November 6, 2009

Eating Disorders – A Mum’s Eye View

On a social evening out, having set off determined to enjoy myself and have a break from the ‘hand wringing’, I mention to a distant friend that my previously wholesome teenager had lost almost half their body weight in 6 months. ‘Oh, that’s good’ she said smiling and nodding in approval…. I wanted to cry.

We are now a society obsessed with weight loss/obesity at the expense of personal achievement and happiness, to the point that alarmingly even the word ‘diet’ is no longer a word to describe the content of one’s dietary requirements, but a word synonymous with the miserable nibbling of tasteless snacks in the futile hope that we will somehow be more accepted, happier and successful if we were to conform to an unrealistic weight and size. Bla de bla….

To the government, schools and our NHS I say be afraid- be very afraid because disordered eating is escalating amongst our children (some as young as 8 ) at an alarming pace. Whilst public awareness is very slowly gaining momentum (check out Winning Minds/ Beat/Body Gossip), at present the help desperately needed by both the victims and their families is extremely difficult to find.

I recently listened in horror to a particularly ‘well rounded’ government spokes lady who patronisingly proposed that we put a system in place whereby all children have their bodily measurements monitored at school-I wanted to come at her with a tape measure and loudly announce her waist size, just to see how she felt about it!

As a mother, I have felt angry, frustrated, guilty and desperately worried as I sought to find a solution to this debilitating problem.

Let’s start with the guilt we feel as parents that always comes with the territory.

As we watch our bubbly, opinionated, ravenous youngster full of hope and enthusiasm turn into a sullen shadow of their former selves, we stop hoping that ‘it’s just a phase’ and realise with trepidation that they are in the grip of an eating disorder. Anorexia is the ‘glamorous’ one by the way- we need to be particularly vigilant about the increasingly popular but silent bulimia, which contrary to popular belief causes little or no weight loss but instead destroys both physical and mental wellbeing.

Like addicts, victims will become cunningly deceptive and while you watch them deteriorate in front of your eyes, with your relationship despairingly reduced to ‘eating related’ topics, you battle for the answers- sometimes concluding that as the mother-this must be ‘your entire fault’. More hand wringing ensues.

Ignorance is no excuse as they say and we have had a big part to play in the upbringing of our children. We need to acknowledge this and take responsibility for the sake of our future generations. With food in such abundance these days, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for us to show either our love or praise in the form of a cake/chocolate bar -as did our own parents in bygone years when such things were really a ‘treat’. However to get a balanced picture, lets take a harsh look at our own eating/body image issues as women. I struggle to think of a female friend or relative, with or without children who is content with their body and for whom eating and the calorific values aren’t of great significance, or who eat simply because they are hungry and stop when they are full. Through yoyo dieting, our natural ability to monitor hunger has been destroyed and I question whether it is wise to insist on plate clearing from our children at a young age. Ironically, as young mothers we were praised by our health visitors for the ounces gained by our offspring through over feeding-now it seems we are being punished.

The guilty stage thankfully put aside (very exhausting and we did our best with what we knew); we naturally turn to the NHS for help. My experience was one of utter frustration by the lack of adequate resources and knowledge to understand that an eating disorder is a psychological disease that presents while our youngsters struggle hopelessly to overcome their apparent inadequacies in a culture bombarded by the air brushed image, in a vain attempt to conform to an impossible anatomical ideal. As parents with all the emotions that encompasses, we are totally unqualified to deal with this problem which for some, will dominate their lives and all the hard earned academic qualifications in the world won’t help these young adults to succeed in life.

And so in the impersonal starkness of a sound proofed consultation room and out come the dreaded weight charts, BMI tables and diet sheets. I am told that my presence isn’t necessary….

They conclude that it’s ok after all- your teenager doesn’t qualify for further specialist treatment because an optimum ‘anorexic’ weight/BMI has not been reached, at which point incidentally would find them unable to move, requiring hospitalisation and drip feeding in order to avoid death. Should we just wait for that then? Surely prevention is better than cure? I ask for some advice in supporting my teenager through this and I am told I should ‘separate myself from the situation’.

We are however offered fortnightly weight monitoring which predictably sees a further plunge into depression as an unwanted kilogram is gained following a week of bargaining and downright blackmail on my part at mealtimes. The well meaning, but ill advised nurse chatters on about the virtues of eating 5 a day, claps her hands with apparent glee and happily ticks her box. I continue to wring mine because my own knowledge anticipates what is coming.

