8th January 2020
Had you been in that small Portuguese holiday town on the Algarve that summer, you may have been puzzled by the sight of a clearly overwrought father trying to run somewhere but not getting very far because of the crowds.
I was that father and I was desperately trying to get to an ATM to get some more Euros.
I needed to get more Euros to buy my daughter some more cocktails.
You see, my daughter had been suffering from Anorexia for more than a year and although she was beginning to recover slowly, this seemed like a turning point. She had tried a drink – something other than water or a diet drink - for the first time in as long as my wife and I could remember, and we wanted to get as many of the things into her as we could before she realised how much sugar they contained, because that would break the spell.
I’m not going to say I didn’t see the signs because I did, but I chose to ignore them at first.
It was just small things to begin with. Our fifteen-year old daughter, never one for much sport or exercise, suddenly started to want to come to the gym with me. This we thought was a great idea, she was carrying a few extra pounds for sure, what her grandparents’ generation referred to as ‘puppy fat’ and my wife and I thought this was a positive way for her to deal with that. And it was, to begin with, but coming to the gym with me turned into making me drop her off there whether I was going or not. Ten minutes gentle jogging on the treadmill grew quickly into twenty or thirty minutes of pacey running. Then, gym sessions weren’t enough, they had to be supplemented with weights at home and seemingly endless sit ups or squats.
Of course food became an issue too. To start with it was just meals left unfinished or scrapped in the bin. That morphed into only letting her mother serve her meals which had to be measured with unwavering accuracy and then, at the height of her illness, food and eating meant one of us supervising her as she forced down a few cream crackers with a little tuna on.
So yes, I ignored the signs but thankfully my wife didn’t. She visited our GP but their advice to ‘keep an eye on developments’ did not sit well with her and she convinced me that we needed to get our daughter expert help. We tried a private therapist to begin with but our daughter could not relate to the counsellor and so my wife managed to get us an appointment with our local Children and Mental Health Service (CaMHS). This was much harder than we’d realised. The service is under-funded, under-resourced and there were lengthy waiting lists, but a combination of a mother’s assertiveness and the extraordinary instinct for care from the people that worked there saw us getting seen fairly quickly.
By now things were a lot worse. Our daughter had lost so much weight that she found it very difficult to get warm. We would have to run long baths so she could lie in the hot water. She was not able to attend school and was quite depressed and anxious. She began to write things down a lot. Some of which she shared with us and it was all quite disturbing.
Although she was eating very little, she was obsessed with food. She would read cookery books cover to cover as if they were novels and our TV seemed permanently tuned to food channels. She would cook complex meals for her mother and me and we would force them down in the naïve belief that this would encourage our daughter to find her way back to food. For every pound she lost we gained about six! We learnt later that these are some of the ways sufferers deal with the near constant feelings of hunger.
My response in the face of all of this was to go into full on Alpha Male mode. I would insist she sit at the table until she ate something. When she inevitably refused I would launch into some rant about wastage and people starving in Asia. My daughter, previously such a daddy’s girl, now wanted nothing to do with me. She was turning into the creature from The Exorcist and there seemed nothing I could do about it.
But, as our daughter began the weekly sessions with both a medical doctor and a counsellor, the situation began to slowly improve. Although things initially got worse before they got better - her weight loss continued and we came within one week of her needing to be hospitalised, after a relatively few sessions we began to see an improvement and she started to very gradually regain some weight. I remember her asking if I’d cook her my home made Thai Red Curry which she’d always loved but hadn’t eaten for months. I made buckets of the stuff and we froze dozens of portions, ready to microwave at a moment’s notice if ever she wanted to eat some more.
Looking back it’s clear that the people at CaMHS were taking time to educate us as parents too which is such an important part of the whole process. We began to understand what we needed to do to support, rather than try to take over and we learnt a useful metaphor: You cannot bury your head like an ostrich nor charge at the sufferer like a rhino. Instead you have to learn to swim beside them like a dolphin, there to help if they struggle but knowing that, in the end, they have to do it for themselves.
Easier said than done, but we got there.
The cocktails did the trick and did indeed mark the turning point in our daughter’s recovery.
She is 22 now and lives away from us in the city where she successfully attended University and earnt her degree. She has a management level job is hospitality and is generally happy although she has the same worries, concerns and problems as anyone else her age.
She has a more or less normal relationship with food although my wife and I still worry, irrespective of how much she eats. If we think she’s eating too little, we worry that it might be a sign of anorexia returning. If we think she’s eating too much, we worry that she’ll put on weight, start to panic and that might lead to anorexia returning. In truth, we really don’t need to worry, but it’s difficult – anorexia leaves scars; for the sufferer and for those that love them.
The experience taught us all many lessons but the big one for me is don’t ignore the signs. I did but my wife didn’t and because of that we were able to get our daughter the help she needed before the illness really took a hold. I am only too well aware that not every family is so fortunate.
Early intervention really does seem like the very best thing anyone can do. With that, there is every chance of a full recovery from this most wicked of illnesses.