In May 2019 I naively asked my neighbour if she thought my daughter (aged 15)  looked too thin. All the warning signs were already there. Highly competitive. Extremely bright. OCD. She was a high achiever and elite runner. 

There were recent changes to her diet…she had started to eat ‘healthily’ in her eyes. No sugar and no meat.

Our world stopped…

…when she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.  I read everything I could about eating disorder treatment. I gave myself one week after diagnosis to feel guilty, question why, and grieve the loss of my daughter to this illness. Then I realised she was going to die unless we did everything we could to help her fight. So the only way forward was up. 

I knew our lives would never be the same and we just got on with the battle. I left my new job. I gave up trying to help anyone but our daughter. We never left the house. Our days were full of appointments and supervising her safety. The life we knew and had worked hard to achieve was gone.

The most important job we would ever have

What followed was repeated hospitalisations, no school, self-harm and violence. We constantly supervised her. We slept with her at night so she wouldn’t exercise, or hurt herself.  I felt anger, fear, frustration and despair.  The eating disorder had taken over our daughter and it felt like our family was falling apart. Both my husband and I took time off work. She required 24×7 care and supervision. We decided what we were best at and treated this as the most important project we would ever undertake. 

I did the research and coordinated care with meticulous notes. My husband did the meal supervision and made sure our home was safe. We strategised each morning and debriefed each night. Of course we made mistakes. A lot of mistakes.

We celebrated even the smallest positive step. 

We armed ourselves with knowledge and community.

Our journey to recovery

We rallied our family and friends to support our other children so we could focus on her, and we tried to look after each other as best we could. Despite two hospital visits, she was restricting again and diagnosed with Osteopenia. She would never run again if she didn’t fuel her body and nourish her bones immediately. 

This was the start of her recovery journey. It was the day she turned her extraordinary determination against the disease that was slowly killing her.

We were lucky. She wanted to live. Recovery took much longer than the short time it took for anorexia to starve her brain. But with therapy, medication, meal support, strength training – she bravely did it. One day at a time. One meal at a time. 

The sparkle slowly came back into her eyes. Our girl came back. Five years now after that turning point, she maintains her health as she knows she won’t ever achieve her goals if she doesn’t look after her body and mind. She can live her best life with friends, travel and university.

We know we can handle anything as a family now. And we know what to look for. We know what to do. And we are grateful for so much… and happy to just be back to normal again. I love normal. A normal day is a good day.

I wish I’d known…

I wish I had known the early warning signs of an eating disorder. 

I wish I’d understood the link between comorbidities, genetic predisposition, lifestyle and eating patterns. I learned to be the voice for my daughter, when hers was lost to the eating disorder. I learned that staying calm, focused and working with the team while also listening to our intuition was critical. We know our children best. And I had to learn to be loud and speak up. 

Healing from the trauma

My other children were 13 and 9 at the time and could not avoid the trauma, particularly living in a small house. We did our best but know that our family also had to heal. We will be forever changed, and have learned to value the simple things now. 

Finding the right team is tough. We started with an uneducated GP, then an eating disorder psychologist and great sports dietitian. She was admitted to an outpatient eating disorder clinic, but declined rapidly and required three hospital stays before transitioning to a day program. 

Jennifer's anorexia recovery story

We returned to community-based care with an (excellent) GP who monitored and coordinated care between dietitian and psychologists, while empowering our daughter to take control of her own health. We knew as an adult, she would have to be aware of her own needs to avoid relapse.

We considered every treatment option but returned to an evidenced-based approach in our home surrounded by those who loved her most. We had to return to normal eventually and that meant sitting at the dinner table as a family again. Each sibling (and grandma) was involved in Family Based Treatment – we were a team no matter what. 

My tips for parents and carers

  • EDFA is a wonderful resource not just for support but as a platform to increase awareness and improve policies. Early intervention is key to prevent the damage ED can do to the individual and families who support them.
  • Breathe calmly, keep active, stay positive and interact with others.  
  • Externalize the eating disorder from your child. 
  • Love your child. 
  • NOTHING else matters except 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. 
  • Cancel everything else. 
  • Don’t negotiate with the ED. 
  • Get your team and family on board with the same message at all times. 
  • Food is medicine. 
  • Let go of any guilt. 
  • It is absolutely no one’s fault. Your child is sick. Just like a broken bone, you figure out the best way to treat and support. You got this. It will be your hardest moment and your finest. 
  • There is HOPE.

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