Painful & Powerless – A Parent’s Perspective

This is a personal blog – a place where I can speak openly and honestly about how depression, anxiety and anorexia have affected me. However, those close to me have also been deeply affected by what I’ve been through.

For a while I’ve wanted to write a post revealing what it’s like when someone you love goes through mental illnesses. This is not a post I could write myself. So I sought out people who could.

My Mum and Dad have very bravely agreed to open up about what it’s been like to see a daughter struggle with anorexia, depression and anxiety. This was extremely difficult for them to write – they have publicly opened up their hearts and made themselves vulnerable. And this was very tough for me to read (trust me, there were tears). But I hope this post is widely read as I believe my parents’ raw honesty will help so many other people in similar positions.

When did you first notice that something was wrong?

DAD: Mum noticed before I did. It was at the time when you were rightly becoming more independent – leaving school, going to university – and I was working through what it meant to let go. I thought we needed to let you have more space, but Mum was very concerned.

MUM: I became aware very quickly that you were losing weight. After six months without periods, I remember sitting with you in the doctors surgery asking him if I should be worried. He said no!

DAD: As is common with eating disorders, you were very good at hiding it and so I didn’t really appreciate what was going on.

MUM: Night after night I cried myself to sleep with worry. Time after time I mentioned my concerns to Dad. But he kept telling me to leave it; you were fine. I knew something was wrong but I felt powerless to do anything. It didn’t cross my mind that it could be anorexia.

When was it obvious something was wrong?

MUM: You were looking more and more like a skeleton. Your knickers were baggy and you wore several layers of clothes. While on holiday, you were given some liquorice allsorts – which you love – and you put them in the bin and told me you had eaten them. I was aware of the lies but knew my daughter never lied to me. If I challenged you, you became aggressive.

DAD: Something was seriously wrong, but it was impossible to talk to you about it because you would explode at the slightest mention. I wanted you to seek help from somewhere but you were in denial and wouldn’t let us talk about anything to anyone.

What is your single most painful memory in all of this?

MUM: It was most distressing when you started to admit there was something wrong but just wanted to die. We couldn’t reach you. I had to be prepared that you were so weak that you might die and I couldn’t stop it from happening. I remember being so distressed that I collapsed on the floor, sobbing with overwhelming grief.

DAD: When you were so seriously underweight – and were in danger of immediate serious physical complications – you had come with us kicking and screaming (literally) to the doctor, but the referral hadn’t worked out well. You agreed we would try on our own to do something about it. It was Day One. Your response to having to eat in a structured way was terrifying. I was in the house with you, everyone else was out, and I have never, ever been more frightened. I knew it was a real possibility that you might die unless you managed to face up to this, and I had to be able to accept that. On that first Monday I honestly thought we might not make it through to the end of the day.

How have you helped me through this?

DAD: It’s been very hard to be both a parent and to create enough distance to provide objective pastoral care. However, this is what I have tried to do. When you needed fairly urgent intervention we managed to get you to the doctor. Once you were out of immediate danger, I took the view that you would only be able to make progress when you became determined enough to do so, because you are a very strong-minded person. We have encouraged you to seek professional help, knowing that we are not equipped to face this thing on our own. You have never wanted to do this, believing no-one would be able to do anything that would really help you. Therefore we have sought to understand your illness as best we can, and have read much that has been helpful (and some that has been unhelpful). We’ve encouraged you to have a structured approach to recovering – something that you have found difficult.

MUM: The only time I felt helpful was for about three months at the beginning of your recovery when you allowed me to prepare your meals. During this time, you made good progress and it got you out of physical danger. However, after a short while, you wanted to control food again. Since then, I’ve felt surplus to requirements as I have not been able to use my nutritional skills and knowledge to aid that part of your recovery. I don’t think I have been as helpful as Dad.

DAD: I initiated walks with you; sometimes to find some space when you were very much under attack, sometimes so that we could talk about how you were feeling. I changed my working pattern to accommodate being around more for you. I have been trying to help with identifying how your anxiety works, and to develop and practice techniques that will help. There has been real progress, but we knew this was going to be long road. Your mind has been trapped in a pattern of negative thinking for years, so it’s taking a long time to retrain! We try to be there to support you – which means challenging you at times, and continuing to love you and be a safe presence.

As a parent, how has it affected you seeing your daughter go through this?

