I continue to be immensely grateful to the 20 UK families that have contributed their stories for my new book When anorexia came to visit, families talk about how an eating disorder invaded their lives. But you'll have to wait a month or so before it's published. In the meantime, here is the draft introduction to give you a taster and to show how wonderful these 20 families are...
The second chapter of my book Please Eat… A mother’s struggle to free her teenage son from anorexia begins: "We should have picked up on it sooner."
The question is: could we - or any of the families I interviewed for my forthcoming book When anorexia came to visit - have "picked up on our child’s eating disorder sooner"?
When I first took my 15 year old son, Ben, to visit the GP at the end of September 2009, the signs of an emerging eating disorder had been clearly evident for some months.
The problem was that none of us recognised them.
Even before the signs emerged, the eating disorder was busy germinating deep in the inner recesses of Ben’s mind. He says he can trace it back to at least 12 months before, if not earlier.
The fact is that you don’t expect your child to develop anorexia or any other eating disorder. You don’t expect it to happen to your ordinary, happy, close family. And, in our case, and a couple of the other cases in this book, you don’t expect it to happen to your son.
Anorexia isn’t like a normal medical condition where recognisable symptoms are there for all to see: a broken bone, a worrying lump, blood loss or whatever - the kind of issues that GPs deal with on a daily basis. And, although eating disorders often feature in the media, they rarely focus on the lesser known signs and symptoms, preferring instead to major on shock tactics such as stereotypical skeletal photographs. On top of this there is the popular misconception that eating disorders are "caused" by anything from bad parenting and size zero fashion models to faddy eaters and even private schooling (how many reports begin with: "Privately educated XXXX…" ?)
So, during the early months as the illness began to manifest itself, none of the families in When anorexia came to visit had any idea what they were dealing with. Nor did their children. I mean, it’s not as if my son sat down one day and decided to "get anorexia". He was as clueless as any of us. And, anyway, these days we know that anorexia is a biological illness, not a lifestyle choice.
But we didn’t know this back then.
Indeed none of the families in this book fits the stereotype of the dysfunctional family with the child who is going off the rails and chooses, perhaps as a "control thing", to starve themselves to death. Before anorexia came to visit they were just ordinary happy families living ordinary happy lives. And our children were normal.
So there was no reason on this planet why any of us would be watching out for the classic signs of anorexia. This is why we couldn’t have "picked up on it sooner" unless we’d known what to look out for.
None of us knew that a whole package of horrors comes with an eating disorder. It’s not just about cutting back on food and losing weight, it’s about crushing depression, vicious mood swings, violent self-harming, suicide threats and social isolation as your child transforms into someone you don’t recognise, right in front of your eyes. Our son even developed a different voice: a slow, low, deep monotone that used to chill me to the core.
We weren’t aware that an eating disorder creeps up on its victim ever so slowly, so slowly that it’s almost undetectable until it’s got a firm hold. We didn’t know that, in the early months, an eating disorder can disguise itself as a passion for healthy eating and / or exercise, or a passion for cooking. Or, in the case of our son Ben, all three.
None of us knew of the devastating effect that anorexia would have on the whole family - from the sufferer themselves through to siblings, parents, grandparents and the extended family. Not just for a brief few weeks or months, but sometimes for years.
And we didn’t know that you don’t always have to be a skin-and-bones skeleton to have full-blown anorexia.
But despite our obliviousness to the early signs, most of the families I interviewed expressed feelings of intense guilt. "Why didn’t we notice what was happening?", "Why didn’t we act sooner?" and "Why didn’t we trust our gut instincts that something was wrong?"
And herein lies another problem.
In the making of this book I talked to GPs, medical students, even the Royal College of General Practitioners, and there seems to be very little formal training in eating disorders. Our local GP said she "probably had two lectures" as a medical student at Cambridge.
The thing is, when you take your child to the GP, you expect them to know what’s wrong and take action. So, when a GP fails to identify an eating disorder or assumes it’s "just a teenage phase", you begin to doubt your own instincts.
And, meanwhile, your child can be in complete denial that there’s anything wrong. So sometimes it can be just you, the parent, fighting a lone battle to get your child diagnosed and referred.
Thankfully, once referred, most of the families in this book saw a specialist treatment team like CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services) very quickly, sometimes within the week. Out of all the families in this book I think we had to wait the longest. It was four months before we saw our local CAMHS and only then because the assessment was expedited when Ben’s pulse plummeted to 29 and he ended up wired to machines in the cardio unit of our local hospital.
