"The French holiday that July was a nightmare," I said to Ben yesterday morning. "Meltdown after meltdown after meltdown, right from the first moment we arrived. How did it feel for you?"
Ben: You and dad kept focusing on the eating disorder all the time when, if you'd looked a little closer, you might have noticed that I was doing all kinds of good challenges. I felt like shouting: 'Look at what I'm doing! No way would I have done these things even a month ago, yet you're ignoring it!' Remember that time we went cycling on the coast? I changed into my cycling gear and you burst out into tears?
Me: That was because, seeing you standing there in your underpants, you looked so terribly skinny. Then, in the cycling gear - the same gear you'd worn on the Coast2Coast cycle ride the summer before and which hugged your body like cycling gear does, you looked so thin. The clothes just hung off you. It broke my heart to look.
Ben: It affected me, too, you know. I was thinking: 'This is what the last year has done to me!' I was angry with the anorexia - angry with the way it had robbed me of my fifth form year and my friends. I wanted to challenge myself, to begin to try and escape from the anorexia's clutches. I didn't calorie count on that holiday, not because I was purposefully cutting back, but because I saw it as a progression. I knew I couldn't count calories all my life; if I wasn't careful calories would ensnare me in the same way as the anorexia and the exercise purging. Also, you didn't seem to notice the good days - like the day we spent in Cognac at the jazz festival in the park. I needed encouraging. I needed you to say: 'Wow! You're doing really well!' but you didn't. You and dad were super-stressed all the time, biting my head off and going on about food, focusing on the negative rather than the small positive changes. When we arrived at the villa and I went mad, it wasn't because of the anorexia, it was because I really didn't want to do target shooting with the host. I mean, we'd just arrived after a long journey. I wanted to chill. And this bloke was trying to get me to rush out and have a go at target shooting with his kids. Dad wanted me to do it, too. But I didn't. That's why I went mad.
Me: Obviously back then, dad and I were worried sick about you. Remember we'd been battling with this terrifying illness for 12 months and had been seeing resistance after resistance to treatment and normal eating patterns. We were also worried sick you would take your own life. In fact, over that summer, suicide was top of my mind.
Ben: I'd have found it so much more helpful if you'd been able to calm down and talk to me, without confrontation and without all that obvious anxiety. You know, like that 'Dolphin' you've always talked about? Guiding and gently encouraging me to move in the right direction rather than bursting out into tears and shouting at me. Seeing you and dad upset didn't help at all. It's unfortunate that eating disorders don't just screw up the mind of the child, they screw up the parents' minds too. You and dad were paranoid and needed to start recognising the positive changes in me, to praise me and so on. I'm not saying that I was remotely 'cured'. I'm not even saying that I'd definitely turned a corner at that stage. Far from it. But I was beginning to want to get well. Oh I knew I couldn't change instantly, the anorexia thinking was far, far too strong. Also I couldn't just push the anorexia thinking out of the way. I felt that it was 'me', even if it wasn't really. I needed to deal with it. Which is why I spent so much time on my own - I was thinking, trying to deal with things. Yes I was depressed, but I was also trying my best to deal with things my own way. It would have been far better to talk about it without confrontation. To work on it together, for me to admit the eating disorder thoughts and deal with them rather than pretending they didn't exist. This is where our contract [which we introduced the following spring] helped so much.
Me: These days the general thinking is that you can't wait for eating disorder patients to 'want to get better'. What do you think about that?
Ben: If I'd got a lot worse, then I admit I would have found it virtually impossible to turn a corner without more - er - forcible outside help. But you have to recognise when someone's mind begins to change. I needed to be able to admit I had a problem, not to be told I had a problem forcibly (even though I knew I did). That summer I was beginning to change, I just needed you to recognise it.