PARENTING doesn’t come with a guidebook. You do it according to your experiences and what you think is best at the time.
Looking back, I’ve wondered if I could have stopped my daughter Laura developing anorexia, but it’s a deceptive and devious disease. You really don’t see it coming.
Growing up, Laura was a nice kid — a bit of a worrier but no trouble. But then, in Year 11, someone lent her a formal dress and told her: “I don’t think you can afford to put on too much weight.”
She didn’t mean Laura needed to lose weight, just that the dress was a snug fit. In fact, Laura was always slight. “There’s more fat on a chip,” I used to tell her.
But she’d been bullied at school before and suddenly here was one more thing she thought was wrong with her. My wife, Connie, and I didn’t notice the gradual slip over the edge at first.
We were at work; Laura was at school — we didn’t know she’d stopped eating breakfast and lunch. Anorexics are good at hiding things and she still ate dinner, although she was becoming fussy about what she’d eat.
She wore long sleeves and covered up with layers of clothes. I just looked at her all dressed up and thought she looked like a model. We weren’t a family that went to the beach, so we really didn’t see her body.
Then one day Connie and I were walking down the street in Adelaide when we noticed the girl in front of us. “Wow, she’s really thin,” I thought, before suddenly realising it was Laura. We were totally shocked. She weighed 37kg and although it was the Christmas holidays, we knew immediately this was beyond what we could handle, so we took her to see a specialist.
Laura went back to school, did really well in Year 12 and was accepted into university. It was a stressful course with long hours. She couldn’t cope so, halfway through the year, she quit and started a horticultural job instead. Once again, she felt she was a failure.
At that time, I was getting up at 6am to use our treadmill before work. Every day, I’d find Laura already on it, running on the steepest incline. “I’m just finishing,” she’d smile.
It took quite a while before I realised she was getting up at 3am, running for three hours and skipping breakfast and lunch again.
The anorexia and the ‘voices’ in her head were back. She was playing netball, as well, worrying about portion sizes and refusing to eat anything at all after 5pm.
Connie had to rush home from work to cook dinner early. She served bigger portions to us so Laura’s looked smaller. It meant we were consuming bloody enormous amounts of food. My weight soared to 102kg. Meanwhile, Laura’s kept dropping.
By now she was too old for the Adolescent Ward at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital [where they run an eating disorders program]. We took her to countless other clinics, but even the trained psychiatrists seemed to have no idea how to treat eating disorders. Left to ourselves, we grew increasingly desperate. I took photographs of Laura from behind so she could see she looked starved. She was now down to 35kg but was convinced she looked fine. Actually, the voices in her head were still telling her she had a few lumps and bumps to get rid of.
We wondered if she was possessed and called in an exorcist. We also consulted a naturopath and an Indian shaman who beat drums. But it didn’t matter who we saw, the voices of anorexia would always tell Laura they knew better. We withdrew from friends and family. They didn’t help. They were either bewildered by our desperate attempts to help her or, worse, they’d say: “Give her to me; I’ll feed her up.” That wasn’t the answer.
Eventually, we were put in touch with Dr Peter Gilchrist, a psychiatrist who specialises in eating disorders. He gave it to us straight: 40 per cent of anorexics recover, 40 per cent live with it, 20 per cent die from it. Laura was in serious danger of being among that last 20 per cent.
Laura and Connie were terrified, but I was glad we’d met someone who was prepared to cut through the crap. There was one specialist ward for people with eating disorders in the whole of Adelaide. It was at Flinders Medical Centre but had only six beds.
The waiting list was so long that although Laura was near to death, we couldn’t get her in. Dr Gilchrist put her in a private hospital instead, but it was only a delaying tactic. Coming home, nothing had changed. Things got worse.
We noticed sweets were disappearing. We hadn’t eaten them and neither had our youngest daughter, Emma. We didn’t think Laura would eat them, but then one evening, Connie and I were having a rare night out when Emma called and said, “Laura’s in the bathroom throwing up.” It was something a child shouldn’t have to do. Laura was now also bulimic and after that we had to start listing all the food we’d bought. When Laura realised what we were doing, she bought her own food, binged and threw up in secret.
By 2009, we were running out of options. Connie took to sitting by Laura’s bed. She’d stay there until the sun came up because she was terrified Laura’s heart would stop and she’d die during the night.
For me, the final straw was when my daughter took a massive dose of laxatives, wanting to end her misery. I picked her up — she weighed nothing — and took her outto the car. Laura didn’t want to go, she clung to the post of the carport, but I put her in the seat and then drove an hour across town to Flinders Medical Centre and that one ward for desperate anorexics. We went to the emergency ward and finally had her admitted.
When she came out, 12 weeks later, you could almost see the light had come back on. We’d still have bad days when she couldn’t eat or felt fat, but there were good days, too. She saw a specialist dietitian, Tania Ferraretto, and she and Dr Gilchrist were a great support.
We desperately need more professionals like them. I am convinced Laura wouldn’t be here today without them. Laura learned how to eat again, how to fight the voices, how to work through issues around perfection and how to think positively. Funnily enough, the thing that really got her over the hump was hearing that the specialist anorexic ward was going to close.
I think she realised if it hadn’t been available, she wouldn’t have recovered. Six months after being hospitalised, she was on the steps of Parliament House, protesting at the bureaucracy and ignorance that was threatening it. She put together a Facebook page and rallied support, and that gave her a focus.
Today Laura is 25. She is a bright, bubbly woman with a good job in a caring profession. Instead of punishing herself with gruelling exercise, she stays fit by doing yoga. We still worry about a relapse, but she seems well and has even become a mentor for other girls with anorexia. Anorexia is the biggest mental-illness killer of young women. Three or four of the girls Laura was in hospital with have since passed away, and yet there still aren’t enough facilities and support to help girls with eating disorders.
As for Connie and me, we think back and wonder how we functioned. Every day was a battle. I believe we have post-traumatic stress disorder from dealing with it.
This article first appeared on ‘news.com.au’ on 12 October 2014.