Saturday 19 May 2012

Bypassing the small talk and getting to the heart of the matter

When an eating disorder like anorexia is dominating your life and thoughts 24/7, it's really hard to focus on anything else, let alone 'small talk' or trivia. Yet so often, as a desperate parent of a child with an eating disorder, you're forced to suppress this about-to-erupt volcano of emotions to talk about the weather, who won the X Factor or some other similarly mind-numbing tat.

At the height of Ben's anorexia, many of my former friends and acquaintances kept a polite distance. They made it clear that the last thing on this planet they wanted to talk about was something as depressing and negative as a serious eating disorder. Not through what they said, but through their body language - or the rapid change of subject or plain awkwardness.

I was desperate for support and for someone close to me to 'get it' - to really understand the eating disorder and how it was affecting our family, and my beloved only child, and to just 'be there' for us. Most importantly, I wanted this 'someone' to WANT to do this, not feel they 'should' do this...

Sure I had my sister, who was brilliant, and I had all the awesome mums on the Around the Dinner Table Forum (for parents of young people with eating disorders). But what I didn't have was a close friend I could depend on one hundred percent - and more.

So, if I wanted support, the church seemed a good place to start. As I've said before, Church #1 kept me at arm's length, presumably unable or unwilling to handle what was going on in my crazy surreal world. So did Church #2. And, at the start, so did Church #3 (where I sat on that back pew on that first Sunday about to flee out of the building).

And, if S had never turned round in her pew and seen me, I would have left.

In just seconds, she'd sat me next to her, further up the church, and was talking to me. Also, within seconds, she'd already explained that she was suffering from secondary breast cancer and the tumours had spread from her (now removed) breasts to her bones, liver and lungs.

Not because she wanted sympathy but because there must have been something in my manner that told her I wanted to bypass all the pleasantries and get straight to the heart of the matter. By telling me about her own struggles she was instantly throwing open the door as if to say: "Hey, I'm struggling too and because of this I can empathise with what you're going through."

There was a buffet lunch after the service and we just talked and talked: S about her illness and me about Ben's eating disorder. It was as if we had known each other for ever and we just talked and talked... No chit-chat, no trivia, no small talk.

It was exactly what I was looking for and, even though I never really hit it off with Church #3, or any church for that matter, I never looked back.

I like to think that, over the two years that followed, our friendship was a two-way thing when it came to giving each other the support we both needed. But S had an uncanny knack of constantly turning the focus on me and my problems, of listening to me ramble on about my son's anorexia, the latest eating disorder rage, trauma or whatever.

As the anorexia began to fade away and my life got back on track, S's cancer began to do the exact opposite and she began to fade away. I felt so helpless watching her get thinner and thinner, her energy being sucked out of her. She'd supported me so much and there was little I could do for her. Even talking was difficult because of her growing breathlessness and persistent cough. Yet she still managed to smile brightly and retain her zest for life.

I don't think that once during those two years of friendship we ever talked trivia. Sure, we had a laugh and a giggle, and tried our best to turn negatives into positives. But the very nature of our own individual struggles meant that trivia could never, ever be on the agenda.

In stark contrast to anyone else I have met outside my family or the world of eating disorders.


  1. That's so true I think, being a thinker and worrier, even before my eating disorder I was more interested in 'real conversation' than small talk but the eating disorder took me even deeper and no-one seemed to want to talk to me at all, mainly at school. I think once you've been through something like that, the way you think about things and see them changes massively and it's difficult to find someone whose perspecive has been changed in a similar way outside the 'eating disorder' circle or similar, like your friend, to share 'deeper' conversation with. I wonder if Ben has the same problem. Kirstie.S

    1. Yes he does, Kirstie, and that's one of the reasons why he has found it so difficult to get back in with his peer group at school. He is soooooo deep, profound and mature, quite wise and insightful actually, far more so than 'your average' teenager who has led a relatively normal life. So, thanks for your comment, very interesting stuff!