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This Is What My Mother's Eating Disorder Has Taught Me

Eating disorders don't discriminate.

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Eating disorders don't discriminate.

When my mother developed anorexia she was not a teenage girl. She was a 45-year-old academic, studying for her PhD, with two adult children and an 11-year-old son.

There's a stereotype of someone with an eating disorder and I learnt just how dangerous that is. In our family the illness went undetected for a long time, simply because I presumed that only certain people could fall victim to it.

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Parents are just normal human beings.

By the time my mum was diagnosed, I was 22 years old, mostly independent and reasonably aware that she was in fact a mere mortal, not the all-knowing supermum I grew up believing her to be.

However, what I was not ready for was her sudden fragility. Anorexia left her physically, mentally, and emotionally weak to a degree I could never have imagined possible.

Without me realising, the tables had turned and I was the stronger of the two. This took me by complete surprise, and a part of me was indignant that my pillar of strength had fallen over.

Eating disorders are not a choice.

Most people are aware that eating disorders are not simply something you choose to start and stop. Unfortunately, I have learnt that some people still act like there is an element of choice.

My mum faced a lot of judgment because she was a single mother with a child to support, and she "shouldn't have let it happen". Mental illness is an illness like any other, and no amount of blame or judgment or anger will make it get better or prevent it from beginning.

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People forget that you are not just an eating disorder.

As soon as my mum was diagnosed, there was a distinct change in how she was treated. Doctors spoke over her, or about her as if she wasn't there, her friends discussed how to "manage" her, and almost every opinion she had was invalidated by people presuming it was "the illness talking".

It got to the point that she just gave up trying to have a say in what was happening to her because no one would listen.

I heard her, but I had a gnawing awareness that I could no longer readily believe what she told me. She had managed to deceive us for a long time, pretending to be OK and pretending to eat. Our once open and trusting line of communication was broken.

Eating disorders damage every element of your life.

I cannot begin to describe the mass destruction my mother's anorexia caused in our family's life. It burned out things that we thought were certain, wiped out things we hoped for the future, created divisions where we used to be united, and irreversibly changed the dynamics of our relationships.

If you think that you can contain your eating disorder, and keep the damage internalised, you are wrong. It will affect everyone who loves you, it will break things you thought were set in stone, and result in lasting damage to your most important relationships.

You have to let go of responsibility.

I spent about a year feeling like my actions and choices played some part in whether my mum would get better or not. I observed how she needed things to be done, like how foods should be arranged in the fridge, what cups or plates she could use, how to leave the kitchen looking "safe" for her. I would ensure these things were done perfectly in the desperate hope that she might eat something, and the desperate fear that if I did them wrong I might cause her to not be able to eat.

I would act as a buffer and protector in her interactions with others. At the doctor's I would take off my coat and fold it into a cushion for her so she didn't have to say that she couldn't sit on the hard chairs. I would wake up in the night and listen through the wall between our bedrooms for her breathing. And if I came home to find the house silent I would stand outside her bedroom door working up the courage to go inside to check she was not dead.

This wasn't sustainable, it exhausted me, and probably didn't help her much either. It took me a long time to really take on board that while I could be sensitive and respectful to her struggles, there was nothing I could do, or not do, that would make her better: She was the only one who could make that happen.

Don't forget to look after yourself.

When someone you love is dangerously ill it can be very hard to think about what you need, because all you want to do is focus on helping them. I was particularly bad at that and it meant I had to spend the following year trying to recover and heal from the anxiety I'd allowed to take over my life. If I had taken time from the beginning to check how I was feeling, how I could find support for myself, I could have avoided an awful lot of pain. Don't ever be afraid to say "this is too much for me".

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Recovery is not quick, or a constant, upward progression.

When my mum started treatment, a lot of my family presumed that once she had an eating plan and went to therapy things would just get back on track and we'd be back to normal by the end of the year. Recovery is very rarely that simple, and for an outsider it can be hard to see why.

It has now been five years since my mum's diagnosis, and she has been working on recovery through various forms of treatment ever since. There have been a number of times we've celebrated the demise of her eating disorder, and many times again that I've known it was creeping back in. She works so hard to get better and has made so much progress, but I know she doesn't always manage to keep it away, and it's easy to be disheartened by those times. We have learnt just to persevere, have patience, and be kind.

Recovery won't always bring back the person you were before the disorder.

This was probably the hardest thing to learn of all. Going through something as brutal as anorexia is likely to change a person forever. Even when they've fully recovered they might not be the same person as "before".

In recovery you don't just fix the relationship with food, you try to fix the underlying problems that caused the illness. This is where the big changes happen, as people (hopefully) grow and learn to think differently.

Five years on, while my mum is physically healthy, she is nothing like the mother I knew growing up. This was really sad. I grieved for my mum; I had thought she would be back. However, I know that the changes she has made mean that she is now happier, more herself, and more honest than the "before" version.

Stay carefully hopeful.

This is not a past experience for us, it's still happening right now, and sometimes it feels like it's never going to end. But I know that full recovery is possible, and I have real hope that our family will get through this. I am, however, more cautious with my hopes nowadays, not because I have doubts, but because I know that mental illness is often a wavering thing that cannot be counted on. It has hurt me too much for me to allow open-faced hope, but I hold on quietly to the belief that it can and will continue to get better.

For more information on eating disorders and resources that can help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association or Beat if you're in the UK.

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