This is an unashamed tribute to my wife, and to all mothers, including mine (requiescat in pace).

Why do mothers understand anorexia better than we (fathers) do? How do they know so much about children’s needs and limits?

It must have something to do with carrying and nourishing the child inside you, using your body to feed the baby, before and after birth. I am in awe of the power of motherhood.

This post first came into my mind a week ago when it was the anniversary of my mother’s death (14 years, seems like yesterday). I know for sure that I did not fully appreciate everything my mother did for us, my brothers and me, and sacrificed for us until I became a parent, exactly 13 years ago tonight. The closeness of the dates will not be lost on you.

The child who is suffering from anorexia bears my mother’s name as her middle name. People say she even looks like my mother. Sometimes, I feel my mother to be very close to me. For example, before we moved to this city, when I came for the first time for a job interview, I felt she was with me the whole day and it has been a great consolation over the years that we have lived here to feel that she not only knew where we were but approved.

She is never far from me: sometimes, still, something happens and one of my first thoughts is to call her on the phone to tell her. I would have talked to her long and hard about our fight against anorexia.

Fighting talk is now the domain of my wife. It amazes me that her intuition throughout this experience has been unfailingly correct. She knew this was anorexia long before I did. She realised the severity of it, recognised the need for professional help and saw the impact it was having on our child. I could see it too, but it was like I was moving and thinking in slow motion, realising that something had fallen off the shelf while she was already moving to catch it.

Where does it come from, this women’s intuition? Why are women blessed with this? It must be well deserved pay-back for labour pains.

We are doing all right, thanks be to God. At the last weighing, our daughter had come up to 38 kilos. She is gaining steadily. There are wobbly moments when she feels she cannot eat what we have given her or that she is going to be sick, but they don’t last. A brighter attitude to food, to family, to school, to social events and to life in general, well this is lasting.

Amazing. Wonderful.

Thank God for mothers.


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Anotherdad asked me at the end of the last post what was involved in the tentative probing our therapy team has done around the beginnings of our daughter’s anorexia, so I thought I’d explain what I can in a new post.

As I understand it, and to quote Mike Scott of The Waterboys, something is the cause of all of this. But what?

Our daughter is a high achiever. At the end of last school year, when they were giving out prizes, one for the student who had most impressed most teachers came her way. As the description suggests, the different teachers of various subjects have a vote on the pupil who should win the award.

The person leading the awards event, a deputy-headteacher who was retiring and who had been at the school since the mid-1970s, said on announcing this particular award that he could not recall another instance of one pupil standing out so strongly in the teachers’ voting. I’m not keen on posting stuff like this because I don’t want anyone to think I’m being vainglorious. But the truth is the truth: the girl is exceptionally bright (must get it from her mother).

A personality that drives someone to excel can be a driver in succumbing to anorexia nervosa, the lead therapist told us. You drive yourself on the whole time and you cannot relax. You need constantly to be achieving something. For some young people, the biggest sense of achievement can be losing weight and being slimmer. The sense of achievement doesn’t last, so you decide that the best thing you can do is lose a bit more weight, and so it escalates.

You try to control food intake and weight and before you know where you are, anorexia is controlling you. Families do not cause this. Teachers do not cause this. Something inside the young person is at the root of the problem: an insecurity, a basic lack of confidence or lack of awareness of your own God-given talent, of how wonderful you are in the eyes of God (for whom I dare not speak, but it’s in the Bible) and in the eyes of your parents (for whom I do dare to speak).

We love this child, so much that even to type the words brings tears to my eyes. I love her. I would give up my life for her, without even thinking about it. I remember the night she was born as though it were yesterday. I remember holding her and talking to her. I remember having sole responsibility for looking after her the following summer and loving every second. I fondly remember her acceptance of her sisters into her life and her routine and the role she had in their youngest years, leading them in play and packing fun and laughter into every waking minute.

How anorexia could befall her is still beyond me, but my wife and I have talked about this quite a lot and we think the signs were always there. She has always been serious about serious things. She hasn’t always found friendship groups easy, treating other children less kindly than we would have liked, but also being envied and victimised by others.

She seems to tire of things easily. All-or-nothing thinking drives her towards shunning anyone who isn’t perfect, which is anyone you care to mention. You are either wonderful or awful, scintillating or stultifying. Sometimes the time-lapse between one and the other is hours.

It seems sometimes that she wants a perfect life: perfect home, perfect family, perfect school performance, perfect social life. Anything that falls short of perfect is useless.

Of course, life isn’t like that and I think that what the therapist was driving at was this: you have to learn to accept the less-than-perfect. It’s hard to do that, but it’s also hard to find perfection. If being thinner is a source of feeling that you’re on the way to perfection, it’s not too hard to see how anorexia can ensue. Anorexia will help you achieve that perfect life you’re looking for … except, of course, it won’t; it will come close to destroying you.