MUM: As a full-time mum, I have felt helpless and hopeless and have wished I hadn’t had any children in order to spare all the hurt and heartache. I’ve been cross that I wasn’t listened to in the early days when I knew something was wrong. It’s made me feel worthless. One of my biggest roles in the family is to provide a healthy balanced diet and as a provider of food, I have often been in the firing line. I haven’t enjoyed providing food for a long time. I’ve lost a lot of sleep, had health issues relating to extreme stress, lost interest in my appearance, and lost a lot of self worth.

DAD: For me, your illness is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. The physical pain I feel as the result of stress has been exacerbated, sometimes excessively so. Seeing you suffer has been frightening, frustrating, and deeply upsetting. I have felt extremely angry, confused and, at times, despairing. I would take your place and endure all your suffering if I could. But I can’t, and that is more painful than I can say.

How have you found ways to cope yourself?

MUM: I mostly haven’t coped. I often had to physically remove myself from you and the house. I used to talk to my Mum a lot, which helped. But since she died, I find those moments doubly painful because I still instinctively reach out to talk to her and am reminded how much I miss her. Talking it through with others has helped and I have been astounded to discover that there is a really big problem with eating disorders out there. Also, eating good chocolate helps!

DAD: There have been some very dark times. Your illness has caused me to question very deeply things that I believe, and has tested the limits of my ability to cope. My main means of dealing with all this is my faith. I talk to God a lot about what is going on. I choose to believe, even when I don’t feel like it and even when all that is happening is way past my understanding. I try to live moment by moment. I look for satisfaction in simple things. I renew my determination to stand for truth and love in the face of lies and fear.

How has this affected our whole family?

DAD: The effect on the family has been profound. Seeing what all this has done to you, your sisters and our family has been heartbreaking. This is the area I find it hard to even speak about. My eyes are welling up every time I try to type. In the earlier days of your illness, I don’t think you had any idea of the impact on the rest of the family. You were too gripped by fear to notice. At the same time, the rest of us were trying to come to terms with something we didn’t understand. Looking back, I think we all reacted badly.

MUM: This illness has destroyed our family. My faith has been pushed to its limit. There has been a lot of anger, hatred, blame and mistrust.

DAD: I have been deeply, deeply saddened at the way we have treated one another. Even now, I’m not sure we fully appreciate what this illness has done. I believe it has taken us far, far too long to round on the illness rather than blaming one another. It has upset me that we couldn’t be more forgiving and accepting.

MUM: I still hope that, in time, most of the damage can be repaired, but it will take a lot of work from us all.

DAD: This is not the end of the story. Love wins. Grace and forgiveness are ours to give. It is never too late. It is up to each of us to reach out and allow the love of God to work in us and through us.

How has this changed your relationship with me?

DAD: I love all three of my daughters, and I am very proud of you all. No matter what happens to any of you, I will continue to love you all just the same. Before any of this started I loved you with all that I am, and the same is true now. Our relationship has developed, and that is inevitable. It is always developing, and would have done so regardless of your illness.

MUM: In your darkest moments, you have said some incredibly hurtful things and your attacks have been very personal. I have found it hard to trust you as we have gone through various stages of this illness/recovery. I am often very blunt with you which isn’t very helpful – I’m sorry.

How has this changed me as a person?

DAD: It would be easy to say that you have changed so much from the person you were, but I don’t think that is true. You have been so often in the grip of your illness which suppresses the real you. However, just recently it seems we are seeing more of you – and it’s wonderful! As you break free, I am sure we will see this more and more. I know you have struggled (and still do) to know who you are. In all honesty I have never, not for one moment, lost sight of who you are.

What advice would you give parents going through a similar thing?

MUM: Get help – any help. Do not try this without help!

DAD: Don’t give up. Find someone to talk to. Get help for yourself.

What good can be taken away from these challenging experiences?

MUM: I don’t know if any good will come out of this experience.

DAD: It’s up to us to use whatever comes our way in life to change us for the better. We cannot choose the cards we are dealt, but we can choose how to play them. It is not our circumstances but how we react to those circumstances that determine our lives. For myself, I hope that I have learnt patience and gained a greater understanding of other people’s suffering. Despite hanging on by my fingertips so often, I have found my faith strengthened. These sorts of things can refine us if we let them. I believe that ultimately goodness triumphs over evil, truth prevails over lies, love casts out fear, and light overcomes the darkness.

If you are battling anorexia – or if you know someone who is – please do what I didn’t do and accept professional help. www.b-eat.co.uk is a good place to start!