s life return. For a time, we found a healthy plateau. She was weight restored and doing okay. Working through fear foods with little resistance and settling into what was being asked of her.
Then came our moment. The moment she decided her path in life. What she wanted to do and where she wanted to study at university. Suddenly, my child took charge of her destiny. She knew what she wanted. She knew what she needed to do to achieve that and for the first time, something in her life mattered more than the eating disorder. She took charge of her meals. She decided which numerous fear foods she would tackle that week. She decided that she would do whatever it took to get our blessing to go to university.
She did. She left. She flew. She is now in her second year at university. We hear her using words like ‘excited’ and ‘I can’t wait’ when talking about her life. We celebrated that our child got drunk for the first time. We listened to the many days out with friends going shopping, to bars, to cinemas, and hanging out. We heard her talk about things she was excited about or looking forward to. Words that had not been part of her world for so long.
We are still mindful. At the end of the day, our child has a biological disorder but she is managing it. She tells me ‘mum I lost a little weight’. We tell her it’s okay but she needs to fix it. She knows this now. She knows how much there is to lose because she has a life now. Something she hasn’t had for so many years.