You Can’t Save Your Child From Their Anorexia
Too many parents give up everything to try to help their children.
Posted February 18, 2015 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
This guest post is by my mother Sue Blackmore.
I was honoured this month to be the featured “eccentric” in Psychology Today magazine and given the delightful title of “Queen of Consciousness.” The deep-delving conversation covered everything from my work in parapsychology and my strange experiences with drugs to meditation and the nature of consciousness. When I saw how the writer had condensed it all into just a few pages, I was really impressed.
But I was asked about my daughter who had severe anorexia and wrote about it for PT, specifically “Did that ordeal give you any insight into parenting?”
It’s a good question and we talked about it for a long time, but the written answer inadvertently makes it sound as though I didn’t care at all about my lovely daughter. Of course I did!
The answer attributed to me was just this:
Not much. Life was very difficult with an anorexic in the house. But it was probably good that I had my own life, was absorbed in questions of consciousness, and wanted to write my books. I talked to other parents whose lives were basically wrecked by their child’s anorexia. They had given up work, they were doing everything they could to try to make their child eat, and as far as I could see, none of it helped.
I did indeed say these things but I’d like to explain why.
Emily became ill when she was just sixteen. At first I did not notice and she was already very thin by the time I realised that anorexia could indeed happen in a family like ours. I guess I’d never imagined in a million years that it could. Of course I felt guilty for being so unobservant and stupid, but as soon as we realised the seriousness of her illness, her father and I tried to help all we could.
For two years she saw a child psychiatrist. (In Britain this is provided free on the NHS.) She liked him and seemed to make good progress. Indeed by the time she turned eighteen, and would have had to move on to adult services, she seemed to be well on the way to recovery. We were all hopeful and Emily agreed to keep a check on her weight as she looked forward to going to university.
But our optimism was short-lived. Emily gradually got thinner and more obsessed with not eating, and life in our house became harder and harder. It is not pleasant having a wraith coming and going, refusing to join in any events that involve food, trying to avoid Christmas dinner and birthday treats, going to bed later and later and drifting about the house like a ghost. It’s so terribly hard to understand why anyone would do this to themselves. Even so, throughout all this we kept talking. Emily and I would often sit up late in her room and discuss how she was doing, or work on a food diary that was supposed to help, or try to find ways to make life easier. But she grew up, and soon she was away at university.
Although the Oxford terms are short and Emily was always home for the long vacations, my (perhaps unrealistic) hopes for her were dashed. I imagined she would love university as I had done; that she would make friends, join societies, enjoy her work and love being in such an exciting place. But she found that impossible. She withdrew into her obsessional routines and her illness deepened.
Her father and I felt helpless and confused. We had phases of trying to help, of visiting Emily, of considering treatment programs, and we had phases of trying to let go. We read books and articles and asked for advice but it was never clear what to do. It was in this context that one day I saw an advertisement for a day for carers offered by the eating disorders clinic at our local hospital. It sounded ideal—a day of meeting other parents and carers and learning about ways to help.
I got lost on the way and arrived a little late, just a few minutes before the first lecture was to begin. As I hurried into the room I stopped dead, confronted by a sea of scared, distressed faces. I have never felt that before—the sense that a large group of people, expectantly awaiting a lecture, were all so unhappy, so fraught. The feeling of despair was tangible.
The lectures were good, the discussions fascinating, but what I remember to this day is the conversations I had with other parents in the tea breaks. They were heartrending. I met mothers who had given up everything else in their life to look after their anorexic daughter. I met a couple who were both in debt because they could not work while trying to get help for a child who was in and out of hospital. I met partners and brothers apparently at their wit’s end with distress, their whole lives taken up with caring. And none of it seemed to help. The sacrifices they had made had clearly not helped their loved ones learn how to eat again—had not saved them from their anorexia. Everyone seemed to have lost from one person’s illness.
Of course I have often felt guilty. Of course I worried about whether I could have done more to help, asked myself again and again whether it was all my fault but—as it said in the magazine—I kept on living my life. I had lectures to give, students to teach, research to do and books to write, and I did all those things. From what I learned then, and have learned since, I do not believe I could have helped Emily recover sooner by giving up all of my own life as well.
In the end, at the age of 26, Emily hit the end of the road. She saw death staring her in the face and she chose to live. Only then could others help her and, I am so glad to say, she received the help she needed. She has written all about this in her blog.
If you are a parent or carer I would like to say this—don’t let someone else’s anorexia destroy your life as well as theirs. Don’t give in to the tempting idea that to save their life you must sacrifice your own. It isn’t true. And they may need you in the future when they are better. If you are a wreck your child may feel an even greater burden of guilt at having been the cause of your misery. So do your best, love your child as well as you can, but keep on being yourself.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the effects anorexia had on our relationship—and vice versa—in this radio interview, this newspaper article, and this Comment Is Free blog post.
And you can read the sequel to this post, 'Anorexia and the dangers of blog post titles', here.