Today I was thinking back nostalgically to our family holidays before the anorexia muscled its way into our lives. Anorexia wasn't even on our radar; that's something that happened to girls, not boys. Not in a million years of my wildest nightmares could I have dreamed that my wonderful teenage son was developing anorexia nervosa. Maybe if he'd have been a girl, I'd have been alerted sooner. But I thought it might help other worried parents of boys if I listed the warning signs that should have set the alarm bells ringing that all was not right with our son...
Body obsession. I guess every teenager gets obsessed with their appearance at some time or other, especially girls. But, increasingly during the early part of 2009, Ben became completed obsessed with his looks. He'd take AGES to get ready, preening himself with hair gels and straighteners. He loved shopping for clothes and spent a great deal of time examining himself in the mirror, inside and outside the home.
'Puppy fat'. Ben had been an overweight child. Not obese, but overweight. He was also very shy and introverted, preferring one or two close, equally introverted friends to a group of boisterous boys. However by Year 9 Ben had lost all the puppy fat and looked fantastic! But he himself was extremely self-critical.
Exercise. At primary school, Ben had hated sport although he did play rugby on Sunday mornings with the local club. He wasn't wild about it and felt he was pushed to do it by his dad. However he was rather good at it - and at senior school he was a regular in the A team in his year. But he was always the one who kept away from the boisterous boys. Although he was turning into quite a sportsman, he was still very quiet, shy and academic. In July 2009 when the eating disorder was about to start manifesting itself, he won the 1500 metre race for his House at school sports day, beating his constant 'rival', J. Ben also did cross country running twice a week.
Also, he started to buy "Men's Health" magazine and enthusiastically follow the exercise routines in order to try and get a "six pack" like the men in the pictures...
On holiday in France in July 2009 Ben was swimming 100 lengths of the villa pool every day and also going for a run. Back in the UK, he was getting so enthusiastic about how fit and healthy his body was getting that his dad signed him up for the local gym. (Ironically his Dad thought he was doing Ben a favour...) Ben went to the gym every single day over the summer holidays and also went for runs and cycle rides. I started to notice that it was becoming almost like an addiction - and he wasn't actually enjoying the exercise that much...
Friends. Ben had blossomed at senior school and built up a lovely circle of friends. He was a regular at parties, sleepovers, cinema trips, meals, etc - and his own birthday weekend in December was always a massive affair with half his friends sleeping over on the Friday night and the other half on the Saturday. He had so many friends he couldn't fit them all into his room at once! And the MASSIVE breakfasts I used to cook for them on the Saturday and Sunday mornings were legendary.
During the summer holidays of 2009 I was acutely aware that Ben had traded in sleepovers and cinema trips for the gym and running. He rarely saw his friends over the summer.
Eating. The teenage Ben had always been interested in healthy eating, however over the summer of 2009 it became more and more extreme. As you'll see from the previous entry, he started to cut out certain "unhealthy" foods. He also developed a passion for cooking and recipes - and especially for "slimming down" so-called "fatty" recipes. He also policed what we, his parents, purchased and ate. At first I found this kind of endearing, but after a while I realised something wasn't quite right...
By the end of the summer his eating had become very rigid. He began to need to have set meal times and was also pretty rigid with what he ate. He started meticulously preparing all kinds of weird and wonderful concoctions for snacks and puddings. Most noticeable was his chopping up of dried fruit; he'd cut the fruit into tiny pieces. And all this food preparation would take AGES; somethings an hour just to make a pudding (comprising dried and fresh fruit). He also developed a passion for fresh fruit and for visiting the supermarket with me to buy the darned stuff, along with dried fruit. He also raved about low calorie foods; the lower in calories the better - and he became an expert at the nutritional content of just about everything; not just calories but the all-important (to Ben) fat content, too (especially the demon "sat fats"...)
On holiday he avoided snacks like ice creams. When eating out, he'd deliberately choose the lowest calorie item and sometimes this meant moving cafes or restaurants until we found somewhere "suitable".
Mood. Ben was becoming more and more introvert. His mood was also quite depressed and he'd get quite snappy and bossy. Gradually he seemed to be losing his usual zest for life, his confidence, his optimism and his sense of humour. Also, once he started back at school, he started to develop an awful lot of illnesses which he now says were fake.
Weight. Ben was losing weight rapidly because he was eating less and exercising more. I was also acutely aware that his diet wasn't balanced. There he was rambling on about "healthy eating" yet he'd cut out important components from his diet, notably all fats, even "good" fats. By late September he had lost around one third of his body weight and was looking skinny rather than the handsome "strapping lad" he'd been before.
If I think of any more early warning signs, I'll update this entry.