Thursday 15 September 2011

Living a double life

For the first half year or so of living with the anorexia, I lived a double life. Here at home and with the few people 'in the know' I was living a nightmarish life as the mum of a teenage boy rapidly descending into anorexia and all the frightening behaviours and medical problems that come with it.

To everyone else I was simply the mum of a teenage boy who was going through "the typical teenage phase... you know what teenagers are like! LOL" kind of thing.

Back then I used to write a regular blog for a local newspaper. So to my readers, too, I was this 'other person' going through the trials and tribulations of bringing up a teenager with a dash of good humour thrown into the mix.

The nearest I got to the distressing reality of what was actually going on was a blog post I wrote after Ben had been rushed into hospital with heart problems (in Jan 2010), exacerbated by the rapid weight loss and lack of nutrition.

Here it is:

Not a week I want to repeat...

How’s your week been? Mine's been one of those where everything goes out of the window because you get a call from the school nurse saying your son should go to A&E... fast!

Worse, it isn't a broken nose (like last time), or a broken hand (like the time before), it's Ben’s heart which is doing 'funny things' and beating at half the rate it's supposed to.

Mine stops as I start to panic. And it's totally true you go ice cold when you get this kind of news...

For the first time ever in the history of visiting A&E we're spirited past the usual queue. In a flash, Ben's covered in sticker things and wired to a machine.

Next, he's wheeled into Resus where they jab a massive needle in his arm to take loads of blood while still monitoring his heart on the machine that goes beep.

And because his arteries are like mine i.e. difficult to locate, they have a heck of a job trying to get the big needle in. Ben's had some pretty hair-raising things done in his time, what with in-growing toenails, several teeth out, the various bone breakages and so on, but this is the first time I've seen him actually cry...

Me... well... If you've ever been in a similar situation, a zillion thoughts rush through your head from "I must ring his Dad" to "This is my only child and this is his only heart"...

Suddenly I'm at the nurses' station saying "Excuse me, I don't feel very well – they're sticking needles in my son". A glass of water later and a "Pull yourself together, Batty!" pep talk to myself and I'm on the phone to Ben's Dad saying, "I don’t think there's anything to worry about, but..."

Next we have a succession of important looking doctors frowning, taking notes and repeatedly checking the machine. "Smile and tell me it's all OK and we can go home!!" I will them to say. But instead they say he needs to be transferred to the specialist cardio unit at the other hospital in our city.

I say something stupid like: "What shall I do with my car? It's in the pay-and-display car park." They give me a withering look.

So while Ben's being transferred by ambulance, I'm busy moving my car to somewhere I can call a cab to take me to the city centre. (Nowhere to park and who knows how long I will be?)

It's like a nightmare. The traffic is horrendous. The only cab number I've got can't be here for 30 minutes. So I have to drive to my mum's, borrow her phone book and explain what's happened without worrying her.

Cab after cab say they'll be AGES... Finally I find one that can be at mum's in five minutes, but the traffic is in gridlock. Eventually I arrive to find Ben lying in a ward with three old men who sound like they smoke 60 a day.

And so it goes on... wires... monitors... doctors... nurses... questions... heart x-rays...

Me analysing the staff's body language for clues as they're predictably non-committal with what they say.

Oddly, Ben seems to be pretty OK except for the massive needle in his arm and the constant beeping of the machine. In fact he's so OK he makes me go down to the shop to get him something to eat because the hospital sandwich they've given him looks as if it's six weeks old.

Then he sends his Dad down to get some more food!

It's funny how your mind works. Half of it panics with visions of cardiac arrests, heart transplants and worse...

The other half thinks, well if they're allowing him to eat they obviously aren't planning to operate. And, he's at this end of the ward, not that end (the 'emergency' end). And, he's not seeing the consultant until the morning; if it was critical he'd be seeing him now. Stuff like that...

At 8.30 pm Ben's Dad and I have to leave and we're exhausted. None of us has a good night's sleep. I'm up at 4am, head hurting, half wondering if I'll receive an emergency phone call... Meanwhile Ben's trying to sleep with a massive needle in his arm, surrounded by old men snoring like pneumatic drills.


By the time the consultant does his rounds, Ben's heart has stabilised, there doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with it and he's allowed to go home. Not many clues as to why it might have happened except that sometimes sporty teenagers can get dips in their heartbeat.

But of course if he ever feels 'strange' again, he's to come straight back. But, thankfully, the consultant doesn't seem unduly concerned.

Mind you, I'm expecting the kind of mature, larger-than-life consultant who strides into the ward, James Robertson Justice / Sir Lancelot Spratt style.

What we actually get is someone who looks like a sixth former. Can I trust his opinion, I wonder to myself like you do...?


  1. My partner had the same thing happen when he was younger. He was in hospital for something completely different during a bad stage of his ED, and one night woke up to find people trying to resuscitate him because his heart rate had dipped so low the machines couldn't find it any more! 29 bpm, I think he told me. The doctors were most surprised to find that he had only been asleep and was fully conscious. They passed it off as a benign fluctuation at the time because he was also extremely athletic - just goes to show how poorly men were screened for eating disorders ten years ago. I bet it wasn't the first thing the doctors thought when they saw Ben either. Skinny teenage boys arouse much less suspicion than skinny girls.

  2. That is so spooky, Katie... Ben's was 29, too... yet he is still in denial that it was anything to do with his starvation...

    Just started (finally!) reading Harriet Brown's book "Brave Girl Eating" and that starts with a similar episode, too...

    Jenny Langley's son had the same problem in her book "Boys Get Anorexia Too".

    It's time cardio unit staff read up on eating disorders as our unit had no experience of them whatsoever...