Anorexia is very devious. Good luck to anotherdad and everyone else involved in the battle against it.

Peace to all.


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At the root of this

We have had decent progress in two of the three aspects of anorexia that the psychiatrist who heads up our therapy team highlighted back in September when we first placed ourselves in their hands. Our daughter has kept up her increased food intake very well and her weight has increased to 36.6 kilos. This is in keeping with the rate of weight-gain that the team recommends, not too fast and not too slow.

As a result, she has been brighter a lot of the time and school has been going much better.

At the last session, one of the lead therapists clearly thought the time was right tentatively to probe again at the anxiety at the root of our child’s anorexia. It was interesting and, I confess, surprising to see how close this is to the surface still, and how raw she feels about it all. She cried immediately.

We realised quickly that there is little value in papering over the cracks here. We have to get to the root, address the core problems and allow our daughter to heal, I hope permanently. So it was a reminder that this is long haul and that we have far to go. We trust the care team totally and have faith that they would only have brought this up if they thought the time was right.

A return to some of the crying fits at table have taken me by surprise. I realise I had wasted no time at all in becoming complacent.

Peace to all.


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Turning point

What a week we’ve had. Praise be to God.

It happened suddenly. Our care team had explained that there is a link between levels of nutrition and mood. If you are under-nourished, food and anxiety about food dominate your thoughts and you cannot relax. This is classic anorexia anxiety, but the idea is that if you can nourish yourself better, the anxiety will fade.

It’s much easier said than done, of course. It’s important to remember that anorexia is full of contradictions: food will make you better, but food is what you fear the most.

My daughter and I had a stand-up shouting match at breakfast on, I think, Wednesday. She didn’t want me to give her cereal because, she said, I add too much milk. She did not want to eat the toast I make because it comes out soggy and I apply too much jam. This has been the way of things with us since heaven knows when. Anorexia is devious and it attacks parents’ confidence. You end up thinking that, indeed, you are incapable of serving a bowl of Weetabix.

A monkey could serve a bowl of Weetabix.

By Wednesday evening, things were different. The care team had invited us to dare to look for tiny signs of improvement in our daughter’s demeanour. On occasion, some signs were there: a smile, a laugh, a look with the old glint in her eye. It was all very fleeting, even though my wife kept her off school on Friday (October 15) and the two of them had a great day in the city. On Wednesday evening, it was like she was a different child, eating without complaint, taking part in conversation round the table, helping us, helping her sisters, engaging with homework. Who’d have believed it?

It wasn’t a different child, though. It was our child, our old child, the way she used to be before she lost control of her control of what she was eating and anorexia claimed her.

Well, we’re claiming her back and she is claiming her own life back and the condition will not be able to hold out against us.

Thursday was an equally amazing day, with lots of positive energy and breakfast finished in five minutes instead of 30, reports of lunch scoffed down equally quickly in school so that the rest of the lunch-break could be spend in social networking, also known as fun, with fellow pupils. One boy said to her on the school bus coming home that he had not heard her speak for the whole of this school year so far until Thursday.

Now, we know downs as well as ups await us. We are prepared for the return of the tears and the protests. But for now, she is eating without complaint. She has stopped insisting on standing up all the time, moving all the time, working off calories all the time. We have found out that she had been spending all free time at school power-walking her way around the grounds. This has stopped. She is sitting down and chatting to other pupils instead. She smiles.

Dear God almighty, the child smiles again. By the grace of God we are on the way to recovery. Our child was lost to us and we have found her again.

Peace to all.

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Gain in weight

Hurray. When we went back to the eating disorders clinic on 6 October, our daughter had gained 800 grammes. She was unhappy about it, but we were delighted, and so were the therapists.

They explained that her weight is still going to fluctuate, but we felt we had turned a corner. The relief my wife felt on hearing the news was palpable. So this means the extra food we have been giving her has worked. She is coping, not always well, with the food, and we able to make it work in our family environment. We are very pleased.

In the days following, our child has been down but she has said some encouraging things: it’s anorexia that is keeping her down and she can, at times, imagine what it will be like to beat the condition.

She and I were talking today about happy times. She is struggling the last time she was genuinely happy. I know how she feels. Nevertheless, we know we have had happy times in the past and have to have confidence that we will do so again. The best times have been when we have done something spontaneously, all of us together. It could be a coincidence, but all the examples I could think of were beautiful, warm, sunny autumn days like today, 10.10.10.

When the girls were tiny, we found ourselves one September at a kite festival. The organisers were brilliant. They had sent out publicity telling all children to come along with a favourite soft toy. Each toy got to go on a daredevil flight in a basket attached to one of the kites. They (the children, I can’t speak for the toys) thought it was magnificent fun.

