Monday 27 June 2011

More about the surreal world of being a parent of a teenager with anorexia

In the last blog entry I alluded to the surreal way we sat on the beach in France last summer. All around us families were going about a normal, enjoyable, fun day at the beach while we were in some kind of invisible, nightmarish 'bubble', cut off from the rest. This was how  it was for us for an entire year, reaching a nightmarish height last summer.

It was like living in some kind of surreal parallel universe.

For as long as you can, you (attempt to) work as normal (work can be a welcome distraction; anorexia also makes you much more disciplined because you never know when you might have to 'down tools' at the drop of a hat).

But what you don't do as normal during what I call the 'high anorexia' period is to go to the supermarket normally, eat out in restaurants or cafes normally, drop off and pick up from school normally, watch TV normally, eat meals normally, sleep normally and generally live life as a normal family.

In the surreal world of anorexia, you're painfully aware of how normal other people's kids seem. In the Good Old Pre-Anorexia Days, Ben used to finish the school day like everyone else, laughing, joking and generally messing around. In the Bad Old 'High Anorexia' days, Ben would invariably slunk across the car park alone, a haunted look on his thin face, his school uniform almost falling off his emaciated body.

With 'high anorexia', picking up from school is a lottery because you never know how your child is going to be - reasonably OK or in the depths of depression with tears all the way home. You feel as if you're treading on eggshells.

With 'high anorexia' you're constantly expecting a call from school saying Ben is in Medical, can you come and fetch him. Or a text from Ben saying he "Can't go on like this", "Anorexia's kicking in" or whatever.

After a particularly harrowing day in spring 2010 when I received 22 distressing texts from Ben, we made the decision to take him out of school for the time being, despite GCSE exams being on the horizon. If he flunked them, well, so what... All we were interested in was his full recovery from this dreadful condition.

During the darkest anorexia days, TV programmes were interrupted as we reached another 'crisis' and tried to calm Ben down. The cooking of meals had to be 'policed' to make sure no 'dangerous' foods went into recipes (e.g. cheese, butter, etc).

Calories were counted meticulously and portions measured. Too big or too small a portion and he was thrown into confusion. The kind of confusion that had him banging his head on the fridge door in frustration. Once, he even cleared the fridge of (reduced fat) cheese, chucking it in the bin.

At the height of anorexia, you're constantly on 'red alert' when asleep, like you were when your child was small. And you go through Kleenex as if they were going out of fashion. Imagine crying virtually every day for five months on the trot? If you're a parent of an anorexic, you will know what I mean.

And as you come through the worst of the anorexia and start doing more normal things with your daily life, your parental radar is constantly on red alert for signs of the eating disorder.

The slightest noise and you go into 'freeze mode' and the adrenalin kicks in.

You start accepting social invitations again, but dive back into the surreal world when your child freaks out at the food on offer. Meanwhile your hosts are slapping him on the back saying: "Tuck in! You look as if you could do with a bit of fat on you!" Obviously they haven't guessed and they probably think it's the height of bad manners to leave early because you, as a parent, can't face the mouthwatering food either if your child won't eat.

But thankfully that was then; in the past. This summer I don't feel as if we're in some kind of surreal bubble while the rest of the world goes on around us as normal.

This year I feel very much part of that world.

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