For the next week we secretly add 3 spoons of sugar to small cups of tea made with whole milk- half of which is sipped at an agonisingly slow rate, whilst I watch on anxiously in the hope that a Rich Tea biscuit will also be accepted (this is breakfast and lunch combined you understand) A massive effort will now be made by the victim to lose the kilogramme plus a bit more-for them this is not good news from their distorted perspective and the ability to articulate any logic or reasoning is not forthcoming. Needless to say that despite coaxing, further appointments are not met, the nurse’s box stays ticked for the kilogram weight gain and we are no longer a part of the official statistics- but very much on our own.

Next to come after further research is the best health care money can buy at a private clinic-but out come those dreaded charts again (where do they get them from?).

On seeing such dramatic weight loss over a short period of time (although still not at that magic ‘anorexic’ weight)) we are offered the choice of counselling for an unspecific number of weeks/months, or perhaps we would prefer a good old dose of anti depressants?

By this time my teenager is out of college and ‘jobseeking’. It is then suggested by the director of this prestigious institute (as he hand’s us a consultation bill for £430) that ‘getting a job and forming a routine’ would be a magic answer to all the problems.

By this point I witness barely enough energy or indeed will to lift a fork let alone get out of bed to attend an interview and we are now on our 4th wardrobe of ever shrinking outfits. It seems more upsetting to see clothes hanging off bones that fitted perfectly only 2 months before-and now they are even harder to find in such small sizes-even though my ‘child’ is now 6 foot tall and still concerned about a perceived protruding stomach.

The age has also been reached whereby any form of counselling is a choice for the patient and I am left with no doubt that at this point I am being seen as an ‘over bearing mother’.  I don’t care. In my role as a mother of three over the years I have protected, encouraged, empowered and nurtured my children to the very best of my ability. But clearly ‘banana medicine’ won’t do the trick this time and I want someone/something to blame (refer to first page) but mostly I need some help and there is so little understanding and support available.

I take warm milk (that won’t be drunk) to help them sleep as the body tries to fight the hunger, and feel agonised to notice the downy hair that has appeared as an attempt by the body to preserve heat. Out of clothes I see a skeleton protruding from the bed sheets and the hollow gaze of lifeless eyes. Counselling is not needed I am told-

I may need it myself before long….

Then there are other methods of self harm and deluded weight loss. Many young people and indeed adults suffer from alarming body dismorphia and in their muddle of self loathing manage to maintain an ‘acceptable’ weight via the bulimic system or the use of dangerously high doses of laxatives-

So, all is well then according to the ‘experts’- providing no one can actually see the crumbling teeth, the straining organs or the screwed up lives of the victims and all who love them.

So we coax and bargain and take heart that a couple of private counselling sessions are attended with’ lip service’ at further financial cost, but predictably that fails too. The digging up and dissecting of any past cause for emotional angst on a weekly basis is understandably unitising and therefore something that needs to be sought voluntarily- if it is to have any positive effect long term.

So what now? How will this nightmare end? Looking at photos of my laughing, chubby cheeked children is too painful to be an option at this time. An old acquaintance was shocked at the sight of my teenager and asked if they had a life threatening illness-I didn’t know how to answer.

I concluded two things -firstly that this problem is much more wide spread than many people imagine, affecting boys too, but like any mentally based illness it is still quite a taboo subject. As parents we are barely out of the ‘my little so and so has just got 4 a stars’ stage (beware this is even more common in high achievers) to find we are very ill equipped to cope with it.

Secondly, having tried everything we could think of (including ignoring it!) I realised reluctantly that nothing we could do or say would make any difference to this unhealthy mind set which had now taken hold.

By the time that constant worrying and food related nagging had become a horrible way of life and we felt hopeless, we heard about Winning Minds  and I was anxious and intrigued to know more about it. We balanced up the cost against endless further depressing counselling sessions, plus the time that had now been dangerously ‘wasted’ and concluded that 2 x two hour sessions to alter this debilitating mind set without the need to rake up possible causes was a much more appealing concept-and most importantly, once you understand it, hypnotherapy treatment makes perfect sense amongst all the……….(I want to say ‘shit’-but not very appropriate!)

Please talk to Winning Minds. Call 0800 083 0143 for your free consultation.

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