Here you can read Jacqui's story of supporting her daughter Bryony, now fully recovered, through Bryony's struggle with and recovery from anorexia.
Bryony, Jacqui and brother Ollie
Anorexia crept up on us insidiously at first. Bryony became emotionally fragile, but it was easy to put that down to the fact I had been ill and had major surgery, she was not sleeping well but it didn’t seem unreasonable since she wasn’t entirely happy with school. She had looked more drawn and skinny but so many of her year were changing shape and she hadn’t been sleeping well. One day we were going on a long trip, alarm bells rang when she refused a drink, not having had anything since breakfast, and she became more agitated as I pressed her. On that journey the awful picture dawned, she had gradually changed over the last year, a shadow of her former bubbly 11year old self, she still ate meals but had cut out treats, chocolate, crisps etc: her fragile emotions, the poor sleep patterns, she looked dreadful. Here I was with Bryony age 12 and the realisation that anorexia was intent on my daughter’s destruction. Self deprivation was Bryony’s attempt to cope with the sadness and muddle she felt was her life. Thinking about it, a lot had happened in the last 2 years, even if it seemed OK, and she denied any problem.
Having identified what was happening and confronted it, everything unfolded very fast, it seemed battle had been declared!. I reassured her how much she was loved, I started a food diary. We talked about the illness, the risks, I tried to set contracts with her, but I lost every negotiation. We saw the GP who referred us to CAMHS. Identification was easy, but early intervention didn’t exist, we were on our own. Her weight plummeted and she became withdrawn, she was hysterical most days and eating very little, yet denied there was a problem and insisted on doing everything energetic. We did hold her weight steady briefly and got to see the psychiatrist. Sadly that wasn’t that helpful, they confirmed how ill she was but that we’d have to wait for therapy. The weeks went on with no help, each day more difficult. We survived with the help of family, friends and colleagues. Bryony deteriorated further, and was withdrawn from school. The CAMHS system, unable to respond, was only able to monitor her decline. Bryony was full of rage, she and/or the anorexia, hated me, she was unrecognisable, suicidal. Occasionally my little girl could be seen, fragile, lost and terrified by what had consumed her.
She was eventually hospitalised in a general paediatric ward. Well intentioned, but not the right place. There were always other clinical priorities than Bryony’s mealtime. CAMHS did manage to sort a couple of sessions of family therapy although Bryony would come and refuse to participate. She wanted to die, I was petrified at this stage she’d succeed. She vented her hate on me, and privately I wept. These were some of our worst moments, but something shifted in her head during that time in hospital. Instead of dying, she wished she had a broken leg or cancer, something they could fix. She became pathetic, broken, despairing. We pressed for specialist help. She described to us the big black hole she was in, that she couldn’t find a foothold to get out and she hadn’t been able to see us at the top.
A transfer to private in-patient treatment in London gave Bryony the mechanism to claw her way back out of her hole. She hated us for making her an in-patient. There were a lot more hysterical outbursts, begging to be removed but at the same time interspersed with some very tender moments. The treatment was harsh and appeared cruel, it was tough as a parent as well as for Bryony. She wrestled with anorexia to redirect her drive and determination into getting well. By her 13th Birthday Bryony had achieved a healthy weight and disposition and was winning.
As a parent, her illness had meant not allowing myself to be pulled in by the anorexia, to fight the debilitating sense of guilt, and instead, to examine my contribution to the situation. I took up the opportunity of Psychotherapy, when Bryony went to London, it was a painful exploration of my own self and my behaviours, but wholly worthwhile. It helped me hold my nerve in Bryony’s treatment, to have a better understanding of myself and our relationship, to change behaviours of mine that would help Bryony in her recovery. It was the least I could do, compared to the demons Bryony was fighting!
I kept Bryony’s friends and school involved throughout the frightening and mad behaviours she displayed before she was hospitalised, with explanations of the illness, how Bryony couldn’t help what she was doing. I encouraged her friends to send letters and visit throughout which helped her with picking up life afterwards. Her trusty little circle were brilliant. I was disappointed with the local general mental health services, but had to trust the specialist professionals because anorexia is testing – it fights back. The treatment is almost as horrible as the illness sometimes but whatever you do, don’t give up. A consistent approach is essential.
Continued individual therapy for Bryony during her rehabilitation was invaluable, she learnt better coping mechanisms for life’s realities. Implementing the specialist unit principles at home was vital to consolidate her recovery, made us both feel safe at first. There were challenges in recovery, the re-feeding programme had laid down fat in unflattering parts of her body which was hard to cope with. Bryony felt embarrassed at how the anorexia had made her behave previously. Her hair was still falling out. We were both scared of anorexia returning. Rehabilitation is gradual and it takes a while to establish normality again, but each normal milestone regained was celebrated.
It was tough, but good things came out of it too, we have a lovely relationship, and she is much closer to her brother. We met some lovely people. We learnt a lot about ourselves, I am a better person generally for our experience. Bryony is a mature young lady for her age, but also a bubbly, beautiful, sociable 17yr old.
Recovery is possible - we beat the eating disorder. Be strong, so can you!