In case you're new to this blog and are unfamiliar with our story, I've pasted in the introduction from Volume II of my new book below (2012 posts - see below right for details). This should give you a rough idea of how my teenage son, Ben, found himself on the road to anorexia (and eventually, thankfully, on the road to recovery).
BACK AT THE START I HAD no idea that boys got eating disorders. Like many people, I thought anorexia was something exclusive to girls. I assumed it was a "diet gone wrong", that all they needed was a good talking to and they’d snap out of it.
But of course eating disorders aren’t like that. Not one bit.
At primary school, my (only child) Ben was overweight. He was quiet, well-behaved and most definitely not "sporty". Then, at the age of 11, he won an academic scholarship to a fabulous independent secondary school with a reputation for sport – especially rugby.
Surprisingly for a sports-shy boy, Ben took to rugby like a duck to water. He has a natural talent for the game and was immediately given the position of Number 3 in the team, a position given to the biggest, toughest boys. Soon, Ben was playing rugby virtually every day of the week, including local club rugby on Sundays.
Before long the puppy fat disappeared to be replaced with an awesome athletic physique. Being good at sport at a "sporty school" also carried a distinct kudos. Soon Ben was one of the most popular boys in his peer group and he revelled in the change. He was good at other sports, too. In the summer of 2008 – one year before the eating disorder began to manifest itself – he and his dad did the Coast2Coast cycle ride across Northern England, up and down some of the most challenging terrain in the country. Ben was a star on the athletics field and in the cross country running team. In fact I think the only sport he wasn’t good at was cricket.
But, before long, Ben began to tire of all this sport and exercise. He felt increasingly lazy. Yet he was worried that if he didn’t keep it up he might lose the athletic physique and the kudos he’d earned as a rising star in the rugby team. Worse, he might get fat again. And, being a growing teenage boy, Ben loved his food!
During the spring of 2009, as the rugby season came to a close, Ben gradually discovered that, by eating diet foods, he could consume the same quantities and do less exercise, without putting on any weight. Great, he thought to himself, I’ve discovered the magic bullet...
Unfortunately things didn’t work out like that. In the event Ben began to exercise more, not less. But diet foods and generally cutting down on intake meant he was consuming less calories and fats. It wasn’t a great mix for a growing teenage boy.
For us, as parents, the alarm bells began to tinkle during the summer of 2009. It began with our summer holiday in France where Ben was swimming 100 metres of the villa pool every day and going for gruelling runs in the heat. He was also reading all those "Men’s Health" magazines packed with diets and exercises to develop bodies like the impossibly toned models in the photographs.
Getting a "six pack" became Ben’s Number One goal. Back in the UK he joined a gym and went seven days a week supplemented by yet more gruelling runs plus hundreds of daily sit-ups, press-ups and crunches. Meanwhile he devised even more low calorie, low fat meals. Cooking became a passion. But at the same time, eating was getting more ritualistic, for example chopping fruit into tiny pieces before carefully arranging on a plate. He was also avoiding certain foods – more foods than he was actually eating.
We noticed that he was getting increasingly depressed and withdrawn. He’d have sudden and distressing outbursts, sometimes violent, which became more and more frequent. And, over that summer, he completely cut himself off from his friends.
Worryingly, Ben was losing weight, very, very quickly. During that summer of 2009 Ben lost one quarter of his body weight. Something was seriously wrong.
It wasn’t until late September that I was prompted to take him to the doctor. I simply didn’t know what we were dealing with. Was it just a teenage phase or was it something more sinister? Worse – because sometimes Ben would eat and behave normally – was it simply my imagination?
I don’t think the GP was too sure, either. The problem was that, to anyone that hadn’t seen Ben as a rugby forward, he didn’t look like the stereotypical anorexic i.e. skin and bones. He was skinny by this stage, yes, but then that isn’t that unusual in some teenage boys. Neither is fussy eating.
I took him to the GP a few times but each time Ben was simply instructed to “eat sensibly and come back in a couple of weeks’ time”. In the end it was the school nurse that suggested I get Ben referred for treatment. The staff were becoming increasingly concerned, especially Ben’s rugby coaches. Already he had been invalided out of the team after having been moved to less aggressive positions. I used to worry that if Ben played rugby at this stage, he’d snap in half.
It took a while for the penny to drop – that Ben was developing an eating disorder. My husband and I were horrified. We didn’t know what to do or where to turn. In the end it was the school nurse who told me about CAMHS (the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). So we went back to the GP and insisted Ben was referred right away.
We assumed we’d get an instant appointment but were horrified to find we might have to wait five or six months just for an initial assessment. Meanwhile Ben was disappearing in front of my eyes. He was doing strange things – because anorexia doesn’t just affect your weight, it affects your mood and your behaviours. He was becoming out of control at school, his personality was changing into someone we didn’t recognise... basically everything was imploding.
Then, in January 2010, while still on the waiting list for treatment, Ben was admitted to hospital with a dangerously low pulse rate of 29. Thankfully this meant we were able to get him fast-tracked into treatment and he spent the next two years being treated for anorexia.
It took a long time. It’s difficult for people with eating disorders to acknowledge they have a problem and even if they do, they are often powerless to do anything about it. This is not an illness you can just snap out of. It is all-consuming and debilitating. Left unchecked it can destroy lives. Indeed eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Through my blog – and now my books - I want to do everything in my power to "fast track" other parents through this massive learning curve and point them towards good, solid, evidence-based support in a world where there is still precious little awareness about eating disorders, especially in boys.
Of course I’m not a clinician or an expert; I am just an ordinary mum writing about the day to day experiences of living with a teenage boy recovering from anorexia. But when you suddenly find yourself on this devastating journey, it can be so reassuring to know that others have been along this road too. To know what they went through, to know what signs to watch out for and to know what worked. And, importantly, during those many false summits and disappointments, to know how they found the strength to continue fighting as they helped to guide their child towards recovery. This is why I write my blog.
But the problem with my blog is that, by the end of 2012, it was getting extremely long. There are now 418 posts in total which makes it difficult for other families to plough through everything. Blogs aren’t like books. You can’t just read through them from start to finish and you can’t easily refer back to something you found particularly helpful or relevant. You’re clicking here, there and everywhere. Worse, much of the earlier information – for example from 2011 - risks getting overlooked altogether. And there’s some important stuff in there! I know, because I’ve had so much positive and encouraging feedback from my blog followers.
This is why I made the decision to publish my blog in paperback, in two volumes: 2011 and 2012. This book is a collection of posts from 2012.
I hope it proves useful to you. And, if you haven’t already read Part I (2011 posts), then I invite you to read this too.
Batty Matty, January 2013