Few sights are more heartbreaking than a young woman reduced to a fragile, emaciated wreck by anorexia. For a parent, there is the added sense of helplessness and failure. Seeing your child starve herself because of the demons in her head is torture, and yet there seems to be nothing you can do. However, though anorexia may be a monster, it is a monster you can defeat.
First, find out all you can about the disorder itself. Order the best books on the subject, and speak to as many professionals as you can find. The first rule of war is “know thy enemy,” and anorexia (or “anorexia nervosa,” as it is officially known) can be a formidable enemy.
There are two kinds of anorexic. First, there is the binging and purging type. Such people will eat and then purge, usually by making themselves sick (though some will take laxatives). People with eating disorders often feel a mixture of desire, fear, disgust and guilt around food. By getting rid of it, they feel purified and cleansed, not just of the food but also of their guilt.
The second type is known as the “restrictive anorexic.” These tend to be controlled and self-disciplined. Rather than eating their favorite cake or pasta and then vomiting, they simply avoid it altogether. Such people know how many calories each item contains, which foods lead to the least weight gain, and so on. In effect, they practise self-starvation.
Anorexia is a psychological problem. Because the physical effects can be so dreadful, people tend to forget this. The individual dreads gaining weight, and they have a distorted view of their body. While the rest of the world sees an emaciated skeleton, they see nothing but fat and greed. And the depths of their self-hatred can be appalling. This is often reflected in the words they use to describe themselves: “pig,” “fat slug,” and so on. When they eat, they do so self-consciously, aware of every mouthful and repulsed by the greedy way they chew and swallow. To others they seem to be warily picking at their food. In their own mind, they are eating like a pig (which is why many anorexics hate eating in company).
Don’t feel guilty if you struggle to understand this condition. For most people eating is a pleasure, and it can be difficult to grasp how twisted the relationship sometimes becomes. Anorexics are not alone in this. Bulimics, comfort eaters, and the morbidly obese all have troubled relationships with food. To them, it arouses a whole range of feelings, from fear and desire to shame and disgust. Try not to lose your temper. When people are frightened, they often explode in rage. But this will simply drive your child away and deepen the shame.
The question every parent inevitably asks is why. Why is my beautiful, precious daughter doing this to herself? (It is worth adding at this point that men can and do develop anorexia. That said, it is far more common among women). And, what torments them more, is it their fault? Did they make a mistake somewhere along the line? Then the self-torturing thoughts begin: I sheltered her too much, I shouldn’t have divorced her father, I should have sent her to a better school, and so on.
In fact, the exact causes are unknown. Like so many illnesses, it probably stems from a complex mix of genetics, psychology and environment. If a teenage girl’s mother, aunt or grandmother had anorexia, she is more likely to develop it herself. There isn’t an “anorexia gene,” but people do inherit traits that make them more vulnerable to stress. Life is full of stress, and some are better equipped to cope. Those who do not cope well need an outlet. They feel no control over the noisy, chaotic world out there, but they can control what they eat.
Anorexia is a psychological disorder, and certain personality types seem more susceptible than others. Perfectionists, for example, are more likely to develop it. The obsessive-compulsive are also vulnerable. Unfortunately, they make good anorexics since they find it easier to stick to dietary regimens.
Then of course there are the environmental pressures. Some adult anorexics can trace their disorder back to a specific incident in the school playground. Maybe a teacher called her chubby and the other kids laughed, or a group of cool girls said she couldn’t hang out with them because “you’re the wrong shape.” Then there is the unrealistic standard set by models and movie actresses. To an insecure 14-year-old, the posters of a six foot, airbrushed supermodel can be crushing. She starves herself not so as to look like that, but from a wish to punish herself for not looking like that. When you loathe something you want to hurt it, and such girls loathe their body.
