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It came out of the blue completely.
Emily, my daughter, came home from school and admitted to my wife she had been making herself sick.
Anorexia often afflicts high achieving young people with a sense of perfectionism. When we look back at that summer of 2012, Emily’s life was up in the air. She had just finished her GCSEs, and her brother was off to university. She had been in Africa on an expedition and had seen famine first-hand and lost a little weight.
Emily liked the way she was looking and before you know it you are in trouble, the illness takes over.
We didn’t understand what we were up against.
October passed and then November, and Emily wasn’t better. Struggling at school, Emily’s mood dipped. As summer crept into winter Emily was steadily losing weight. Christmas came and then the New Year and Emily wasn’t well. Anorexia is very clever and my wife Mel became a full time carer at home. Emily gave up school.
In our family we called anorexia and the lies and the hiding food ‘Anna’, because it helped dissociate the illness from our daughter. We got help and went to CAMHS through our doctor, but we were so naïve. The horrible thing about the illness is you can’t fix it. The person must want to get better. You can only create an environment in which she can get better.
Mel would sit with Emily and offer three meals and three snacks a day and watch our daughter before, during and after meals. If your attention is diverted for a millisecond, she would feed the dog (who gets fat while your daughter still loses weight) or slip upstairs to be sick. ‘Anna’ has all these tricks. By March we realised we were two amateurs playing against an evil genius.
We put Emily into a day clinic in Oxford and relaxed thinking we were in the hands of professionals. In a clinic though your child is with other young people’s equivalent ‘Annas’- a whole army. They would find a way round the trained staff and Emily didn’t put on weight.
It was July, and nothing had worked. If you break a leg, there is a clear path to recovery. Or cancer- there is a prescribed route. With anorexia no one knows what to do, Emily was getting worse and her weight had gone through the floor.
You have to fight.
The one lesson I learnt through this is, you have to fight. You can’t put your head in the sand and moan. We had some private medical care and researched and interviewed hospitals to see where to spend our money. Emily went to a ward for adults with depression and addictions so there would be no other little ‘Anna’s’ running around. It offered me and Mel some respite. Emily didn’t get any better. ‘Anna’ was a lone wolf in the clinic. Emily understood that she was ill, she had been to two clinics. It was so galling; we spent all our money and the doctor said he couldn’t help. The psychiatrist said Emily would need six months in-patient care and we haven’t got bags of money (the weekly rate is £4000).
No beds on the NHS
Emily had given up. She stopped eating. Her weight loss was 2kg a week. Her BMI 14. The problem was there were no beds on the NHS. The local doctor and CAMHS team were very good but they could only advise that we now had to wait for our daughter to collapse and she would then be cared for by A&E.
Neither of us felt we were particularly decisive people but under pressure it is amazing what you can do, when your daughter’s life is at stake. I phoned every NHS facility in the UK. It was unusual for them to get a call from Dad and each of them would say how sorry they were but there were no beds. Eventually I called a clinic in London and they had a bed coming free. At the same time, like London buses, a bed came free in Oxford. It was like we had won the lottery and Emily went straight in and on to a feeding drip.
She was in a safe place. She was 18. She spent 6 months there and came out as a functioning anorexic, with a BMI of 21, but she still had an eating disorder. She was well enough though to have a mini-gap year travelling on her own, around Australia and New Zealand and then worked at Disneyland Paris, but she was still ill really.
In 2018 when Emily had started working for ITV in London she was still hiding from her fellow workers that she wasn’t well. She came home and finally all of a sudden she really wanted to get better. All her friends were moving on. It was her last chance to turn it around and she came out and said enough is enough. She is well right now, and can you imagine the joy of watching your daughter enjoying chips and a glass of wine? We are so proud of her.
Our story has a happy ending, she is flying now. She is working and living normally. Her weight is restored.
If you are concerned about your child’s eating Mark suggests:
1 – Be proactive- do something. The longer you leave it the more time ‘Anna’ has to get her claws in to you. Don’t wait to contact your doctor for advice.
2- Remember your daughter is not well, she has a mental illness, try and understand that she won’t be rational.
3- Emily didn’t believe it would get better. I know from my own experience of depression that all you see is this black tunnel and when you are down you can’t see the light. Look into your child’s eyes and hold her hand and tell her it will be alright. She won’t believe you but you still need to tell her. Emily and I would sit down with magazines and post-it notes and make pictures of how her life will be. Ask her to trust you and she can hang on to your belief. Tell your child they are just in hibernation having a rest and will be back out soon.
4 – Think about your own self-preservation. The danger is that the illness becomes all encompassing. If you have a partner lean on each other.
Even now, when Emily calls and she is stressed or hasn’t had such a good day I worry. The best you can hope for is that ‘Anna’ is locked in a corner of Emily’s brain and you have thrown away the key. We all watch out for each other. We won’t let anorexia define our lives, and we are reaching for the stars.
Update from Dad Info: Emily is doing great and is currently in Australia! We are so pleased to hear she is doing so well.
Mark Simmonds was talking with Dad Info and is the author of Breakdown and Repair: A Father’s Tale of Stress and Success.