I have stopped looking for things. The boy who searched and searched for four leaf clovers has lifted his head. There is no magic out there that will solve the woes of my world.
My middle daughter has been suffering from an eating disorder for over three years now. Its pernicious fingers took hold of her without our knowledge and they dug deep, through her outer covering and to the core. Sometimes we get so caught up in the meaningless details of life that we fail to notice those moments of life breaking magnitude. As soon as my wife began noticing our daughter’s weight fall she made an appointment with the GP. This was followed by a brief stint of pretending to eat and then the rush to hospital. In an instant, our lives were changed; yet we did not then realise just how much.
I had been working in Middlesbrough where the first of the earthquakes was occurring. The school, the little Eden of sanity was situated smack in the middle of two rather significant tectonic plates. The old ways were changing and the new forces were sweeping in apace, stealing schools from under the very noses of their previous guardians. As with all such seismic events, there were those who would deny their existence, those who would attempt to flee to safer ground and those who would hang back and see what advantage could be made. My disappointment, heartbreak, at the school’s imminent demise was compounded by the knowledge of my daughter’s plight. It took me little time to make a decision; give up and go home and maybe start again. Maybe not.
“Don’t be so silly,” they would say or think.
People generally see eating disorders as self-inflicted silliness, a fad or a phase. Sooner or later the victim would grow out of it, grow up and find other things to do that would not be harmful to themselves or others. The very act of starvation, starving oneself to the point of death, refusing to nourish oneself or to be nourished, is a point of non-comprehension for many of those people who have never had to deal with it. Anorexia is an attention seeking illness that is spread by social media and peer groups. It’s a fashion and a trend. It’s a bed blocker and time waster. As one paediatric consultant told my daughter, as she was being signed out of a six week stay in hospital, “Now, no more silliness, eh?”
My daughter’s eating disorders, or psychiatric problems, are anything but silly. They have been an unwanted family member for over three years now and, although occasionally teasing us with the promise of departure, they show no sign of departing. During her hospital stay, my daughter would refer to her illness as ‘Annie’, a real person. There were echoes of possession there and after meeting Annie in all her manifestations we wondered about the enormity of what our little one was undergoing. Annie was real. She wasn’t a figment of anybody’s imagination neither was she a fancy or a fad. Annie had taken up residence in our daughter’s psyche and was establishing herself in everything that her host did. Oh, another thing, Annie hated us. She hated my wife, my other two daughters and myself. Sometimes, however, Annie slept and, at these times we were able peer through the defences and see our daughter. If Annie hated us, then we hated Annie.
The first time I saw Katalina in hospital was the first time I realised the extent of her struggles. She was emaciated, weighing well under six stones, all angles and shadow. Her frailty was shocking and this was our daughter, our teenager, our gorgeous little girl. She had been with us and we had let this happen to her. For some time, we had not noticed what was taking place (under the so called safety of our own roof); she had gone from normal to skeletal under our caring noses and we had not raised a finger of admonishment. So, there she was in a hospital ward hooked up to a gastro-nasal tube; monitored.
The only real place for children in hospital is the Children’s Ward. Here, there are a variety of sick youngsters with any number of illnesses. The eating disorder kids are usually separated from the others but the need for beds determines otherwise. The skinny kids are the ones who look haunted. They sit on their beds resentfully not speaking to their fellow inmates, not really speaking to anyone other than the one they carry around with them. Katalina was no different, that is apart from the winning smile she was always able to produce at a moment’s notice. This was the smile that first greeted me when I visited her and I couldn’t help but think that she didn’t belong there.
I perched myself on a chair and watched the influx of other parents and family members arriving to visit their underweight offspring. As always, I was in role. I was the cheerful dad who was able to conjure amusing lines whilst managing to show a level of concern and compassion that made me a faultless parent. Within me, my Jesus complex was working overtime. I was there to turn the water into high-calorie wine and feed the dozen or so skinnies with bread meant for five thousand. And the real thing was that I actually thought I could do it. I actually thought that my presence would make a difference, that my words would be heard and heeded, and that our skinny daughter would see the error of her ways and start to eat again.
I started off with an icebreaker,
“How much is this hotel costing you? Are you full board or just…”
My wife, as she tends to in ‘foot in mouth’ situations like this, nudged me hard and shot me a withering look. The comedian inside me shrivelled and shut up immediately.
It’s good to have a wife like mine. A lesser person would have already upped sticks and gone. She, however, has stuck with me through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, in rented accommodation and our mortgaged home. All of this; and we didn’t even have a church wedding.
She is the type of wife who doesn’t take nonsense. Being married to an idealistic dreamer like myself meant that she would have to put up with decades of ‘almosts’ and ‘ifs’, to accept me as the sum total of my failings and to accept that our offspring would probably turn out the same way as their inept father. Although she likes my poetry, likes my novels, likes most of my humour, she will not allow the fantasist to take root and grow. So, I sat there following my wife’s lead and not trying to be the centre of anything.
