In March 2003 our then 13 year old daughter, Helen, was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, at which point she was on the verge of being emaciated. Her BMI was approximately 15. My initial reluctance to accept this diagnosis was dispelled towards the end of the month when Helen became severely dehydrated and suffered a complete nervous breakdown as the anorexia finally took total control of both her mind and body. It may sound melodramatic, but it was as if she had become possessed. Helen’s reaction, when encouraged to drink a glass water in order to ease the stomach cramps caused by the dehydration, was uncharacteristically aggressive and resulted in an hysterical screaming fit which unnerved both myself and Fiona, my ex-wife. Helen flew into a rage and began to scream: “IT'S WEIGHT, IT'S WEIGHT, IT'S WEIGHT!”
At this point, we realised that we had no control over Helen whatsoever. However, by June 2003, only three months later, Fiona and myself had broken the illness and Helen was able to return to school. By September 2003 Helen had attained her perfect weight and the illness had been completely eradicated from her psyche. By January 2004, Helen was signed off by the adolescent mental health unit, her psychiatrist commenting that it was “one of the quickest recoveries” from mental illness that he had ever seen. In order to break the anorexia, my ex-wife and myself devised a radical treatment programme which was contrary to the advice of the medical specialists and which, for a number of weeks, put us in direct confrontation with them. Throughout this period, I rigorously maintained the validity of our approach and predicted that the anorexia would be “done and dusted” by Christmas. Helen’s psychiatrist was extremely sceptical and was clearly concerned by what he must have perceived as my over-confidence. The very next day, Fiona received a phone call (May 2003) in which it was suggested that I was actively perpetuating the illness and we were both summarily summoned to an emergency meeting set for the following week. However, before the meeting could take place, our approach finally started to show results and Helen put on two pounds, thus attaining her highest weight in two months. As a result, the meeting became a rather muted affair and it was agreed that we would be monitored but essentially left to continue Helen's recovery via our own methods.
As I mentioned in my introduction, Helen’s BMI (Body Mass Index) had fallen to 15 and yet I was still unaware of the peril that she was in. If you are unfamiliar with the term BMI, then it is a mathematical index used by the medical profession to classify an individual’s body weight.
However, when dealing with children, we were told that it is important to be aware that an adult BMI is inappropriate owing to the child’s generally smaller frame and so Helen’s target/ideal weight was calculated by her dietician using a chart which had been especially designed for children. We both felt that it was important to let the health care professionals make the necessary calculations. My ex-wife, Fiona, had for a number of months been expressing her concern over Helen’s gradual but steady weight loss which, by this time, had fallen from 7 stone 12 pounds at the beginning of September 2002 to a mere 5 stone 6 by the end of March 2003, a total of 34 pounds in almost as many weeks. I had continually dismissed Fiona’s concerns as an over-reaction, arguing that Helen could not possibly be anorexic because anorexics need some traumatic life-event to trigger off the condition. Helen, on the other hand, had grown up in a loving and supportive extended family. Although Fiona and myself had separated and were not in regular contact, we were also not in conflict or confrontation and, as Helen later testified, our separation had no bearing on her condition.
According to the psychiatrist who was in charge of Helen’s case, anorexia can have a genetic basis. Fiona’s sister, Helen’s aunt, had had anorexia when in her teens and had only partially recovered. Helen’s psychiatrist, however, was also very rigorous about ruling out any other possible causes and Helen received a number of sessions with a counsellor to which we were not invited. It transpired that Helen may have become anorexic for no appreciable reason - which is why I had been so complacent about Helen’s weight loss programs . However, it was important to rule out any more sinister causes of the condition of which we might have been unaware.
Fiona had been right all along and during the period that I had been denying her concerns - mid-December 2002 to mid-March 2003, the anorexia had been consolidating its hold. Helen’s weight fell by 14 pounds over this time from a healthy 6 ½ stone to just 5 ½ half stone. I had been convinced that, although Helen was now rather thin, the fad would stop and that she would plateau out at this new weight and that the problem would just simply fade away. But for Fiona’s intervention, it is Helen who would have faded away. By the time of Helen’s mental breakdown, we had completely lost all control over our daughter. The anorexia was totally in charge. Helen stood in the middle of the kitchen, a small, frail, emaciated figure, terrified to death of a glass of water. And we were in the position that must face so many parents of newly diagnosed anorexic children In the sections which follow, we have set out to explain exactly how we rescued Helen from this dreadful illness. We are not necessarily advocating our strategies to anybody else but we do sincerely hope that our account of Helen’s recovery may present some useful insights which might make a difference to you and your child.