One of the many reasons why I decided to write this book is because I wanted to see how our story (described in my book Please Eat… A mother’s struggle to free her teenage son from anorexia) overlaps with other families’ experiences across the UK.
Of course each family’s circumstances are different. Yet so much of what we’ve experienced is similar. Not just in terms of the warning signs but in the way the illness transformed our children into people we scarcely recognised, mentally as well as physically. And, of course, the sheer uphill struggle of trying to get them to eat again.
In this book you will read some truly uplifting accounts: those stories where intervention was swift and the illness was tackled by a highly coordinated and focused team of clinicians using the latest evidence-based treatment.
But you will also read about families who experienced the other end of the spectrum - the "could do betters" of NHS mental health services. With these families recovery didn’t come as quickly; some are still a "work in progress".
I often wonder where we families would be now without the power of the internet. Would we still be totally ignorant of the latest evidence-based treatment? Would we simply accept the outdated notion that eating disorders have to last for several years, if not forever? Would we still believe that eating disorders "aren’t really about food" and are "a control thing"? Would we still be dragging our children to dozens of pointless sessions as the therapists attempt to identify the "reasons why" the eating disorder developed and talk them out of the illness? Would close family relationships have disintegrated as parents, wrongly labelled at best as dysfunctional and at worst as abusive, needlessly blame each other for “causing” the illness?
There is an online resource called FEAST (Families Empowered & Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders), originally set up in the USA by Laura Collins, author of Eating With Your Anorexic (who was kind enough to write the Preface for this book) and nowadays operating globally via the power of the internet. FEAST and its online forum, Around The Dinner Table (ATDT), is run by parents and carers for parents and carers. Today FEAST is widely respected by some of the world’s leading eating disorder professionals and its website is a mine of information on the latest evidence-based treatment, research and resources. Thanks to FEAST and other resources like the UK eating disorder charities, BEAT and ABC (Anorexia & Bulimia Care), families can educate themselves about the latest advances in the treatment of eating disorders in a way that was previously impossible.
The ATDT forum is a place where families can come and feel immediately welcome, among families who understand exactly what they are going through and who can offer support. Here in the UK alone we have established a truly awesome network that works with other charities like BEAT and leading eating disorder experts to advocate better treatment for our children and enhanced support for parents and carers.
Virtually every family in this book says that FEAST and ATDT were lifesavers. It is also thanks to the people I’ve met through FEAST and BEAT that I have been able to gather together these 20 powerful, insightful and challenging stories.
Through this book, we want to show other families that they are not to blame for their child’s illness. Eating disorders are biological illnesses, not lifestyle choices. And, yes, eating disorders are about food - lots of it, being administered by strong, loving, dedicated families who are refusing to accept that their beloved children are "in this for the long haul". We know that you can’t "talk someone out of an eating disorder"; you can’t wait for someone to "want to get better". And we recognise that parents are a vital part of a successful, highly coordinated treatment team. We are part of the solution, not the problem.
We want to show other families what is "normal" in the world of eating disorder behaviour. Distressing and terrifying, yes, but relatively "normal" for a child in the iron grip of anorexia. And also what is normal as the brain begins to get re-nourished and gradually heals and returns to its pre-anorexia state.
We also want to show that, no matter what you are going through, other families have been through it too - and successfully come out the other side.
Getting your child through an eating disorder is one of the toughest and most distressing things you will ever do as a parent. But re-visiting painful memories is unbelievably tough, too. Yet each of the families I interviewed for this book willingly volunteered to come forward and describe their own struggles with anorexia.
Not only did they agree to talk frankly about their experiences, they agreed to read through the various drafts I sent through for checking. In other words, being involved in this book meant having to re-visit distressing memories not once but several times over. This takes courage and commitment. It also demonstrates how much these families care about others - families they have never met who will read this book and hopefully draw inspiration, strength and knowledge from its pages.
This book could never have been written without the help of these 20 fantastic families. In many cases all I have done, as the author, is edit the transcript of a taped conversation or tweak a detailed written account. So, strictly, I should be calling myself editor, not author. "My" 20 families have written this book, not me. And I am immensely appreciative of their help, dedication and input.
Of course I must also thank the young people themselves for demonstrating the courage, grit and determination to fight this illness and win. Being a parent is tough, but being someone who has fought to break free from this insidious illness is even tougher.
Our sons and daughters are truly awesome.
And so are their parents.