We talked to Katalina and Katalina talked back. There was something dreamy and sleepy about her that initially lulled us into thinking that she was safe. That smile was there, but it was more languid, less forced, sadder. She had a tube coming from a valve inserted into her left hand with a needle pushed into the protruding veins at the back and held in place by a guard of white gauze, bandage and tape. From her nose came a tube that reminded me of the stories of suffragettes being force-fed. It looked extremely uncomfortable and a reddening around her nostrils confirmed this. I have a photograph of her on my phone and whenever I need any reminding of the terrible state that she was in, I only have to look at the match-thin girl with darkened eyes that are trying to smile. There was a glass of water on the tray and she sipped at this, explaining how her throat hurt from the tube that fed directly into her stomach.
This was not supposed to have happened.
Mum took over, asking all of the normal questions that I couldn’t muster. She established the procedures of the ward, the nurses’ temperaments, the names of some of the other children and, more importantly, what Katalina had eaten for her last meal. Katalina was on the ball and provided my wife with everything that was requested. I felt a little redundant but listened to the stream of conversation between the two. As I did so, my thoughts wandered and my gaze strolled around the ward in order to get its bearings.
I was relieved to see that many of the parents looked like us. They even seemed to talk like us and act like us. Their skinny children, both female and male, were not dissimilar to our own children. To my amazement, we were on a ward filled with well-educated, articulate, caring human beings who shared a common secret; somehow, in all of their outwardly contented and successful lives, they had failed. The bare bones of their failure were sitting up on the beds in front of them and in plain view of the world; if the world cared to come and take a look. We had failed to keep our offspring safe. Indeed, we had missed the vital signs that should have told us that our issue had developed an ‘issue’ that could threaten their lives. Guilt alone, however, could not bar the gate to Annie. In reality, Annie had been within the fence boundaries for a long time and was running amok amongst our flock.
It’s a little disconcerting to notice, what you suspect, are glances of accusation coming from some of the nurses who attend these wards. For some of them, the child patient was a victim of parental indifference at best, neglect at worst. To be fair, the ward was not set up for such an epidemic of non-eating with the nurses being more accustomed to dealing with kids who had physical issues that were generally not self-inflicted. Usually these were medical conditions that required prolonged bed-rest and allowed cooing carers to settle on the end of their matresses and provide warm, heartfelt support and encouragement. Some of those other children were actually ill and dying, one nurse told us. Before she walked off to fulfil some other important duties.
Apart from the extreme youth of some of the nurses, the thing that became apparent, above everything else, was the lack of knowledge and understanding about these problem kids. Perhaps the unschooled would think of the eating disorder epidemic as a cry for help and a reaction to the overfull lives of those families who routinely send their offspring to any and all self-improvement classes in the hope of playing the piano or cello, learning ballet, speaking another language, acting in drama productions, running for the county or simply learning to be an expert swimmer. The hope being that whatever perfection might exist at the very end of our everyday rainbows could be attained by their progeny.
So what do we do? Adopt the approach to upbringing that many parents had when I was a child?
Working class kids went to school. There, they did well or they did not do well. They had friends or got bullied. After school, you walked home, got out of uniform, had your tea and then played out. Playing out was the real point of childhood, getting freedom to wander, mix and grow. Parents would be seen about nine and then it was time for supper and bed. Next day, school would await. There was very little parental involvement in anything we did. We were free to roam and given licence to play. Oh, and there were never any real expectations of us from parents or school. We would simply fall into the roles that had been made earlier. Perfect!
Perfection it was not. What we had was the freedom of indifference. There were other more important things for parents to think about such as earning a wage and feeding the family. Clothes were an additional burden and I remember growing up in the sixties feeling constantly cold. Shoes, an expensive item, did not get renewed regularly which meant that growing toes would be pushed to the very extremities of ill-fitting footwear and become so enclosed by the lack of space that many children’s feet showed very obvious signs of disfigurement. Perhaps more than anything else, food the basic requirement for life, was still in short supply, the poorer the household, the less nutrition.
My family was medium in the poverty rankings and, as a result, my liking for school dinners and clearing up seconds off other people’s plates, gained me a reputation for being just a little greedy. My childhood greed manifested itself in a fat backside and it was my overly rotund arse that became the butt of jokes and pointed derision. Even good friends found it not beneath themselves to point out my very definite derrière. Some may have called it character building, others would now call it bullying but, hey, it was funny for the perpetrators. Perhaps that is why I still hold a grievance against skinny arses and am amused when I see such people, who prided themselves on a whim of nature, age and become somewhat obese. Another outcome was that I developed a relationship with food that could be described as schizophrenic. One part of me loved food, good food, and I enjoy cooking it. Whereas the other side has grown accustomed to long terms of under-eating in order to address my gluttonous maximus. So well done erstwhile friends and enemies; your work is complete.
I won’t use this David Copperfield crap as a scapegoat for my middle daughter’s condition. Whatever drove her to starvation has, until now, not been identified. What is certain is the fact that she did suffer from self-esteem problems and used a penitent’s solution for those problems; she punished herself to the edge of her existence and has not yet fully recovered.