Other times involved unlikely trips to the seaside, playing football on the beach, eating picnic lunches, taking advantage of unexpectedly sunny days. I believe these days will return. I believe we will be happy again. I will fight for that happiness.

Here are some other interesting points to have emerged from our discussion with the eating disorders team.

1. They much prefer to treat young people as outpatients rather than bring them into residential care. They regard residential care as a last resort. They encourage parents over an initial four-six week period to do everything they can to turn the child’s weight around while the child is living in the family home and going to school. The results of patients treated internally are less good. The team thinks that one of the reasons for this is that taking the child away “disempowers the parents”.

2. They acknowledged that a gain of 800 grammes in one week is more than the initial target set out by the professor in charge of the programme (he suggested 500 grammes a week). Our daughter was worried about that. They said they wouldn’t want her to regain weight too quickly. They pointed out that anorexia seeks always to be in control of what the sufferer eats. This week’s weight gain was, they said, an indication that our daughter was beginning to hand over a bit of control from anorexia to us. Praise God. Curse anorexia.

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Food increase

Our second appointment at the specialist eating disorder clinic took place four days ago. We saw a psychologist and a therapist, with the latter leading. They were both very good.

Unfortunately, though, our daughter had lost more weight. The rate of loss has decreased, from a kilo a week to, roughly, 600 grammes, but that is scant consolation. Now the poor child is beginning to suffer a few health consequences: she has difficulty with bladder control and her feet are a mess, a combination of poor circulation (which is part of the long-haul battle) and poor shoes (which we put right immediately).

The therapist made a note of the typical amounts of food we have been giving our daughter and then, in a new column, wrote down all the additional things she should be consuming. At the end of that, she asked me which of these additions I believed we could add to our child’s diet immediately.

Additional things that she will have to consume at school—a mid-morning snack of a banana, a cereal bar or a smoothie, plus an additional, high-calorie element at lunchtime, such as a packet of crisps or a chocolate biscuit—will have to weight as the care team knows it would be hard to implement that when we, the parents, cannot be there.

We are left with a slice of toast with spread and jam and a glass of juice in addition to the cereal she had been having for breakfast. On returning home from school at about 4.00 pm, she has a hot chocolate drink made with milk. She has a bigger portion at dinner, plus whatever pudding we are having (apple crumble, ice-cream et cetera).

The team wants to add a snack before bedtime too, but we find ourselves eating a little later than a lot of people here and the end of dinner is often quite close to bedtime. So we have not been doing that either.

On timing, the therapist said we have to put time-limits on the meals: 30 minutes to get breakfast eaten, 20 minutes for the hot chocolate, 45 minutes for dinner. If she manages to keep to these times, she gets to go on a short walk.

That first day, when our daughter came home from school, she went to her room immediately. I heard some crying and went to see if she was all right. I asked her to come downstairs. It was clear she was just avoiding the hot chocolate. So I made it anyway and took it up. She wailed.

Eventually I got her to bring it downstairs. The 20 minutes were nearly up and she hadn’t touched it. I thought I was going to fall at the first extra hurdle. But on 19 minutes, she picked up the mug and gulped it down. Dinner went not too badly, although she seems always to want to cut everything up into tiny pieces before starting to eat.

The other good thing we learned at the appointment was not to get into ‘anorexia conversations’. When the child is complaining about portion sizes and the injustice of today’s portion compared to yesterday’s, you can just say: “This is an anorexia conversation, and I’m not having it with you.”

If this sounds too simple, I have to tell you that for the most part in the four days since the clinic it has worked for us. It is an advantage here that our daughter is still so young. I don’t know if that tactic would work too well with a 16-year-old.

The bottom line is that in the last four days, our child’s food intake has increased substantially. She is still very tearful and down, but we strongly believe every mouthful is doing her good and that a physical improvement will lead to an overall improvement.

I will admit I was afraid the care team might say we had had enough of a chance to halt the weight loss and that it was now at too dangerous a level to allow us to keep our child at home. I am still afraid that might happen. I don’t know how much food someone in her condition needs to eat every day to build their weight up, but I suspect it’s a lot. The people at the clinic put her at 34.2 kilos. She is “very significantly underweight”, they said. Please God the food increase of the last few days will be sustainable and will be enough to make a difference.

Peace to all, especially those caught up in a fight against anorexia.


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Weekends and mealtimes

It’s funny how the happiest times can become the most difficult.

Today has been very tough because we haven’t yet become very good at finding entertaining things to do that don’t involve food and excercise.

We’ve had more tears than any other day throughout this whole difficult time and after lunch our daughter stormed out of the front door and headed off down the street. I had to run after her.

She said she had had enough and just wanted to get away. It was pretty scary. We asked her never to do that again.

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