Social media also plays its part. Originally, sites like Facebook were set up to help people re-connect with old friends, or stay in touch with new ones. Today, it has morphed from a place of sharing into a place for self-promotion. People post the highlights of their life. For a shy, socially awkward girl this can be devastating. There they all are, the girls she grew up around, sun-tanned and pretty, arm in arm with their gorgeous boyfriends. No one posts photos of themselves covered in spots, staring out the window at the rain while feeling bored and lonely! Again, this can trigger self-loathing. People also feel left out, and left behind. By eating carefully, a young girl feels that she is taking back control.
Support and Self-Care
It is vitally important to take care of your own health. Parents naturally resent this advice, feeling that they have no right to think about themselves while their child suffers. But you must take care of yourself for your child. The fitter, stronger and more energetic you are, the more help you will be. Allowing yourself to become isolated, or to sink into depression, will do no one any good. It may even make your child’s anorexia worse. Guilt and shame play a big part in this disorder. If your child sees you in tears, or notices that you’ve given up your hobbies, etc, that will only deepen their sense of worthlessness.
So keep your body in good shape. Eat healthily and take regular, gentle exercise. As well as lifting your mood, this will help you sleep and give you more energy for the coming battle. It is also vitally important to seek advice and support. Anorexia is a common disorder, and there is sure to be another parent nearby fighting the same battle. There are also online discussion forums. No one will be more help than those who’ve been through the same thing. They will know what works and what does not. And they will understand how you feel in a way that even the most compassionate doctor or friend never can.
Helping Your Child
You must seek professional help, beginning with the family doctor. Professionals will help not only your child but you and your family (it is important never to overlook your child’s siblings, who may find the whole business deeply upsetting; they will certainly have worries and problems of their own, though they may not wish to add to your burden). Be careful how you raise the matter with your child. Guilt and shame play a big part in eating disorders, and it is important not to deepen these feelings. When you suggest taking them to a therapist or clinic, remind them that everyone has problems. They aren’t weak, and they haven’t let you down. Don’t turn it into a huge drama.
And do not let them wallow. If you seek help, and the therapist or psychiatrist labels them anorexic, that is not an excuse to give up. For too many people a label is something to hide behind. Worse still, it is an identity. Many anorexics, alcoholics, agoraphobics, etc., though genuinely ill, fear recovery because they do not want to lose this identity. They have lived so long with the label that they fear life without it. You must learn to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, you need to give them unconditional love and support. On the other, you mustn’t allow them to wallow in their condition or develop a sense of victimhood. You want a little fighter, not a little wallower.
You must set a positive example as well. Living with an anorexic is like living with a ghost. Often, they keep out of your way. When they are in the house, they drift from room to room, pale, emaciated and sad. And they avoid the best moments of family life: thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday parties, etc., because these all involve food. You need to persuade her that life is worth living.
Anorexia may be a phase, and your child may recover, but she could be in for a long fight. Often, as with drug or alcohol addiction, such people reach a crisis point. They hit some new low and have a sudden moment of clarity: either I stop doing this to myself or I die. In effect they decide whether or not to go on living. So don’t hesitate to laugh and enjoy the world when with her. Obviously you need to hug her when she’s scared and remind her how much you love her, etc. But if the sun is shining, remark on the fact. If the two of you are walking through woodland on a crisp, frosty morning, say “it’s so beautiful isn’t it!” Constantly remind her of life’s trivial joys, from a hot bath to a good film. By doing so you encourage her to choose life.
And make a point of loving and praising food when you are around her. Encourage her father, grandparents and siblings to do the same. Be careful not to make it too obvious though (no one likes to feel they are being manipulated). The point is to constantly drive home the message that food isn’t the enemy, that it can and should be enjoyed.
Of course, you are not the only person in your child’s life. Many teenagers pay more attention to their friends than their family. Given this, it may be worth taking her friends aside and enlisting their help. Be very careful how you do this. If your child finds out, she may be furious. There is also the danger of her friends telling other children at school. But if you believe her friends are mature enough, take them aside and explain what is happening. Nothing wins over an adolescent like being treated with respect; and nothing alienates them faster than being patronized.
Be in no doubt, anorexia is a real and serious disorder. Your child isn’t being “a little drama queen,” and she isn’t looking or attention (often, they want anything but attention). But it is a disorder she can defeat.