Monday 30 April 2012

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I'm sitting here, face now dry, makeup now run, trying to work out for the life of me when it all started, why it all started and if it could have been avoided. Or would the anorexia have muscled into Ben's life regardless. In other words, was he doomed from the start?

The reason for all of this is because of our conversation this weekend and the way it hit home that if I thought Ben's social life was bad before, it is now completely and utterly dead. So much so that I even doubt if he will want to go to the Leavers' Weekend celebrations at the end of June: final Prize Day, final sports day, Leavers' Ball, Leavers' chapel service, Leavers' BBQ and so on. And even if we did go along, it would doubtless be even more painful for us as parents as the Bi-Centenary chapel service was back in January - seeing what 'could have been', indeed what 'should have been' if the anorexia had never stolen the last 3 years (almost) of Ben's life.

Ben arrived at the school in Year 7 a shy, quiet boy who knew nobody. His final years at primary school had been marred by some cruel psychological bullying which didn't help Ben's self-esteem, already quite low because of the puppy fat he'd carried as a child.

Day One at senior school was a disaster. Ben arrived home in floods of tears because no-one had spoken to him. He'd just sat alone, weeping, wanting to come home.

Fortunately the next day there was a parents' evening where we could talk through any settling-in issues. I had a word with the Head of Year who was lovely. I also met some really nice parents of boys in Ben's form who, I assumed, probably had equally nice sons. They promised to do all they could to get their sons to befriend Ben.

These boys went to work and the rest, as they say, was history. Almost immediately Ben's social life took off Big Style and he became a central player in one of the loveliest friendship circles in the year.

Over the next 4 years things went from strength to strength as Ben and his social / school career blossomed beyond my wildest dreams. Almost by the day he was getting happier and more confident. He was involved in umpteen school activities, was one of the most popular boys in his social circles, was a star on the rugby field and I've already talked about his 2-day birthday parties which were legendary, the final legendary party being in the middle of Year 10 (Christmas 2008).

Ben's school career was exceeding my expectations in every way. I was beaming from ear to ear! Ben was confident, popular and happy. Ben also looked amazing - tall, athletic and handsome.

Now this is my dilemma, which some might say isn't a helpful or productive way to think. In other words I should just accept that the anorexia happened and move on from any pointless regrets or trying to analyse what went wrong.

Would the anorexia have happened no matter what? Or was it only triggered by the fact that Ben lost more than one quarter of his bodyweight very quickly over the summer of 2009?

But then, surely, something triggered that weight loss... Something that wasn't good. Although Ben was blossoming on the outside, inside his head things weren't quite as brilliant - and it was this that ultimately led to the weight loss.

Were those 'things' the anorexia? In other words Ben's underlying personality, the personality he'd had from birth which, despite blossoming on every front at senior school, was still there in the background? The self-doubt, the lack of confidence, a predisposition to depressed thinking and so on. Would they always have led to the weight loss which led to the downhill slide into anorexia no matter what? Or if he'd never lost the weight would they simply have remained as an undercurrent, as they do with so many teenagers? Yes, never forget we're talking teenagers here, with all the messy stuff that's going on in their heads, no matter who they are.

But, because he would never have developed anorexia, Ben would have 'grown out' of all this teenage angst and other stuff and maybe learned how to handle the negative side of his thinking. Maybe, because his weight would never have dropped to such a critical level, the anorexia would never have kicked in and he would have continued to go from strength to strength socially and in every other way.

Or would mental health issues have taken over his life regardless, whether in the form of anorexia or another condition such as clinical depression? Purely because he was predisposed to it. In other words it was a disaster waiting to happen - the iceberg that was always going to rip a fatal gash in the side of the Titanic...

Or not.

Not very helpful or productive thinking, I know, but I can't help it.

It's something that is obviously bugging other parents because I've just come across a thread called 'Chicken or egg?' on the absolutely brilliant Around the Dinner Table Forum (for parents of young people with eating disorders).


  1. Matty my reply is from my working experience as a manager in a large public Utility. As far as ED, our experiences are very much in your shadow.
    As a parent you have done those things that you consider necessary and important. This has given you an insight that most Professionals can only dream of. This has probably put you in the forefront of how to approach this problem.
    Your dilemma is that being out in front there is noone to leave a trail for you. Hence your doubts and worries are a natural product of the decisions you are taking.
    The fact that you are not afraid to take them or act upon them is a massive credit to you.

    I for one am in your debt

  2. It seems like Ben really struggles with making friends due to his lack of confidence and low self-esteem. I can see that when he started secondary school you stepped in and spoke to other parents who in turn encouraged their children to befriend Ben. You have also mentioned in previous posts that you stepped into try and organise a social life for him with church. In your last blog post you say that Ben is unhappy at school now because noone talks to him or invites him to anything and he just sits there.

    Please don't take this as a criticism because I can see how much you love your son and how you want to take his struggles away from him, but this is clear. Ben is not taking responsibility for his own happiness, he is allowing you to try and make things happen for him and this won't work in an adult world. It may have worked when he was 11 and a shy child but he is legally an adult now and he needs to learn how to interact as an adult. This means going opposite to fear and initiating conversations, joining in, asking whether he can join people for walks. His friends are probably used to him keeping himself to himself because of his illness so have stopped asking him to things. People with EDs can be very hard company and he needs to put the effort in to be included and not expect everyone else to look after him in the way that you do. Yes it's very hard and will probably feel terrifying/uncomfortable for him but there's really no other way. He needs to take his life back if he really wants the things he says he wants. There's no way that university will be a cure-all for him if he isn't skilled in making and maintaining friendships, it can't be, "they didn't talk to me/invite me".... If you can encourage him to reach out to his friendship group in some way...his own way... whether it's by letter, text, in person and just say that he wants to join in and be more sociable then he might be surprised by the response.

    Good luck x